Thursday, August 12, 2010

Issue Management

In all the pages and pages of Census e-mails and documents released Tuesday, the excerpt above is probably the most telling. Just 2 days before the Census changes were made public, an internal Communications Plan was circulated proclaiming "These changes will not have a negative impact on the quality of the Census. Response rates and data quality will be comparable to previous censuses."

In the margin was a lone voice of reason - "Really? Won't some stakeholders argue the opposition?".

I'd say that's the understatement of the year.

This document reveals so much about what went wrong for the government and how one of the unlikeliest fiascos in Canadian political history was conceived. Just two days before the move was announced, they solicited "initial comments" on the plan...and it occurred to the government some people might oppose it.

Presumably this "grid on reactions" was heavy on passive aggressive tweeting.

Most alarming was the party line - that the response rate would be comparable and these changes would not have any negative impact on the quality of the data. This, despite warnings to the contrary from Statistics Canada three months earlier:

In short, Clement had been warned by the experts but decided to forge ahead. Rather than mount a reasoned defense of these changes, his strategy was to hope no one paid attention - after all, the Queen was in town, the World Cup was in full swing, and it was summertime! And really, who enjoys talking about statistics in the summertime? (besides me)

So Clement's office employed a "communications strategy" which removed all mentions of their involvement in this decision, in the hopes they wouldn't have to do any communicating:

They were not prepared, and it shows in the aftermath. Three days after the change was announced, Clement's Communications Director e-mailed StatsCan asking if any other G8 countries used voluntary censuses. This is a fact so basic you'd need it for any sort of communications strategy - clearly, there was no expectation they'd actually have to defend the move.

Two weeks later, his office was asking questions about what this change meant when it came to releasing data 92 years later (as is done for Census data) - to me, this isn't so much a communications problem, as a sign they hadn't at all considered the ramifications of their actions.

Clement himself had his facts wrong on his first public statement about the changes (on Twitter, 3 days later), and he did not issue a real defence until 9 days after the change was announced, when he first mentioned the "coercion" argument (on Twitter). He answered questions for the first time two days later - again on Twitter, and again it showed he did not fully understand the issue.

At this point, the government was still hoping the issue would die. Sure, statisticians were angry and there had been newspaper editorials but the story was just too boring to last longer than a week or two. After all, it wasn't like Helena Guergis was involved in it.

But the story didn't die. So sometime around July 15th, the government decided to fight back. Clement's office asked StatsCan for information about "Jedi responses" and prosecutions (yes, 3 weeks into this story, they still weren't aware no one has ever gone to jail over not filling out a Census form). Three days later, Dmitri Soudas sent out a letter on the topic. The first mention of the PMO in any of the released documents falls on this same weekend, so it seems likely this was when they first started taking it seriously (how could they not after watching Clement flail around?). That was also when Maxime Bernier started pontificating, either by coincidence or PMO design.

Clement also began doing more interviews on the topic.

In retrospect, he should have stuck to Twitter.

Despite knowing very well that StatsCan had spoken against the change (and had begun saying things in e-mails like "with the utmost respect, the answer you provided is factually incorrect"), Clement made it sound like everything was hunky dory at StatsCan.

This, despite the Head Statistician making it perfectly clear he was not cool with this. Notice how he suggests editing the following statement:

To this:

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Clement kept up the idea that StatsCan supported the move. At McGill. In a Globe & Mail interview. His office kept pushing for Sheikh to validate the government's decision - something they had made it clear they could not do. As StatsCan e-mails show, they believed Clement had "decided to put the ball in [their] court".

So on July 21st, Munir Sheikh resigned. By putting the ball in Sheikh's court, Clement turned a bad news story into the Great Census Crisis of 2010.

And now, thanks to these documents, the story has morphed into one of whether or not Tony Clement lied. Generally speaking, stories about lies and cover ups are easier for the general public to digest than ones on survey sample methodology.

This can all be traced back to that first "won't some stakeholders argue the opposite" comment I posted off the top. Simply put, Clement's office didn't understand what they were doing and didn't expect anyone to care.

As a result, we're now into week 7 of a story that simply refuses to die. So if Tony Clement feels lonely, he really has no one to blame but himself.

For background on Census issue, you can read "Everything You Always Wanted To Know About The Census (But Were Afraid To Ask)"

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