26 April 2016

The Government's ongoing Communications Problem - the political side #nlpoli

To understand the communications problem the Liberal administration faces,  look at the first and so far only decision they have taken on communications to date.

Everything stays just as it is.

Nothing changes.

Nobody changes.

The official excuse a Liberal minister will offer when asked is that the cost of severance would be too great to get rid of them all.

But as bizarre as it was to leave directors of communications for Conservative Premiers in charge of communications for a new Liberal administration, the partisan bias of some of the folks in the jobs isn't the point.

The problem is that their entire approach to communications has been an obvious, dismal failure for five years.  Today, we'll take a look at the political problem the Liberals have.  On Friday, we'll dissect the Conservative mess the Liberals continue to use.

Channelling Kathy Dunderdale... again

With all this talk of communication problems in a Newfoundland government, you can imagine Kathy Dunderdale sitting on a beach somewhere warm,  a big floppy hat keeping the sun off her face as she flicks the little umbrella in her drink.  She's got a big smile on her face.

Kathy Dunderdale didn't fall because of bad communications, though.

Dunderdale fell because she didn't fix the problem she had.  All Kathy did was change faces: a record number of communications directors and press secretaries for any Premier, ever in this province. When she or her successors were done with them, they sloughed off to jobs in the departments as press secretaries or, in one case, as the head of all government communications.

None of it changed Dunderdale's trajectory. She went hard into the ground, face first, and skidded for miles before coming to a politically bloody end in the snows of winter, in the dark.

The most the government communications bureaucracy did to change in Dunderdale's time was spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars on an external consultant that gave government news products a new look and converted the news release into an uninformative pile of garbage. The release model the consultant gave them dumped hard information from the content and substituted hollow words.

In the persuasion business, that's the equivalent of trimming the steak and leaving only the gristle. The result is an indigestible mess.  The Liberals have retained it all, unaltered.

Despite unmistakable evidence that the entire system doesn't work,  Dwight Ball and the Liberals decided to keep it, whole.  The only change they made, eventually and it would seem reluctantly, was to ditch their first choice as head of government comms - Kathy Dunderdale and Tom Marshall's comms director, Milly Brown - and replace her with Carla Foote.

When Ball announced key staff positions in his new administration.  Foote's name was conspicuous by its absence. She had been originally tagged to go to the entry-level job in the government member's office. Given Foote's previous position in the opposition office, that was an unmistakably personal and petty insult. For some reason they bumped her upstairs - which was a better choice - but the key thing to remember that the first call was to leave the old guard in place.

I have no problem with that

Remember that this is not the first policy and communications problem for Dwight Ball.  In January 2015, he quickly endorsed Paul Davis' plan to slash representation in the House of Assembly despite the fact that it was a fairly obvious ploy to screw the Liberals' nomination process for the general election.  The Conservatives had not started to nominate candidates.  The Liberals were half-way done.  Despite the fairly obvious logistical and financial problems with Davis' ploy,  Ball endorsed it enthusiastically in a scrum and joined Davis in chucking a giant wrench into the gears of his own political machine.

 That was just the latest in a string of positions Ball took that fell in line with where the Conservatives wanted to go.  He backed them wholeheartedly on Muskrat Falls,  protesting merely that he would be able to manage the project better.  On European trade he sided with the Conservatives, as well, in their efforts to extort money from the federal government.

By the spring, he was going along with the Conservative budget's plan for massive overspending. His only quibble:  Ball would axe a planned hike in the HST because the $250 million the two percentage points would bring in were a job killer.  Ball - like all the other politicians in the province - had no qualms, apparently, about adding another $2.0 billion in debt along with the cost of paying for it.  The political consequences of such an emphatic position on a superficial issue were obvious but Ball and his key advisers persisted with the idea they cooked up in the budget lock-up.  There were bigger problems in the budget.  They ignored them.

Ball was in another muddle over the death of Don Dunphy.  The public clamoured for a judicial enquiry.  Ball and the Liberals took the strict legal line that since the police investigation was not done, they would not think about a police investigation.  That notion was odd since a judicial enquiry or even a wider public enquiry wouldn't take place until after the police had finished their investigation.  Since Ball had no legal power to call the investigation, his extreme reluctance was puzzling.  There was nothing to stop Ball from calling for one, when the police work was done. Heck, even if he had been Premier, Ball could have said that he would call an enquiry once the police had done their job.  The shooting raised plenty of questions and neither the Premier nor any of his staff were offering any answers.

Ball headed off to Florida for a couple of weeks' Easter vacation.  In the meantime, two members of the Liberal caucus recited the party line in public. Craig Westcott and SRBP  - among a great many others - criticised the Liberal position.  Freshly back from Florida,  Ball suddenly changed the party position and called for an enquiry.  As SRBP noted just before Ball's sudden switcheroo:
Too bad for the Liberals, then, that Erin Breen, the lawyer for the Dunphy family, made it plain last week that the family wants a public enquiry into Don Dunphy’s death.  They just want it after the preliminary investigations are out of the way. 
The two things aren't coincidental.  The Liberals abandoned their position once they understood where the popular position was and once they realised there was no further value in sticking with the old line. In a scrum,  Ball even made up some entirely imaginary process argument to justify the shift.  He also said he had no problem with a blatant conflict of interest involving the finance minister's appointee to collect overpayments from pensioners, even though two of his caucus mates had already public taken the right position and criticised it.  The whole scrum showed just how much the policy muddle and messaging was deeply rooted.

Popularity was a key factor in other decisions, especially their after-the-fact rationalisation for cuts to the House of Assembly.  The Liberals  even polled on it to confirm the issue was popular.  What they didn't check was whether or not anybody would make their vote choice on that basis.  They didn't.  The number of seats in the House was superficially popular but people didn't know much about what it was or what it did. They liked the idea of the fat cats, whom they always assumed were useless, were taking a hit before the public would.

Everything that changes stays the same

The Liberals eventually made a staff change,  bringing in Nancy O'Connor to replace Foote as communications director for the opposition..  The problems seemed to go away, but they evidently didn't.  The Liberals ran into problems during the campaign and in the period of the transition and after taking office, the same type of problems have persisted.

Ball stuck insanely to his old positions about job cuts and the HST long after we all knew the magnitude of the government's financial problem.  SRBP repeatedly noted the fundamental contradiction in Ball's claim that everything was on the table for consideration in dealing with the mess only to have him then take all the big things off the table.

The result of that budget position, and the political mess that goes with it, are plainly evident in the structure of the budget.  Ball has been adamant that the government would avoid layoffs and use attrition alone to reduce the size of the public service.  The only staff cuts in the current budget are ones that eliminate some extra staff as some parts of government modestly re-organise their services.  Everything thing has been put off and may well disappear in the face of intense public opposition.

What Ball did instead was increase the costs to voters.  That's the only place he had left to do anything to cope with a $2.5 billion deficit after he publicly eliminated all the options that would have helped deal substantively with the financial problem.  The gloomy budget speech and the fact that the Liberals avoided any hopeful statement is a mystery.

The Real Problem

As with the Conservatives before them, the Liberals don't have a communications problem. They have a political management problem. The Liberals changed their communications staff.  The fundamental problems have stayed precisely the same.

The fundamental problem is that the folks right up at the top of the Liberal political pyramid don't see the role that effective public relations  - communicating with people to gain and maintain support - should play in any organisation.  While there's no way to be sure from the outside,  it does look like they regard communications as their predecessors did:  a clerical or secretarial function, low-down on the list of priorities and not something that should be a factor in decisions at the very highest level.

That may be a function of inexperience reinforced by the fact they have been able to slide into office doing precisely what they are still doing.  They may be genuinely baffled that their old shtick isn't working any more.  They may just rationalise that everything will work out.  That would be easier, after all, than actually changing to face a chronic problem.  And in an administration where sameness is considered to be the same as right,  the odds would be decidedly in favour of Dwight Ball staying to his current course.

That's going to continue to deliver political problems for him and the Liberals, though, since problems are precisely what this approach has delivered so far.  If we factor in the reverence for popularity as defined by someone else,  we may well see the Liberals abandon their current position on things like the levy is pressure mounts against it.  The fact that much of the sharpest criticism is organised by their opponents or exploited by them or results from the Liberals' own comms failures would be irrelevant.