29 April 2016

Flying the checklist - Government's comms problem Part II #nlpoli

The Liberals under Dwight Ball have had a steady run of problems with managing issues, policies, and positions.  The current mess they face with the 2016 budget is really nothing more than a very big version of the problems they have had continuously for the past 18 months.

Last year, some Liberals thought they had solved the problems by changing around some people who had the word "communication" in their job title. Nothing changed. That confirms that the problem isn't at the level of the people they changed around. The problem is higher up the decision-making chain and has much more to do with how the Liberals look at the world than it is with how a particular staffer does a job.

That was the point in Tuesday's post.  Today, we are going to look at another aspect of the Liberal problem, namely the organisation they have taken over in government.

A new government in power is a hard place to be even in the best of times.  In Newfoundland and Labrador, things are seldom the best of times.  Everyone is new on the political side and even people who have worked in government before have to adapt with the new crowd as they work out relationships and responsibilities.  Everything is moving at once.

That situation is that much harder to deal with if you arrive in the middle of a problem, like the Liberals faced when they took office in December. And that situation is that much worse again if you get into the job without having worked anything out in advance or what you thought you were getting into isn't what you discover when you get there.

That's also a huge part of the Liberal problem. They apparently hadn't done any work on the transfer of power before the election. They planned to just sort things out once they got the job. On the policy side, the Liberals didn't have an economic development plan. They also made financial commitments based on very bad assumptions about the state of the economy and public finances, even though there was plenty of information in public well before the election.

You can make that conclusion based on what happened after the election.  You can also draw a parallel with the way the Liberals approached Muskrat Falls.  Once the government officials from Nalcor briefed Dwight Ball, they had him sold.  before the election he'd shown himself ready to accept official briefings as gospel and reject contrary opinions from anyone outside government, no matter who they were.  Ball's attitude mirrored precisely that of Kathy Dunderdale.

That predisposition to accept the status quo as the basis for everything else is big part of how the Liberals got into their current jam.  To appreciate the government's communication system Ball accepted,  you have to go back to 2003.

From Machine to Golem

People think that Danny Williams was born out of the political womb with a full set of teeth and bit everyone on the arse who dared disagree with him. The image we have of Williams and his political machinery is of Danny in 2007.  By that time, he had total mastery of his caucus.  All his potential rivals were gone, except for Tom Rideout and even he was, at least, in a manageable state.

Williams also dominated the political landscape generally. The Liberals limped toward the election, unmotivated and unprepared.  The media were captivated by him.  On the communications side, Williams' system was fully formed. They dominated the polls with their skillful application of very simple techniques aggressively managed from the Premier's Office.  That's what helped cow the opposition parties before the election and kept them in line afterwards.  Politicians don't like being unpopular so they typically followed Williams' lead because Williams turned up at the top of every poll.

The communications for Williams' administration came from friends of the Premier's communications director from her days as a Liberal staffer who were hired back in 2003 from the Liberals.  On top of that, they had new hires, some of whom had been reporters who'd filed story after story as a job application during the election.  While the directors had been political staffers under the Liberals,  they were classed as public servants under the Conservatives. In practice, though, everyone in the communications system took direction from the political staff in the Premier's Office. A combination of personal and political relationships ensured their loyalty.

The whole thing was tightly scheduled and centrally controlled for volume, content, and quality from the central communications office. The Premier's office signed off on everything. There was a parallel co-ordination of political staffers and politicians.  Public servants in senior jobs in the central communications office took turns monitoring the radio talk shows and herding ministers to rebut any criticism.

As we know from the Cameron inquiry,  the Premier's Office also controlled the access to information system. They knew who made requests and what they wanted from any department. The premier's office also controlled responses.  That gave them the unparallelled ability to determine what information about government activities that appeared anywhere in the public. Williams' office was so concerned to control the opinion environment that they even demanded preposterous fees for a request from a known critic who wanted copies of Williams' public speeches.

Williams left suddenly in December 2010,  leaving his hand-picked successor in his place.  The Williams' communications system initially tried to carry on by producing the same things it used to do with Williams but with with Kathy Dunderdale literally cut and pasted into Williams' place.  The problem Dunderdale's crew found politically was that no one bought the idea that Kathy was an all-powerful patron like Williams,  looking after his sheep like a benevolent shepherd.

Support for the Conservatives fell.  By the fall of 2011,  Dunderdale won re-election easily but Conservative support was at historic lows.  What's worse, the party lost seats in its base. No one bought the "new energy" theme because it clearly didn't represent a politician who'd already said she wanted to retire because she had no political goals left.

The weakened political control in Dunderdale's office allowed the routine of bureaucracy to absorb the communications apparatus slowly the way Borg assimilate species.  In fact,  the Premier's Office itself eventually became less of a political office and more of a government one with communications staff easily cycling from one position to another.  The lack of political purpose ultimately meant that the political offices became focused on simply maintaining the system rather than actually accomplishing anything.  They had been absorbed as well into the government system itself.

With Williams' approach,  communications had a defined and measurable goal:  poll goosing. That was the function.  Williams' personal brand - "Danny" - was the focus, with everything having the purpose of building or defending it. The news releases, news conferences, announcements timed to match polling periods,  talking points, the schedules and checklists were the form,  the skeleton on which the other parts hung like flesh and sinew. With Williams gone, form continued without function and focus.

That is what the Liberals maintained unchanged. They have provided neither function nor focus to their communications and so have merely allowed the government communications form to hulk along like a golem.

The Persuasion Business

Political communications is a persuasion business.  You give people information in order to gain and maintain their support.  You explain your point of view so that people not only understand it but also pick out the things that you highlight specifically so that they can see the connection between their interests and what you are doing.  In that definition, you can measure how effective your persuasion has been:  take a poll

Provincial government communications is a checklist with "issue a news release" on it.  They measure the success of communications not by its outcome - support - but by the successful completion of the process.  issue news release;  put check in box.  Goal!

Provincial government communications respond to imperatives that have nothing to do with persuasion.  In a news release issued earlier this year by government in response to a bond rating report, the communications machinery added the Premier to the release because he was the Premier, not because he needed to be there to deliver a simple message. They added extraneous messages about government cumbersome "consultation" process.

The end result was the proverbial camel:  a horse designed by a committee.  A simple pair of messages - "this confirms the size of the financial problem" and "We are going to fix it" turned into an incomprehensible mess in which a single paragraph for the Premier contained no fewer than six ideas crammed into a single paragraph.  The whole episode dragged in all sorts of other unnecessary input including a request from the Premier for historical data on provincial bond ratings and a comparison of ratings with other provinces, all of which was thoroughly irrelevant.

The bond rating episode is a good example of how the Liberals have simply slotted into the place occupied by the Conservatives at the end, allowing the machine process to drive them.  In the budget, the government machine accepted the politically sanctioned outputs for the budget, generated the pro formas, and everyone considered the job done. On the budget, as with the bond release, the political side never considered the need for persuasion. So it is that on the day,  the Liberals let the golem smash into their public support full-force. The result was predictable. What is amazing is that no one in a position of influence saw it coming let alone tried to stop it.


These days flying an airplane is a managerial exercise governed by checklists for every contingency.  You don't fly the plane.  You fly the checklist. When a problem comes up, you run through the correct checklist.  When you fly the checklist and nothing happens, you fly the checklist again.  The government checklist has a box for "issue a news release."  If there's a communications problem and you issued a news release, someone might run the release checklist. That one is going to include items like headline, opening sentence,  quote from minister and so on.  

Flying the government communications checklist won't tell you if the whole approach was off or not.  It doesn't bother with that.  If there are no problems in the process in government communications, you will likely see the kind of things the Liberals did already: they change the piece of equipment on the office chance there might be something in that. 

Nowhere would anyone give a though that they just needed to toss the checklist and just fly the airplane.

It is the same with "oversight"  on Muskrat Falls.

Oversight doesn't fly the plane just like oversight doesn't stop the cost over-runs.

Oversight just flies the checklist.

It works the process, which is all that government bureaucracies ever do.

That's fine when things are going right.  But the world is full of examples of pilots who flew the checklist perfectly over and over as the plane slammed into the ground killing all on board.