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New Vancouver city hall rule: Staff should be seen but not heard

November 22nd, 2010 · 62 Comments

I’ve seen three new councils come in to city hall in the past eight years and every one has experienced some discomfort about the way reporters go to staff for information, information that is occasionally at odds with what the councillors are saying.

There’s occasional grumbling about the level of power they seem to exert. (One political staffer noted bitterly that an advertisement for city staff used the slogan at one point, “We run the city.”) But by and large, the new councils have adapted and come to grips with the fact that the thousands of bureaucrats they allegedly oversee actually know something and are excellent public-relations ambassadors for the city.

They give reporters explanations about complex issues and they do it in a way that removes some of the politicization from particularly contentious initiatives. (Note how council recently made sure to send out their engineers to explain the process of designing and building the Hornby Street bike lane during public consultations.)

But apparently things are changing at the hall. I called three planners last week to talk about a relatively innocuous report going to council last Thursday: a report about efforts to deal with noise around the two stadiums that will impact the 7,000 people who will eventually move in there. Important note: This was not a controversial report or one that was likely to split on political lines or one that was likely to set off any more neighbourhood commentary than already existed.

It’s the kind of call I’ve made hundreds of times over the past decade and a half, as have many in the city, which the city has always made easy for anyone to do by printing the names and phone numbers of the people who wrote the report at the top.

But I didn’t get a call back from any of those planners, as I normally would. Instead, I got a call from communications officer Wendy Stewart, who explained to me that I wouldn’t be getting any calls back.

That’s because it has created some awkward moments in the past, she said, when reporters have done stories about reports, quoting staff, and councillors have had to scramble to catch up. (I’m not quoting verbatim because Wendy called when I was walking around on the street and didn’t have my notebook with me.)

So, in order to prevent councillors from being asked to comment when they’re not ready to, staff are no longer going to be returning calls about staff reports.

Wendy Stewart suggested that I call COPE Councillor David Cadman instead. Which I did and, while I’m sure David cares deeply about noise in general in the city and has championed anti-noise initiatives, he knew almost nothing about the specifics of this report and didn’t have answers to the technical questions I had. No surprise, since it’s really staff and the legal department who initiated this particular effort to come up with noise-minimization measures.

This is unprecedented and a sad day for everyone who covers the hall. I’m also not totally surprised at this rather blunt statement. I’ve noticed over the past while that staff sound more nervous and cautious when I call to have them explain something to me. I’ve heard through various channels that staff have been told bluntly not to say anything about particular high-profile issues, like the casino.

And I’ve had staff on occasion ask me not to mention to any councillors that I’ve even been talking to them (let alone quoting them in stories), as those councillors apparently get upset when they something to me and I say, “Well, that’s not what I’ve heard from Planner X or Engineer Y.”

As well, I understand that one of the areas of conflict around former FOI officer Paul Hancock was that he would release FOI documents that were requested by media without notifying anyone else at city hall. That also occasionally created embarrassing moments, when councillors were being asked to comment on released documents that they didn’t know anything about.

The plan for the future is to have a notification system internally, so that everyone is briefed and ready to go when an FOI document is released. (I’ve checked with Darrell Evans of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association and apparently this is not illegal, as long as there is no interference with the request.)

I can understand the Vision team wanting to figure out new ways to deal with messaging. They’ve facing a new, energetic and unusual kind of opposition in, two former staffers in Sam Sullivan’s office who have used their insider knowledge of city hall to get information, through FOI and other means.

But in their struggle for control, they’ve gone too far. In the past, it’s been accepted practice that reporters wait until city reporters are posted online before calling councillors (even if we knew about them in advance), to give councillors a chance to read them before getting calls.

But this goes beyond that. Now staff can’t even comment once the report is out, so as to give councillors the stage to themselves where they may or may not be delivering accurate information. (I note that the bureaucrat to whom this does not apply is Penny Ballem, who usually takes over doing the actual explaining of complex issues once Mayor Gregor Robertson has delivered his crafted message on whatever the topic at hand is.)

The bureaucrats at city hall are knowledgeable professionals, whose efforts to explain difficult issues for reporters have only worked to the city’s benefit.

If councillors are concerned because they sometimes appear to be less knowledgeable than their staff or even at odds with them, I’d suggest that the solution is not telling staff they can’t speak.

Categories: City Hall Talk

  • Diane

    Hey Mark, me too. I meant to say, “who do you *think* actually wrote it”.

  • Bill McCreery

    Mark, thanks for your insights. I’m quite aware of Vancouver’s status. I referred to what people typically think of as a ‘corporation’ in a business sense. In my experience these 2 things are very different organizations and their structures and staff titles should reflect that difference IMHO.

    By the way I am running for Council as of 20 November.

  • Bill McCreery

    Interesting Diane. The copy I have provided was sent under Ms Ballem’s signature.

    Her parting comment: “Let me know if you have any further concerns.” is telling.

  • Morven

    Not all city staff are exemplars of clear, understandable and concise prose writers. We should expect that the media clarify and make understandable to the poor taxpayers the various options proposed by staff.

    And to be fair, not all media people are venomous hacks conspiring to unseat democracy.Many are just trying to the make the labyrthine world of city politics understandable,.

  • landlord

    I think people understand a lot more than either jounalists or politicians give them credit for. Its a problem for both groups. Despite decades of dedicated effort aimed at deceiving and dumbing-down the public they are finding that people prefer a more modern interface.
    I refer to the “new” media (cellphones aren’t as new as they used to be, same as networked computers). Today’s citizen has the attention span of a butterfly. They drive, eat, listen to music, watch tv, talk to each other (wherever they may be) all at the same time all day long. These people aren’t going to attend long, boring committee meetings (unless you pay them) or spend a hour or so reading closely-reasoned arguments in a newspaper or magazine.
    It’s sad in a way to watch formerly proud and powerful institutions face the fact that they’re obsolete. Nonetheless, down they go, one after another. Fortunately, the oil industry is forever and we’re sitting on the biggest pile on the planet.
    So relax, send a tweet, check your e-mail. Gregor who did what?

  • Bill McCreery

    Landlord, your thoughts are interesting but, I must take issue with your suggestion that the MSM, which I assume you are referring to principally, are on the way out. While that may be the case in 1 way or another, I would argue that, precisely because of your description:

    “Today’s citizen has the attention span of a butterfly. They drive, eat, listen to music, watch tv, talk to each other …. all at the same time all day long. These people aren’t going to attend long, boring committee meetings …. or spend a hour or so reading closely-reasoned arguments in a newspaper or magazine.”

    our society needs even more some kind of, let’s call it information ‘medium’ instead of media. Because peoples’ attention spans are shorter & pace of life faster they need to get good, reliable, truthful information about what’s happening in the world around them. That is what the 4th estate has traditionally done however well and, in whatever form that function is still an essential component to a properly functioning democracy.

  • landlord

    @Bill 56: We have just such a medium. It’s called the Internet. At the current rate of growth in networked cameras (remember, the Olympic cameras are still running and there are plans for more) there will be real-time video coverage of everything all the time. Who needs some “expert” to explain what you’re seeing?
    Video surveillance trumps eye-witness testimony every time. Just ask the RCMP (another institution struggling to stay relevant, mostly by monitoring all those cameras and all letters, phone calls, e-mails and blog entries, of course).

    You don’t need big, expensive news-gathering organizations, or clunky sales divisions (chasing increasingly scarce advertising dollars), or lawyers on retainer or,worse, staff or travel budgets and on and on.

    Instead of providing “good, reliable, truthful information”, the 4th estate has always been the public relations department of powerful interests, not the conscience of the nation (more’s the pity). If it bleeds, it leads.

    Exponential growth of modern technology is what’s driving “social change”, not some green-utopian fantasy.

    That’s why you don’t need to worry about whistle-blowers. Every office has a scanner and anyone can post any document anonymously anytime, or take a movie (complete with soundtrack) of documents or illegal activity with their phone and post it with the push of a button. And that’s just today. In the near future wireless cameras the size of a pinhead will ubiquitous. In this environment attempts to control information are doomed to fail.

  • I agree with some of what @landlord is saying re technology.

    The challenge for Vision is this goes beyond all the details of this “scandal”; the bigger issue is that this story feeds the perception that this council is out of touch with the public, is not interested in the public knowing what’s going on, nor interested in them participating.

    The sad part is that I don’t think this is really true – organizations I have worked for have been from time to time screwed over by secretive city hall. What is new is that, as Frances pointed out, “They’ve facing a new, energetic and unusual kind of opposition in, two former staffers in Sam Sullivan’s office who have used their insider knowledge of city hall to get information, through FOI and other means.”

    Its not that these folk are “insiders” and use FOIs, those have always existed, it is because they have a unfiltered vehicle of their blog/twitter/facebook to get out there spin. What was once thought to be private/internal is now open to all. We only have to look at the impending new wikileaks dump of internal documents in the US to see what fear this new age of open data is bringing. The question Vision (and all governments) have to ask is how to govern in an age of open data, where you are held accountable for everything written by you, your staff, etc.

    I would suggest that they have to fight fire with fire. Ballem is taking them the wrong direction – you can’t stop the flow of information – there are too many holes to plug. Councilors shouldn’t be allowing their proxies to fight their battles, they need to get hip on social media and take them on there. Blogs, facebook, twitter … where ever its at — they need to be there.

  • stuart

    Just ex-president bush and ultra-right wing harper – now robertson is using the same gag rules to staffers. This is necessary when the truth hurts or the PR dept. needs to spin an issue. Usually the issues will involve corporations who have donated huge sums of money to vision and spin is required to protect friends and lie by omission to the voters.

  • Bill McCreery

    I agree with landlord also but, the internet waters are still a bit to muddy for my mind in that while the diversity of people who post / comment have an incredible range of knowledge & credibility on the many topics thrashed over, the MSM people usually have some skills to bring to the table, are, hopefully, reasonably, paid so they can devote enough time to their tasks &, in spite of vested interests censorship & blinders @ the end of the day there is an informed opinion based on accurate information set out for readers to consider. I enjoy & often find the blog exchanges stimulating, but more often than not the posts are not credible or are just rants & sometimes degenerate into personal mud slingings back & forth.

    Having said all this, there are several regulars to these parts who I think are / were very capable MSMs [& others skilled wordsmiths], so I assume there may be some further comment forthcoming….

  • Morven

    I am still struggling to sense whether the near-embargo is a policy direction from the fevered brow of some communications czar or is a genuine reflection of a policy direction of some elected representative.

    Either way, it seems a failure.

    If our elected representatives of all parties had any wisdom, they would strike a bipartisan group to set the information policies – in the public interest.

    My argument, naive as it may be, is that the public interest should trump special interests, but then I was always an idealist.

  • Norman

    City Hall worked fine until these jerks took over.