Intended to increase efficiency, a new rule at city hall which says all media inquiries should be directed through either the Communications Officer or city councillors seems to be having the opposite effect. Sarah Smellie dialed 311.
It all began innocently enough. A number of months ago, as per our usual beat, we at The Scope wanted to check in on the status of the city’s new bike lanes. So we phoned on down to the city’s Transportation Engineer to get the story like we always have.
But something had changed at city hall.
We weren’t allowed to speak directly to the Transportation Engineer. Our call was re-routed to Jennifer Mills, the city’s new Communications Officer. She answered our questions about the bike lanes.
Then Bob Smart, the new City Manager, answered our questions about the Communications Officer and the city’s new communications policy, which he instated.
City employees, like the Transportation Engineer, will no longer be fielding calls from the media unless they have permission to do so, says Smart. Instead, the Communications Officer will take care of inquiries, either by fetching the required information from the appropriate employee or by directing the inquirer to the appropriate city councilor, the deputy mayor, or the mayor.
“If the question or the issue is of a highly factual or technical nature,” he says, “then it would be passed to the appropriate city employee to be dealt with. We won’t have councilors, for example, talking about the snow clearing process.”
The motivation, he says, is to improve communications at city hall: having a single point for media inquiries who’s job it is to hound city staff for information should result in quicker, more accurate answers to reporters’ questions.
“It’s also to give the opportunities to answer those questions to the elected officials,” he says. “They should be the voices of city hall, that’s what they were elected for.”
Smart, who worked for the provincial government for thirty years, says he had seen instances of city employees being quoted in the media where, he felt, an elected official would have been a more appropriate source. He didn’t provide any specific examples.
David Swick, a professor of Journalism Ethics at the University of King’s College in Halifax, a municipality that just laid out similar media relations measures, is unimpressed.
“It’s undemocratic,” he says. “Democracy means that you have people talking to one another, trying to understand truth, and the truth that you need to be a good citizen. Councillors aren’t the experts in a lot of these things, the staff is the expert. Why not have the staff talk to everybody?”
Swick is also concerned about the message being sent to city employees. “This suggests to the city staff that they are untrusted by the powers that be at city hall,” he says. “An untrusted civil servant can become an uninspired civil servant.” He also worries that city employees will worry about losing their jobs if they speak to the wrong people. “The best kind of dialogue in a democracy,” he says, “is to have people talking freely.”
Bob Smart disagrees with Swick. “I don’t think it sends that message at all,” he says. “I didn’t get that sense from anyone. I think it relieves the pressure on them to deal with the media—talking to the media is not something city employees are trained to do.”
Smart believes that the communications officer’s specialized training will ensure that information delivered to the media will be thorough and accurate, even though it will be sometimes be second-hand. When it’s first-hand, from an elected official, he isn’t worried about bias. “This is about separating policy issues from technical issues,” he says. “City councillors are entitled to express their opinion about policy issues, but they wouldn’t do that for a technical issue. On the other hand, city employees shouldn’t be expressing opinions on policy.”
“You’ve got to keep in mind that all the standing committee meetings at city hall are open to the public, and all the meetings of city hall are open and televised,” he adds. “So the idea that we would use a communications policy to control or craft the message, or hide things—well what is there to hide? Virtually everything that’s done at city hall is out in the open.”
We can’t ask a city employee to speak to us about all this on the record. But we can tell you that the employees we’ve spoken to off the record range from happy with the policy to bewildered. “It’s making things a lot slower right now,” said one unnamed employee. “You have to brief the communications officer, sometimes with complicated stuff, and then make sure that she understood it all. I worry about misunderstandings and mistakes. But I’m hoping that once we all get used to it, it really will make things more efficient.”
We asked councilors if there was an email sent out to announce the new policy. That request was re-routed to Jennifer Mills, who said that no, there was no email sent out. So we asked to see the policy itself. Turns out that though the policy was agreed on, the actual document is in the “review stage.” So, the public can’t read the new regulations until they’ve been approved by the Finance and Administration Committee and City Council.
In short, we have nothing concrete to give you about this, save for the opinions of a few people, one of which we cannot name.
Now that’s communication.