UPDATED! Whose website is it, anyway? ITQ investigates ... in realtime (for now).


Unless you’ve spent the last few days on a self (or otherwise) imposed political news fast, most of y’all have likely been following, with varying degrees of interest, the kerfuffle over the mysteriously disappearing — or, if you buy the official PCO line, the simply-no-longer-appearing — pictures of the prime minister from the Canada Action Plan website.

It all started late last week, when the ever-inquisitive Canadian Press started pestering the government with questions about the millions of dollars being spent to advertise the Action Plan, compared to the millions that weren’t being spent to keep the public informed on swine flu, and why that advertising — and the Action Plan website itself — seemed to be coming perilously close to skirting Treasury Board rules that forbid using taxpayer dollars for partisan campaigns.

A brief flashback: Back in July,  ITQ  noted, tangentially but with feeling, the new look of the Action Canada website. In response, a commenter provided an now-even-more-interesting tidbit of information: apparently, the redesign had actually gone out to public tender a month or so earlier. Despite her best efforts to track down the contract through proactive disclosure, ITQ came up empty, and eventually forgot about it — until, that is, the most recent controversy surfaced.

She sent off a quick email to Finance asking whether they could provide the name of the ad agency or web design firm in question, only to be told that it was PCO’s website, not Finance.

But according to the latest quarterly report on the Treasury Board website, it was Finance — not PCO —  that requested — and received —  cabinet approval to spend $2 million on the Canada Action Plan website between April and June of this year. Given that fact, it seems odd that the department is now claiming that it was PCO’s handiwork — especially since the PCO contract page doesn’t show a single advertising-related contract since the beginning of the year.

Finance, on the other hand, has shelled out millions of dollars to Cossette Communications, as well as a smaller, but by no means insignificant amount of money to Ogilvy Montreal. The $2 million for the website could, of course, have been included in that budget —  as hard as it is to believe that any ad firm with experience working with government dollars, let alone an iota of artistic sensibility, would create such website so reminiscent of the worst of MySpace aesthetics — but if that’s the case, why would it have been listed as a separate campaign in the TBS report ?

Also, while ITQ will cheerfully admit to having little experience costing web design options, $2 million does strike her as a little high, particularly since relatively little maintenance is involved. Come to think of it, wouldn’t it be PCO that was in charge of looking after the site, if it was PCO that insisted — and continues to insist — that no photos have been removed? Was that $2 million spent entirely on concept art and coding?

All this is, of course,  just a subplot to the main story, but ITQ is still on the case. She’s not heard back from Finance on the apparent confusion over the funding allocation, but will update this post as soon as she gets an answer as to where that $2 million went.

In the meantime, feel free to discuss the CP investigation, or her own rabbit-hole foraging, in the comments.

UPDATE: True to their word, the good people of Finance did eventually get back to ITQ with an answer — although one that raises a few more questions, at least in her mind.

According to Finance, the $2 million went for “advertising on the web,” and had “nothing to do with the website,” which was designed and maintained entirely by PCO. As for that advertising, the breakdown was as follows: $900 thousand for the banner ads that have graced so many online media sites, including this one — hey, thanks, guys! — and the rest — just over $1 million — paid for “TV ads that point to the website.” (That contract, which was awarded at the end of May, went to Ogilvy Montreal — and thanks to the commenter who provided ITQ with very interesting background information on the specifics of that tender.)

Anyway, that led to a rather Humpty Dumptyian conversation with the obliging Finance official tasked with answering  ITQ’s question, as she tried to get her head around the difference between an ad that points to the website (and yes, as it happens, that would include the recent spot, in which hardworking Canadians praise the EAP to the skies while warning that “we have to stay on track”), and ads for the home renovation tax credit and other EAP measures, which also point to the website. (To be honest, she’s still not sure she fully understands why that would require a separate budget allocation, since driving people to the website just to drive them to the website doesn’t seem like much of a stimulus to her, except, presumably, for the ISP that provides the bandwidth.)

Oh, and he didn’t know why Treasury Board would have listed the $2 million as paying for the website, but luckily for him, that’s not his department.  ITQ will commence her gentle harassment campaign of TBS tomorrow, but for now — consider yourselves updated!

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.