Communications strategies have become part of government work these days. But in a three-part series, Kate MacNamara looks at cases when the cause of communication has become bogged down in spin and murky disclosure.
Part 2: The Three Waters public information campaign
Government officials have refused to disclose the price paid for a controversial communications strategy it commissioned for its Three Waters Reform Programme, which recommended focusing first on "emotive marketing" over a more traditional "information first" public service-style campaign.
The resulting $4 million "public information and education campaign" ultimately failed in its chief aim - to win, through public support, the voluntary subscription of local councils to the Government's reform programme for storm, waste and drinking water.
The paid advertising component of the campaign also prompted warnings from the Public Service Commission that the work was of concern in light of government advertising guidelines that say such work should be done only to fill an "identifiable and justifiable" information need.
The strategy was provided by Kim Wicksteed, a consultant and the former chief executive of advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi New Zealand. A Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) spokesperson declined to supply the cost of Wicksteed's work and insisted the question be put under the provisions of the Official Information Act (OIA); a response is likely to take at least a month.
The subsequent advertising campaign of last year was lambasted by local government representatives, some of whom denounced it as "fear-mongering" and "propaganda".
Stuart Crosby, president of the group representing local government, Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ), declined to comment on the Wicksteed strategy. But he described the DIA advertising as "provocative" and said the campaign "caused distrust from the local government community … and challenged the good faith agreements councils had entered into. LGNZ provided significant feedback on this to DIA and the Minister [of Local Government, Nanaia Mahuta]."
The Wicksteed strategy recommended: "Unlike other public-service campaigns that require an information-first approach, we need to frame the challenge and get the country supporting these reforms.
"This will require inspirational, emotive marketing that lifts above the detail and positions the collective task, 'the most significant upgrade of our water system ever seen', … a challenge that will take collective goodwill and unity for the good of our future generations."
The document also warns of "local government parochialism". Under the heading "communications challenges" the document cautions: "As seen in the various regional amalgamation attempts, local government can become tenacious and defiant when disagreeing with a direction that may lessen their control or compromise their local decision making."
A briefing document to Mahuta in December 2020 said Wicksteed's work "represents initial thinking and [the] potential scope" of a national public-information campaign.
The same briefing noted that the progress of the water reform – which aims to shift ownership of local water infrastructure to four larger bodies and thereby improve its delivery – was likely to prompt councils, especially small ones, to object.
"A public information campaign, directed towards the public at large, will facilitate a more conducive landing space for councils in their consultations with communities. It would lessen potential risks of councils opting out of the reform programme, and provide greater levels of confidence in their continued voluntary participation and therefore of the success of the reform programme itself," the briefing said.
As per Wicksteed's advice, a 2021 advertising campaign to promote the need for Three Waters reform (produced by creative agency FCB New Zealand) aimed squarely at evoking an emotional response rather than supplying information.
The advertising, which ran on television, in print media, and online, presented among its cartoon images a slime-covered child swimming, a sick duck and other dirty, unhappy creatures; it also warned of "nasties in the water".
A spokesperson for the Public Service Commission said the department was not involved in developing or launching the advertising campaign.
It "raised concerns" with DIA about the first television ad in the campaign. As a result, the DIA altered its second ad, and abandoned a third "proposed draft" altogether.
The commission's concerns centred on the risk that the campaign risked advocating government policy rather than explaining policy.
The Wicksteed strategy is dated December 2020, the same month the Cabinet agreed "a nationwide public information and education campaign" for water reform and earmarked $4m to conduct it.
In response to a request made under the OIA, Internal Affairs declined to provide a breakdown of costs. The department said it intended, ultimately, to make a cost breakdown public.
A special unit within DIA is leading an ambitious government plan to amalgamate council-owned water infrastructure into just four regional bodies. However, while Wellington originally promised that local councils would be free to opt out of the programme, the Government now says it will force the removal of water assets into the new bodies through legislation it plans to introduce later this year.
Some 29 local councils - out of the 67 affected authorities - have banded together to oppose the reform.
An October 2021 report prepared jointly by DIA, LGNZ and the professional association of local government officials, Taituara, found that, at the end of an eight-week "engagement period" with local councils, some 75 per cent said they did not support the proposed model for Three Waters reform put forward by the Government.
A spokesperson for Mahuta declined to answer questions about Wicksteed's advice. The spokesperson said the department holds the relevant information and is the appropriate office to respond.
The Government says the water-asset divestment from councils is needed to keep ahead of investment in infrastructure which has fallen behind and to consistently provide good water services across the country.
The Wicksteed document, the October report, and the briefing documents were released late last year under the provisions of the OIA.
IN THIS SERIES:
• How the Government has targeted selected academics in its Covid response