Talk, Talk: GNWT Wants More Comms Officers

Chattering class: the Yukon has 59, Nunavut has 32, and we have a mere 27

After ignoring pleas for more consultation on devolution, the territorial government has marked a pile of surplus federal devolution cash for spending on a handful of communications flacks to tell the public what a great job it’s doing.

Michael Miltenberger and Bob McLeod made their surprise pitch before the brief legislative session ended to add three positions in corporate communications and two more in cabinet communications, at a cost of $5.7 million over the next several years.

Outnumbered

The rationale, as outlined in a confidential government review: when it comes to flacks, the GNWT is woefully understaffed when compared to the legions employed to spread word of the good works by governments in the Yukon and Nunavut.

Yukon has 59 communications staff, Nunavut 32, and the Northwest Territories, with the largest public service, the biggest budget, and the most population currently has just 27 communications staff, McLeod lamented.

The GNWT cohort struggles to spin out press releases and to “ensure the public is informed on a timely, accurate and consistent manner, and that the concerns and the views of the public are taken into account.”

On top of that, said Miltenberger, our ‘communication infrastructure’ is 20 years old. It was running flat-footed before devolution, and has fallen even further behind now with even more responsibilities to meet the demands of social media and the 24/7 news cycle.

A noble initiative

“We’ve been taken to task time after time in terms of things that should be done better, that need to be done better, and we’re attempting to do that,” Miltenberger told skeptical MLAs.

McLeod cloaked the quest in the noblest of terms, presenting it as “an opportunity to provide communications that would respect our unique northern cultures and also fulfill a lot of the principles that we’ve talked about.”

The plan was hatched last fall, during a behind-the-scenes review of government communications that included consultations with deputy ministers and senior management, but excluded MLAs outside cabinet – as well as the public.

The review  looked at “communications professions standards such as communications policy, currency and congruence, strategic management of the communications function, professional functional excellence.”

It was determined that “we need to better define the roles and purposes, which we are doing, we need to work on consistent messaging, and we have to make sure that what we’re providing is what is needed by the citizens,” said Miltenberger.

“All this points to the fact that we’re not as well-organized as we should be and we are significantly under-resourced,” said Miltenberger.

Surprise announcement

The review proposed that the communications cohort double in size, but that was scaled back to five positions. What sealed the deal for cabinet was that it could be funded from about $10 million left over from $65.3 million the GNWT got from Ottawa to cover the cost of program transfers.

Presented as part of a supplementary spending Bill, and outside the regular budget process, the proposal caught most MLAs by surprise, and not all were persuaded by the government’s argument.

“These are significant dollars and we know that there are very serious needs in a number of priorities,” said Weledeh’s Bob Bromley, who reminded McLeod that “the last communications we had on this was that the Cabinet has made no decision.”

Amendments that would have returned the flack jobs to the regular budget process and delayed adding the positions until the new government takes over later this year were defeated.

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