- There is a documented causal chain between demands for transparency and accountability in Alberta and the increasing importance of a politicized and centralized public relations agency to manage responses to those demands.
- Measures to enhance citizen participation and transparency in decision-making – e.g. Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, increased access to government sources, and citizen forums – were all subsequently managed by the politicized public relations staff within the government of Alberta.
- The shift toward the increasing importance of PR-managed citizen participation coincided with a generalized shift away from competitive party politics and representative democracy. Public consternation about the misuse of government communications is often couched in concerns about the possibility of the manipulation of public opinion. Perhaps we should also be concerned about how the evolution of government communications is related to and constitutes changes in mechanisms that are supposed to enable citizen control over government policy.
Thursday, 24 April 2014
Are political communications too politicized?
by Simon Kiss
Three things to know about political communications:
Three myths about political communications:
Myth #1: The politicization of government communications in Alberta was primarily the idea of Premier Ralph Klein and his chief of staff, Rod Love.
Reality: The bureaucracy and the cabinet had identified limitations in how the Government of Alberta's communications were structured. There are documented proposals for reforms that included a more politicized role for the Public Affairs Bureau as early as 1989 and as late as 1991. The Klein government picked up reforms that had been circulating for some time.
Myth #2: The Klein government made government communications more partisan.
Reality: It is more accurate to say the Klein government made government communications more political. The difference is important. Aside from a few isolated incidents, there is not a lot of evidence that the Klein government used civil service resources to promote directly the Progressive Conservative Party. Instead, the Klein government gave a more political role to civil service communications officials to manage controversial issues on the political agenda. Most of the communications staff in Premier Klein's Office of Communications came from the civil service, and returned there, after they were finished in the Premier's Office. Premier Getty, by contrast, hired mostly former journalists to do this job, as did Premier Stelmach. This practice was so admired that Glen Clark’s NDP government in BC sent officials to Alberta to study their model.
Myth #3: The Klein government spent more money on government communications efforts.
Reality: While government communications budgets are notoriously difficult to measure, the most comprehensive picture of Alberta's expenditures on communications shows that – when adjusting for inflation – Premier Klein dramatically reduced expenditures on the Public Affairs Bureau upon taking office. It appears government communications expenditures are a product of general trends in overall government budgeting. This reflects what is commonly asserted about corporate public relations and advertising campaigns, namely, they are first on the chopping block when a company runs into trouble.
Figure 1: Total budget for the Public Affairs Bureau, adjusted for inflation (2006$), 1979 to 2006
Want to learn more? Read more from Dr. Kiss in his March 2014 article: "Responding to the 'New Public': The arrival of strategic communications and managed participation in Alberta." Canadian Public Administration 57(1): 26-48.
Simon Kiss originally hails from Edmonton, Alberta. He became interested in the role of the news media in the political process after working for a political party at the Legislative Assembly. His dissertation argued that changes in the provincial economy, the political party system, individual leadership style and the political economy of the media drove important changes in the government's communication and marketing bureaucracy. This has had deleterious effects in the capacity for citizens to hold their elected officials to account via their representatives. Parallel changes are evident in other jurisdictions in Canada and at the federal level. Today, he continues to write on the role of the media in the political and policy process in Canada.