Why governments need to fundamentally change the way they communicate with the public

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In recent years, governments appear to have gone into lockdown when dealing with the media.

It's especially apparent at the federal level, where public servants—most notably scientists—are prohibited from speaking to reporters without first going through a cumbersome approval process.

Many reporters throw up their hands and end up calling academics or former civil servants, who often trash whatever the government happens to be doing.

In B.C., Gordon Campbell also adopted this approach after he became premier. Most media calls were shunted through communications people, many of whom were prohibited from being quoted.

Comments had to come from egotistical cabinet ministers, who couldn't bear the thought of anyone but them speaking on matters of public policy affecting their departments.

The City of Vancouver has followed suit, perhaps because the city manager, Penny Ballem, was schooled in this manner of communication when she was deputy minister of health.

As a journalist on deadline, I often called city staff people to include their comments in articles.

This is far less likely to occur now that I have to phone some faceless media line, leave the "focus" of my story, and sometimes deal with one or more calls before I actually get an answer.

The end result is that public servants become less connected to the community. Public faith in government is diminished.

I just endured more of this silliness in connection with a feature story on education that I've filed with the editors. The ministry will not receive nearly as many column inches as it might have had it provided someone to speak. And I'm guessing that the government will come across worse than would have been the case had it furnished a spokesperson.

By this time next year, B.C. will probably have a new regime in place. If Adrian Dix has any sense, he'll open things up and let our public servants speak more often on the record about the public policies they're implementing.

For too long, the provincial government has operated on the assumption that the media will pass along whatever it says, even when the material is unsourced.

Read any political column from Victoria and try to figure out who the sources really are. Then ask yourself why these sources always refuse to be named, no matter how innocuous the information might be.

I'm tired of this nonsense. And I'm guessing that the public is getting sick of it, too.


Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.

Comments (6) Add New Comment
Lewis
And Adrian Dix is going to be any different? Word is when he was Glen Clarks chief of staff he was a tyrant.
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James G
If by next year, B.C. does have a new regime in place, I doubt there will be a departure from current practice on distancing civil service from media. This won't mean that Adrian Dix is lacking sense but that he has done his homework. Incoming NDP governments in Saskatchewan and British Columbia have always been vexed by political appointtees of the previous governments intentionally undermining their every policy, leaking pertinent details and upstaging announcements with leaks. I think we can expect the tightest ship of state ever to float to Victoria.

Every political party has it's internal culture and oral histories are important to new members. The oft-told adage of Allan Blakeney's warning to incoming NDP governments was to 'find out who the (Sask. provincial) Liberal hacks are' before including them in any circle of trust was meant to apply to any civil service. If a new and prominent person was brought into the party, this schooling would be an important part of their initiation. Could it be that such a learning process was ongoing when it was misdirected at citizen, not staff member, Randy Helten as an 'NPA hack?' If so, the initiation still needed a little work.

It is a tradeoff perhaps but better than sustaining another unending dribble of stories about how some cabinet minister with an ethnic base would make a better Premier. If I were you, I would accomodate my writing schedule to the obstacle course that exists since it won't become easier.
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Chantal
The Freedom of Information Office at the City of Vancouver really needs to be revamped. Outright refusals for information are being commonplace. The CoV is in a 'bunker mentality' with an 'us vs. them' mentality between 'civl servants' and the public. The secrecy has to stop.
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Rand Chatterjee
Sorry that no one yet believes you, Charlie. However, BC's culture is so far from a democratic one, that the mere mention of the word engenders cynicism and howls of laughter. This begs the chicken-or-egg question: did politicians simply start spoon-feeding massaged lies to the public, or was that all the public ever wanted to hear?

Like anything, there is truth to both perspectives, but also one powerful intermediary--and maybe the true source of the disfunction--the public media. Ooops, did I say "public"?

Whether this all stems from our British fore bearers--with their tabloid-hungry bent--or from its colonials--from William Randolph Hearst to Rupert Murdoch, the media certainly plays a role in "twittering" the news. (No disrespect to that remarkable new "micro-news" service.)

IMHO, not only do we need irrevocable laws, yes laws, that allow people to speak their peace, ALL people...isn't that already Charter Section 2b!...but we also need laws against public servants--politicians and staff--lying to the public. After all, the latter is almost always criminal fraud or breach of trust, simply because the lies are often to facilitate public money going to someone or other.

Our poor citizen engagement, poor public policy literacy, poor party membership levels, poor voter turnout, poor labour productivity, and poor economy are all connected to these often bald-faced lies.

As the history of the developing world knows well, these lies are what seal our fate as the "Third World province" in Canada, a boom-bust playtoy of the global economy that will cast us aside at its whim.

If people are able to stand tall and tell the truth, at every turn and occasion, we just might have a chance at social justice, the rule of law, and economic prosperity. Otherwise, we will continue our descent to anarchy and mobocracy.

Charlie's right that Adrian has only one real choice, to open up the floodgates. We'll see 12 years of Liberal fraud flush steadily out of the system LONG BEFORE the NDP even has a chance to add to the flow. The NDP will benefit enormously from opening up the books, as will the media and public. There are at least four years of stories to tell, and this will ensure a second NDP term.

However, watch down the road for the no-longer-so-new government--as all do--to turn the screws again. This is of course the time to throw those bums out.

Secrecy in public governance and discourse is both un-Canadian and often criminal fraud, and should be treated as such. Only then will people again care to speak and vote, work and play, and live in peace.
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Argulion
Just political hypocrisy at it's best considering practically every politician has campaigned at some point in time on creating an 'open, transparent, accessible, and/or accountable' government when they get elected.

Or, I'm just not familiar enough with campaign semantics and those 'words' are actually antonyms. Are the words 'listen' and 'consult' becoming political antonyms too?
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Charlie Smith
Here's a typical example. I'm writing an article about a recall. I leave a message on the Health Canada media line. I receive three calls back from Health Canada media-relations officers, two of which were seeking clarification about my request. I was very clear on the taped message.

The third call informed me that nobody would be available for an interview, but I would receive an emailed statement. This happens incredibly often.

This is why it costs taxpayers to operate government public-affairs bureaus populated by hundreds of ex-journalists. It's a collosal waste of time for the media, undermining our productivity and wasting our tax dollars.

I hope at some point, some politician says enough is enough. Because the system is broken and it's not serving the public well at all.

Charlie Smith
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