The quality and quantity of communications that the residents of Ottawa receive from city staff and council are exactly what the city wants us to get.
The quality of the content may be questionable (I am trying to be generous), the quantity can be onerous at times, and the timing of the some of communications might be suspect, but rest assured, none of these perceived weaknesses are accidental. They are purposeful. The city is executing the communications plan it designed.
This communications plan has a number of elements, including press conferences, press releases, e-mail messages and periodically, actual physical mail. The purpose of the communication dictates the form and timing. There are two drivers to this plan: political and regulatory.
Ottawa city staff, planning committee chairwoman Jan Harder and Mayor Jim Watson already know how to hide an elephant. For the rest of you, this helpful film.
Politicians love to deliver good news, so the communications plan pushes the message out quickly, often in the form of a press conference. A good deal of effort is put into drafting the script to ensure that the talking points are made in the right order. Rehearsals ensure that the right tone is used, and that the mayor’s expression is appropriate. A question is often planted, so that the mayor can respond with “That’s a good question” or “I’m glad you asked that”.
Bad news also has to be delivered by a politician. Not because they want to, but because they know they don’t have any other choice. Bad news is communicated late in the day, usually on a Friday, by press release. Ken Gray has rightly highlighted this as part of a strategy involving a desire to have the bad news either blow over by Monday or be replaced by a more urgent story. To be clear, this strategy is not used solely by municipal governments. Public companies frequently issue bad news press releases, such as missing their earnings target, or the resignation of a key executive, on Fridays, after the stock markets have closed. The reason for this usually to allow investors sufficient time to absorb the news prior to the stock markets opening. Put another way, the public company doesn’t want their share price to be trashed in the immediate aftermath.
By far the largest volume of city communications involve mandatory announcements. The city is required, either by provincial regulation or their own regulations, to advise the public of certain things, such as matters coming before a committee or council. Like many organizations that are forced to do things, there can be resistance. Rather than embrace the requirement as being part of good governance, some people within the organization view this as a burden — something they have to do. Far too many of the city’s staff share this attitude.
They don’t want the input from the residents. They resent the very idea that they need to explain their plans to members of the public. They resent having to listen to the ideas presented by members of the public. If you question my cynicism, come to a public meeting hosted by planning staff or traffic management personnel and see for yourselves. Their resentment is palatable.
When large portions of entire departments are populated by people who resent interacting with the general public, the most likely outcome is to design a communication plan that delivers the bare minimum. This usually involves issuing wide spread e-mail messages, with brief, department specific jargon laden scripts, issued with the minimum required amount of time before the meeting. The onus is on the reader to figure out what the actual issue is.
Many of the matters coming before planning committee are routine or relate to a small variance for a specific lot, and the general public is neither aware nor worried about it. Other matters, such as the recent report that proposed significant changes to high-rise design and related zoning are far reaching. The ramifications go well extend beyond a specific lot. The changes proposed in this report affect every neighbourhood, everywhere. So, how did it go through planning committee and city council with nary a peep? How is it that only two community associations provided comments?
City planning staff meets on the topic of how to hide one of themselves.
For the record, I spent 30 minutes searching the inbox of the Centrepointe Community Association’s e-mail service for an e-mail from the city on this topic. I opened every message from the city back through January, and I found nothing, rien, de nada.
There was an old line that the best way to hide an elephant in a living room was to put a lamp shade on it. The message is simple. If you treat a truly important report such as one that changes significant planning and zoning requirements for high rises the same as you treat a minor variance on a roof height on a renovation, then you are trying to hide it in plain sight.
To be absolutely clear, this was an explicit decision by staff and councillors to do the absolute minimum to bring a significant matter to the attention of the public. They executed their communication plan to a “T”, and it worked. How well? One of the reporters assigned by the Ottawa Citizen to city hall was more intrigued about a bouquet of flowers than he was about a material change to how high rises can be introduced into a neighbourhood, and what the street level floors can be used for.
No doubt, there were metaphorical, and perhaps even literal high fives on Laurier Avenue. Rather than being proud of themselves, each and every person involved in the decision to hide the elephant with a lamp shade should take a long look in the mirror, and ask themselves, “Is it fair to the residents of this city to have to put up with what the elephant left in the living room?”
Ron Benn, a finance executive, has been a member of the Centrepointe Community Association executive for the better part of three decades.
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