How could Nigel Wright's Duffy emails be ignored? Like this. -

How could Nigel Wright’s Duffy emails be ignored? Like this.

An average day at the PMO? That’s 500 to 600 e-mails. Stephen Harper’s ex-communications director explains the reality of top staffers’ inboxes

Nigel Wright, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, makes his way through a crush of media as he arrives to testify at the criminal trial of embattled Sen. Mike Duffy in Ottawa Wednesday, August 12, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Nigel Wright, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, makes his way through a crush of media as he arrives to testify at the criminal trial of embattled Sen. Mike Duffy in Ottawa Wednesday, August 12, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

The author Andrew MacDougall was Stephen Harper’s chief media spokesman and director of communications from 2012 to 2013.

It’s an explanation that will convince no one. The ever-quotable Charlie Angus has already called it the 21st-century equivalent of a dog eating your homework.

“I didn’t read the email.”

It’s a sentence that has been uttered once in court and once on the campaign trail in relation to emails referencing a $90,000 payment from Nigel Wright to Mike Duffy. In the hothouse of electoral politics, it has been inflated into the million-dollar question: Did Ray Novak or Chris Woodcock read email traffic that flagged the expenses repayment?

Now, I don’t know if my former colleagues read those emails. No one does but they. They’ve said their bit and people have made up their minds. But having spent five years drowning in PMO email, I know how it could happen.

Wait! Before you click away, allow me to give you an idea of some of my own inbox context.

When I hung up my spurs in September 2013, I had approximately 120,000 emails stuffed in my inbox. One hundred and twenty thousand. And that was after multiple archiving culls over the years.

Day after day, hundreds of emails (500 to 600 on an average day, 800 or so on a busy day) would pile up: transcripts of news broadcasts (each one a potential landmine); transcripts of newspapers stories (ditto); transcripts of scrums (super-duper ditto); emails from my department; emails from ministers and MPs; emails from journalists; emails from ministers’ offices complaining about journalists; emails from journalists complaining about ministers’ offices; and, yes, emails from my colleagues in the Langevin Block.

And then there were the hundreds of BlackBerry Messenger messages, PINs, and social media alerts.

Every morning, I would wake up to hundreds of news stories, a large chunk of them outlining something stupid or wasteful that the government had done. Each day, we had to pick out the big issues to wrangle (e.g., the effing F-35 program) while letting the ankle-biters take their tiny chunks of government flesh.

Thankfully, most issues would burn brightly and just as quickly fade away, victims of the 24/7/365 news stream. Other stories were damp squibs nobody followed. Some issues were herpetic, and would flare up from time to time (e.g., government advertising).

Anyway, you triaged as best you could, fought like hell, and rarely doubled back to reconsider your priorities, because there was always something new coming.

Oh, and most of this was done on the go, on the tiny screen of your ever-crashing BlackBerry.

Resolving an issue would often involve a round-robin of emails between colleagues. If I didn’t have a dog in that particular fight, or if one of my colleagues had the lead on the file, I would tune out and skim or ignore the traffic.

Other times, I had a direct stake in the outcome, so I made my case on email after email until I carried the day.

Related: Stephen Harper’s problem goes deeper than Mike Duffy

Not infrequently, I would get added to an email conversation 10 email exchanges deep and wonder why in the hell I was added to the email chain at all. This was usually a junior staffer adding daddy (i.e., me) to encourage a settlement to a dispute.

Sometimes an email from a colleague would prompt me to remember not answering his earlier email on another subject, and I would end up replying to his latest email with information pertaining to the older issue.

You probably get the sense by now that everything was a scramble and that I was running to stand still. Or I was drinking from a firehose. Whatever metaphor you choose, it was busier than you could possibly imagine.

You could step out of an hour-long meeting, or out of the House of Commons following question period, and have a hundred more emails waiting for you.

Not that you then necessarily had time to go through those in great detail, either because there was another meeting to go to, or a particularly pressing media inquiry to attend to. Reading email wasn’t the day’s only activity.

But surely I read the “important” emails, right? But important to whom? And important when?

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to believe the Duffy drama would take on its later importance, or that it was the only fire sucking up oxygen at the time. It wasn’t. There would have been several other issues competing for attention, along with the usual big-ticket matters of state (e.g., the budget, TPP negotiations, or Canada-EU trade).

For me, the immediate pain usually took precedence. If Bob Fife was emailing me in the morning, it was probably to shoot the breeze about the day ahead and ignorable. If he emailed me in the evening, it was because a hurricane was coming at 10 p.m. Nigel Wright could have emailed me the cure for cancer after I got evening-Fifed and I probably wouldn’t have noticed.

It was usually late at night, after surviving the late-night newscasts, that I would have time to do a quick review of the day’s email. Every time I looked, I would find media requests that had gone unheeded over the course of the day.

That’s right: Every day I missed emails it was my job to handle. Sometimes, reporters would have followed up with a call; other times, I would wake up to read stories with the following: “The PMO did not respond to a request for comment.”

That’s when more than a few “whoops, sorry I missed this” emails would get sent to reporters. Most would be understanding in their replies.

They knew, and I knew, that’s just the way it was. Not that my former colleagues should expect any of that understanding now.


How could Nigel Wright’s Duffy emails be ignored? Like this.

  1. Pull the other one, Mr MacDougall.

    Next folks won’t be remembering the emails they sent.

    • Odds are actually pretty good on that, actually. And often enough, anything beyond the first sentence (which shows up in the preview) won’t be seen unless that first sentence shows that it is important to open it. If that first sentence indicates that the situation has been handled, that it is probably safe to ignore the rest of it (although, clearly, not always). Perin’s testimony demonstrates that Novak actively knew what was going on, but that dosen’t automatically mean that anyone else (Steve, Woodcock), read anything more than that first sentence (at least at this time).

  2. They’re all lying as far as I’m concerned. These aren’t the type of people we should have running our country.

    • Have you ever worked in a modern office environment? People don’t read every word of an email, because there’s just too much to take in. Feel free to disregard everybody as liars, but reading – while taking in the meaning of – 500 emails is pretty much impossible. Quick math would say that 500 emails at 1 minute each to read and think about – adds up to 8.33 hours a day. And that would be assuming that these people are doing nothing but reading emails. Obviously, lots of those emails are going to be skimmed/skipped. I don’t even get a lot of email at work, and I don’t read half of it.

  3. Great and all, but it doesn’t address Perrin’s testimony of being in the room with Novak when Wright said he’d be paying the 90k.

    In addition to missing emails, does PMO staffers’ hearing going missing from time to time as well.

    Ockham’s Razor says they’re lying.

  4. What MacDougall is describing here is incompetence. I too have had jobs where I received hundreds of emails a day, and I would firstly arrange them in order to group those sent to me by my superior first, and I made sure I read those very seriously, to the last word.

    • MacDougall’s argument is vapid, partisan drool that only the “base” would believe – and perhaps that is his intent with this “article”

  5. It is true one can ignore emails but you don’t ignore the ones from your boss..Think of a better one please.

  6. So wait, is he saying day in and day out important emails are being ignored or not read in their entirety?

    Either there is some bald-faced lying going on or there is incompetence of epic proportions.

    Choose your poison, Mr. Harper.

  7. but what a coincidence that TWO of the PMO’s staff happenened NOT to have read crucial emails, and that one of them denies being in a room where someone else clearly spotted him. In my world, pigs can NOT fly, and the current Pope is NOT Polish. Either Steve, and Ray, and Chris, are lying, or all of them are incompetent.

  8. I suppose Mr MacDougall is a nice fellow, but I don’t believe what he says.
    We all get hundreds of emails a day in a modern office, but the ones we all deal with first are those from our boss, otherwise, we will be quickly shown the door. If a boss writes an employee 1, 5, or 50 emails in a day, those are what the employee reads, word for word, and acts upon asap.
    I don’t think Canadians will continue to be fooled by attempted damage control with propaganda from yet another “PMO communications director” for Harper.
    Furthermore, I don’t believe that: Woodcock doesn’t know that there are scroll arrows on a BlackBerry screen showing that the message continues, that Woodcock doesn’t read emails on his computer next morning, or that Woodcock only communicated with his boss in writing and never talked to him. It is sad really, that these people seem to be oblivious to the fact that they risk their professional when not being truthful.

  9. Interesting. I can well believe that someone would miss important information in such an environment. However, I am struck by the fact that most of the issues Andrew identifies as occupying PMO time and effort actually belong to other Ministers. F-35’s belong to Defense, the Budget is Finance, Trade belongs to the Trade Minister – why is PMO spending so much time working on things their colleagues at these other ministries are already doing? The Duffy business, on the other hand, really did belong to PMO.

  10. Yet in all his spurious examples, Mr. MacDougall does not elaborate on the one directly analogous example: what did he do with the emails that he received from his BOSS, on a subject in which he *did* have a stake? (and a big one, and time-sensitive.) If he did not read these kinds of emails, then he is admitting to his reckless past incompetence… Or this apologia of his is bollocks.

  11. There is a method almost every business person uses, and that is to make specific folders for emails from specific people. LIKE YOUR BOSS. That way emails that are important don’t get missed.