Brian F. Kelcey Profile picture
Jan 22 β€’ 69 tweets β€’ 14 min read
I have no comment on the particulars of her federal story, but yes x1000 to this @SusanDelacourt point generally. A generation of πŸ‡¨πŸ‡¦ pols & officials have paid a certain stream of consultants millions to train them to sound insincere, aloof & robotic. A non-partisan observation.
Take the phrase structure I hate the most in #cdnpoli-speak:
"We're committed to..."
"Our govt is committed to..."
(Or the most appalling)
"Our govt is committed to ensuring..."
How non-partisan? THIS non-partisan...
British Columbia's NDP govt. Some federal results mixed in, but more than enough to make the point: everyone is saying the same thing. Everyone.
Federal. Our government is committed to... (note: a Manitoba entry sneaks in there. "Their government is committed to" also...)
Ontario. Our government is committed to...
Manitoba. Our government is committed to...
Did you know that Alberta's government is committed to...?
The list goes on... it shows up (much more infrequently, but I'll get to that) in Quebec, especially with the prior Liberal govt. It shows up in random agencies, and other provs. It started to show up in city public service comms materials in recent years, from coast to coast.
It's this manic? Isn't it disturbing that so many people from so many πŸ‡¨πŸ‡¦ govts all repeat the same phrase on so many issues? After so much repetition, might it not convey that people committing themselves to everything... might not actually be committed to everything after all?
See that? I had a typo there. It should have read "Isn't this manic?" But I made a mistake, banging this out in exasperation. It wasn't perfect. It wasn't bang on script. **That's how you know it was really me.** That's how you know it's sincere.
"Our govt is committed to" duckspeak is my favorite example of what I call 'issues management doctrine,' the governing style that's killing actual governing in Canada (and, it turns out, the UK is now having a similar debate).
"Our govt is committed to" is also my favorite example because it reminds me of one of my favorite scenes in 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,' when Smiley drops the boom on Esterhase. "But I know all about your secret source. I know who he is..."
The thing is, I know where all the "our govt is committed to" came from, or at least I believe I can safely guess. It started in the late 1990s when the Harris PCPO govt, on the defensive on a hundred fronts, starting pushing ministers to the same media training consultants.
The goal: fewer unforced errors, more message discipline, more calm on low priority issues. Back then, it wasn't cool for pols of any party to just hide the way they do now, so making interviews & question period answers boring was the alternative.
Issues management was a job, but it rapidly became a doctrine, too; a philosophy by which the primary goal of most of the growing comms-industrial complex was to "get stuff out of the paper" - to react to, prevent or marginalize bad news, versus actually creating better news.
One piece of advice so many of the ministers got was: say "our govt is committed to _____," right up top in replies, both as a bridge to other comments, but also as puffery to reassure listeners that whatever the policy, at least you're committed to [whatever positive thing].
One public servant (?) wrote me midway through this thread to say yeah, the phrase is common, but it's clear, isn't it? No, it isn't. It was deliberately designed to be the OPPOSITE of clear. It was designed to blur debates, to shift it away from actual goals and policies -
- and toward empathies and sympathies and generalities that were harder to judge, misinterpret, quantify... or even to push *positively.* You almost never hear "our govt is committed to 14% job growth next month" or "our government is committed to land on the moon by 1970."
In the comms-industrial structure in almost every πŸ‡¨πŸ‡¦ govt of every stripe, the broken parts feed on each other. Back then, the more those ministers all started adopting the defensive tactics the recco'd consultants fed them, shifting away from traditional ministerial politics -
- the more civil servants had to feed the new beast.
Centre: do what consultant says to minimize risk
Minister X: make sure my housebook* does what the Centre says, else my staffers get beaten up
Public / Civil Service: let's make sure housebook drafts use the same language...
*Housebook: πŸ‡¨πŸ‡¦ polspeak for binders/devices full of information re: questions you might get in question period; doubles as a media prep book. A typical one might contain literally dozens of notes with key facts - but also 'suggested messages.' See anything familiar below?
And that's how approaches pushed by one party's consultants became the prevailing structure for comms products for scores of govts of all parties. I'm oversimplifying here b/c there were a few other arrow and factors, but it's easy to see where the cross-pollination happens...
Incoming govt X got the same civil servants already trained to prepare the same lines - and recco the same or similar consultants. Staffers working both for and against that model were exported to Ottawa and other provinces over time, as were the media consultants themselves.
They, in turn, told their civil servants that the safest default response was to start by saying "our govt is committed to..." and over time, you have literally thousands of comms staff writing the same damn thing, ministers & first ministers loyally repeating it -
- and down the line, the people who's job it is to push quotes into press releases or websites speeches or whatever steal the same lines from the housenotes because they're already approved, so they must be ok. Committedsplosion.
I'm going to take a break before concluding this with my usual conclusions about "issues management doctrine" - but if it helps, we're not entirely alone in this anymore. There is evidence from a few quarters in the UK that it has been infecting them as well. See -
- the telling "Even under Cameron" paragraph of this by Minister & ex-London mayoral candidate Rory Stewart, widely seen as a Tory idealist, in today's FT... "I found a system that responded not with solutions but with press lines..."…
[Caffeine Break]
Ok, so, #Cdnpoli, why does it matter that so many govts, pols and comms staff "are committed to ____"? Again, that's just as sample of what I call "issues management doctrine," the prevailing political, comms + policy management approach of most Cdn govts today. At least a few -
- replies hinted this is about govt lies or dishonesty. It isn't, even if on occasion that becomes an inevitable byproduct. No: what's soul-crushing for πŸ‡¨πŸ‡¦ public policy and esp. govt CAPACITY is not that it's about lying. It's that it's about *defensiveness.* To wit, this post:
That one post captures what I'd be more likely to say in twenty is so sinister about issues management *as a frame of mind.* Remember, the whole concept is that govt political staffers, with help from civil servants, can use media, social media, stakeholder relations and -
- better media/legislature discipline to minimize risks, contain mistakes, disarm critics and nudge bad stories away so govt can focus on a positive agenda. There are big problems with this thinking once you've actually governed with a clear head and seen what success looks like.
Problem 1: There's bad news every day. There are complaints every day. There are risks and diversions every day. Related: problem 1.1: sometimes, responding with defensive or overly partisan comms can make the problem worse, or drag it out longer than necessary.*
(This - perhaps the single most damaging statement by an issues management staffer in recent Cdn history - came from within the Alberta govt. It's is an excellent example of how saying nothing would have been better than an 'issues management' response)
Problem 2: I know I lot of amazing people working issues management. (You know who you are. I love you all. Don't take any of this personally). But given its nature, issues managers are increasingly a place where partisans who have less experience than other staffers tend to go.
Problem 2.1: somehow, in govts where it takes 20 people to approve a tweet, one staff bloc that's often empowered to speak out on social is the (often partisan) issues managers, b/c part of the doctrine is to discredit critics & questions if you can, and someone's gotta do it.
(This is where I get to say "see the same example I already provided above")
Yet: 🚨 πŸ”₯ Problem 3: most πŸ‡¨πŸ‡¦ govts start their day with an early morning issues management meeting, convening multiple ministries, all to react to "issues" of the day. The result: as the woman noted above, this tends to pull in large chunks of each govt to react, react, REACT.
Magnified by: given the work, even good, sound issues managers are often intimidating people. In my QP days, the guy leading OPO issues management was big, loud - and easily underestimated. I wasn't scared of him, but at least 2/3rds of the room was.
So, imagine a world where every morning, before most of Queen's Park even shows up for work, there's already ten minister's staff in ten ministries pumping blackberries and emails and phones for answers "for the Premier's Office" from half the senior civil service to respond to -
bad article number ten, or misspoken answer number 5, or to confirm the Minister knows everything for The Line before Question Period grilling number 8. That's the system we've built, everywhere. For maybe 15+ years, govts having been hiring more comms people (to make sure the -
- comms takes no risks, no mistakes), more issues managers (to be sure to have a faster response to these demands), and more of both in the civil service to mirror those demands throughout the ministries and the cabinet offices and agencies and yadda yadda.
So staff complements have grown, and since the system is (a) doesn't move without consulting (b), you have all these people getting signoff from all these other people before they can move, except for the people tasked with rapid response. And they, in turn, respond with -
- tones, comments or facts designed to minimize or mock or partisanize the issue in front of them because that's the doctrine! That's what they're expected to do, whether it actually helps or not! Whether the public would actually want to hear that response or not!*
(*hint: they don't)
What does a doctrinal shift look like? It's scary, but it's possible, with four broad steps...

(yes, I need a second break here)
Change 1: πŸ‡¨πŸ‡¦ govts need to change their overall outlook from total risk/mistake prevention to cost-benefit risk management, and their horizion of success from "today's news cycle" to "an outcome we can be proud of six months hence" or later.
What does that mean in a world where careers can live or die over a single dumb statement? It means accepting that dumb statements can happen anyway; the primary focus of the system should be to deliver visible outcomes (proactive & reactive) to make that level of risk worth it.
It means that leaders, ministers and staff can start to distinguish between mistakes & risks on a rational basis; "this issue can be fixed later" v. "this issue is a real threat to our priority/credibility." Issues management habits often approach them all with the same priority.
It also means visible people who do make innocent mistakes (or even less innocent ones) actually have a better shot at survival, since media/voter/stakeholder types may be able to point to bona fide achievements to balance out the comms/issues controversies.
Finally, it means on new policy initiatives or big controversies, people get paid to judge coverage, comms and progress on what the public sees over time, and not just on bad days. I'd take three moderately bad news cycles if it gives you the momentum to sustain ten good ones.
Change 2: you'll still have issues to manage, because some really do matter. So, hire like a mayor: more fixers, fewer silo'd comms/IM staff. What's a fixer? Someone you can trust to investigate & negotiate solutions to problems w/out further instructions.
(Who fits this bill? Best first examples that pop to mind: in a Mayor's Office, Luke Robertson, in Toronto. In partisan politics, since she has been out for eons, I'll pick Angela Mathieson, b/c she fit that bill brilliantly when she was in Doer's govt)
(How do you know the real fixers? They can talk, and ask tough questions, but they're the ones who communicate more by how they are listening and what they are listening for as how they are talking/asking. Not a quality valued in issues mamagement thinking)
Fixers cost more, b/c they tend to be multidisciplinary and veterans. Employing them means more risk, b/c you are putting some faith in them to fix real problems. But the risk/reward over time is better b/c they HANDLE problems, not just the defensive comms part of the problem.
Speaking of delegation: Change 3 is tough. But... do what the critics are saying. Less is more. Delegate down to ministers for a change so those on defense can defend and those making progress can do so, with the leader focusing on primary goals & issues.
This one is tough b/c it means leaders have to actually respond to a lot of questions with: "that is Minister X's job and for now I have every confidence that they are handling the details." If they aren't, then that's what you fire them for.
This will take six months of shocking reporters.
"No, you don't want my office micromanaging that issue"
"I can't focus on ____ if I don't give Minister X room to fix Y problem."
"Voters want us to focus on ____ so that's what I'm doing; Minister X will brief me on changes soon."
Some veteran reporters will try to punch this. PM/Premier's job is to know everything. Hit back. Tell them that we lose some of the best potential ministers in politics because of micromanagement. Tell them that the reason they got scripted answers for 20 yrs is b/c of this -
- absurd expectation that leadership is about having answers to questions that we pay cabinets to answer. Tell them the reason the comms bureaucracy is out of control is that question. Then make ministers who have authority answer the tough questions or fire them for cowardice.
And delegating down doesn't just mean media, or problem-solving; budget for local contingencies so Ministries can spend a little to fix a problem provided they do some fast due diligence.
Change 4 (almost done!): in line with 1-3, change expectations on comms/media, and change how you prep accordingly. Talk candidly about what could go wrong with an initiative, what problem you're trying to solve, and what problems can't be solved overnight. When a decision is -
- made, explain why X path was chosen over Y path. Etc. If you don't have clear enough info to make a determination on an issue, say so, *and then say what you are doing to get it.*
In short, replace message tracks with trajectories, unfolding stories, risks and rewards, progress and candor on obstacles. Sure, prepare for interviews, but prepare as if you are talking to people who need to be reassured *there is a reason why* even if they hate the reason.
Sincerity will sell 10x better OVER TIME than the millions of frickin' scripts, with far less effort, and allow far more buy-in by the public & public service into what is actually going on.
Naive? Hardly. I did 8 yrs in govt, much of it in comms. The benefits of what I would call 'problem/solution' politics or momentum-based comms always always always outshone overscripting and critical counterattacks.
Granted, doing that requires that govts be clear on goals, obstacles & priorities themselves, but here is the kicker: the process of freeing yourself to actually govern instead of micromanaging every word feeds the discipline govts often need to actually resolve those questions.
So, thanks to anyone who made it this far, and I'm now gonna head off to do some ordinary stuff, and see how many hits this thread has taken along the way.

Addendum: a few people have noted the "Canadian govts find it hard to do stuff now" point. I said political offices need to shift some focus from issues to fixers; same applies to the public/civil service for exactly the same reasons. Real outcomes > short term deflections.

β€’ β€’ β€’

Missing some Tweet in this thread? You can try to force a refresh

Keep Current with Brian F. Kelcey

Brian F. Kelcey Profile picture

Stay in touch and get notified when new unrolls are available from this author!

Read all threads

This Thread may be Removed Anytime!


Twitter may remove this content at anytime! Save it as PDF for later use!

Try unrolling a thread yourself!

how to unroll video
  1. Follow @ThreadReaderApp to mention us!

  2. From a Twitter thread mention us with a keyword "unroll"
@threadreaderapp unroll

Practice here first or read more on our help page!

More from @stateofthecity

Jan 20
So, I've been looking at this Berkeley, CA crypto thing, and yeah, it's more like Berkeley Bonds than BerkeleyCoin. Not dismissing it, but: we looked at issuing retail debt in my Wpg City Hall M/O days and the real problem was it was just uncompetitive...…
Issue came up b/c a persistent, retired finance guy kept hassling the Mayor on why we weren't issuing retail bonds, so I dove deep. If we cut retail investors a worse deal by giving them less interest, the costs of retailing ended up offsetting that benefit. And if we made it -
- a great savings tool for the public, that meant giving them higher interest, which cost us even more. So we couldn't figure out any reason to do it other than optics, and passed. BerkeleyBonds would add one discernible consumer benefit outside the coupon: anonymity.
Read 7 tweets
Jan 12
Most πŸ‡¨πŸ‡¦/#cdnpoli city mayors have too little formal authority to lead change and meet rising expectations. My oped for @irpp / Policy Options on how "The Power to Propose" can start to fill that gap w/out radically altering our city govt structures...…
Typically, any proposal to empower weak πŸ‡¨πŸ‡¦ mayors runs into fears of 'americanization' or bossism. "The power to propose" is the minimum possible change you could make w/out disempowering councillors' powers of oversight, amendment and so on.
One likely rebuttal: some mayors already do exceed their formal authority, influence draft budgets, etc. And as I hint in the oped, if that's happening, public servants often take criticism for mayoral directions given behind the scenes, so it's better to formalize this process.
Read 8 tweets
Jan 11
Sidebar, Cdn health care & immigration policy. (1) This is great (2) other prov should copy ASAP (3) what does it say about how stupid we are as a country that there were 1,200 potential* nurses just in one province (!) who'd just out of the system b/c of credentials bickering?
* That's the applicant count. Even if 50% don't make it because of one issue or another, and I can think of many, what an absurd waste of talent that 600 still represents.
Sorry, typo, meant "had just been left out." I was angry. I typed. I'm sorry.
Read 4 tweets
Jan 11
Observation: financing for future public housing needs to include a quasi-trust fund assembled at the point of construction to be held back for life cycle maintenance. It's clear govts can't be trusted to keep up sufficient maintenance otherwise. /1
/2 Sidebar: truthfully, you could say the same about most North American public capital projects. Notably, one of the plus points of a Cdn-style P3s is supposed to how they build-in financing for that very same maintenance gap. People/govts who hate P3s could mimic that benefit -
/3 - in design-build or conventional projects by plugging in the same maintenance trust fund idea into overall financing, but without a *contract* for maintenance built in (which has some advantages and disadvantages better discussed elsewhere).
Read 6 tweets
Feb 29, 2020
This morning, Waterfront Toronto is hosting what feels like its 100,000th consultation on the Sidewalk Labs proposal for the Quayside site in Toronto, so this is as good a morning as any to trash this totally fictional thread.
/2 Start with "Google." This is a Sidewalk Labs, which may be a company in the same corporate family as Google, but it's different people with a different mandate. Most of Sidewalk's leadership is ex-public service in city/state or provincial govt in New York, NYC or Canada.
/3 This distinction matters to me for the same reason why it matters to Sidewalk's critics to say "Google" every chance they get. Opponents say "Google" b/c they want this to sound like it's basically a giant data collection project. In fact, most of the people working on it -
Read 22 tweets
Jun 9, 2019
#SundaySidebar ... yesterday, @ns_ahmed asked me a question about one issue that pops up in my news feed a fair bit, namely the "Chief _______ Officer" craze in various city governments. /1
/2 His question, paraphrased: isn't hiring a Chief Equity Officer (to take the example that popped up yesterday) merely a diversion of resources or a distraction from fully funding city operations or services to achieve better equity?
/3 The question comes up in a hundred places, in a hundred ways, now that cities have hired everything from Chief Resilience Officers to Chief Engagement Officers* to Chief Bicycle Officers**.
Read 26 tweets

Did Thread Reader help you today?

Support us! We are indie developers!

This site is made by just two indie developers on a laptop doing marketing, support and development! Read more about the story.

Become a Premium Member ($3/month or $30/year) and get exclusive features!

Become Premium

Too expensive? Make a small donation by buying us coffee ($5) or help with server cost ($10)

Donate via Paypal

Or Donate anonymously using crypto!


0xfe58350B80634f60Fa6Dc149a72b4DFbc17D341E copy


3ATGMxNzCUFzxpMCHL5sWSt4DVtS8UqXpi copy

Thank you for your support!

Follow Us on Twitter!