Sunday, November 24, 2013

Unethical consultation and conflicts of interest

As a guy that does public engagement work for a living, I was really interested in the process BC Ferries used to produce their proposals for service reductions, fare hikes and gaming possibilities.

I looked through the report and the supporting material from their fall 2012 "pre-consultation" consultation - which was actually a consultation - that produced the report we are all tearing to shreds these days.  The work was all conducted by Judy Kirk and Company, a public engagement and communications company that works on a lot of large scale provincial projects.  They work in the field of communications and public engagement, which, in democratic practice, are not the same thing.  Their work seems to be heavily on the "communications" side.

So let's have a look at what they heard and see if they learned anything.  I'm looking at the verbatim notes from the public meetings (Open Houses and Small Groups) and comparing them against their discussion guide for this round of consultations.  Follow the links and read them for yourself.

If you look at the summary report you will find that people talked a lot about some of these themes:

  • The ferry system as highway system: the word highway is mentioned 447 times in the open house meeting notes, and gaming not at all.  Yet we have no discussion of ferries becoming part of the highway system, but a whole proposal regarding gaming.
  • People believe that ferries should be returned to the care of the province, but there is no proposal in these consultations to do that.
  • Everyone agrees that fares are too high.  With the exception of a discussion of rewards programs, the current proposal suggests raising them further, rather than finding ways to reduce them.
  • People talked about high fares impacting the socio-economic life of communities, yet there is no discussion of this in the proposal and it seems like the Kirk and Co. never did a socio-economic analysis at all. 
  • There was concern expressed about the methodology used to determine the utilization data, and this was raised again last week at the meeting on Bowen.  The data does not include foot passengers which are significant users on our ferry, as many people keep a car on the continent or ride the bus to town.  There is no adjustment in the numbers in the discussion guide.
  • Furthermore, the current round of "engagements is substantially about this: "The Province has set an objective of $18.9 million in total net savings to be achieved through service reductions by 2016.”  Several ideas for INCREASING savings appeared at the Bowen meeting last week, but without service reductions.  We don't why the province has said this objective needs to be acheived with that strategy.
In short, this is a pretty appalling process.  The major issues that people raised are never addressed.  The consultation process has ignored almost everything the public wanted to talk about.  The discussion guide that was released talks about meeting to funding targets that the provincial government has decided for BC Ferries.  This verges on unethical behaviour for a public consultation.  In fact I'll call it out as unethical.  If you go to the International Association for Public Participation (essentially the professional association in our world) you will find their code of ethics.  I think you will find that Kirk and Company and the Province violated several of these ethics, including, advocating for the outcome and not the process, making the process about better decisions, openness and trust.  This is not an engagement process by any stretch of the imagination.  It is a strategic communications process, undertaken by BC Ferries to communicate a rationale for how it has unilaterally chosen to meet funding restrictions that have been arbitrarily applied by the provincial government.  

And to add insult to injury, the principal facilitators in this project are big donors to the BC Liberal party.  Judy Kirk herself, used to work for Gordon Campbell and has given strategic communications training to BC Liberal cabinet ministers as recently as THIS YEAR!  She has also donated more than $14,000 to the party over the years, including $500 one month before this project started.  Nancy Spooner, who has facilitated many of the meetings is also a big donor, having given or overseen $20,000 in donations over the years.

So you tell me.  What do you think is going on?

Edited to add the last bullet point and implicate the province in this round.  I have no idea yet which firm is conducting this fall's meetings.  

Edited to add: It was Kirk and Company.  And she has given even more money to the BC Liberals, both as an individual and as a company.