Auckland Transport is planning to hire public relations firms to work with communities on projects - an area where it has been criticised for not listening to people.
A source said the exercise also aims to improve the image of AT, which the council body has not denied.
In recent times, AT upset residents in St Heliers with proposed safety improvements, was roundly criticised for a new cycleway in Grey Lynn and copped the blame for a council-wide programme of disruptive works on Quay St.
The source said a panel of PR companies are poised to be awarded contracts despite concerns within AT about the process and the cost to ratepayers.
"It's a complete waste of money," said the source, who claimed the companies capable of doing the work charge between $190 and $250 an hour and up to $350 for senior staff.
AT's media relations manager Mark Hannan confirmed the council body is going through a process to establish a "panel of communications and consultation providers" but said the rates of up to $350 an hour are higher than the envisaged rates it would pay.
Tenders for the work opened on the Government Electronic Tenders Service (GETS) on March 19 and closed on April 7.
"The aim of this exercise is to save ratepayers money and to encourage a competitive market environment," Hannan said.
He said the providers would be used to supplement AT's 20-strong communications and consultation team as its capital programme ramps up on projects like the Eastern Busway, Puhinui Station, Matakana Link Road, Downtown Programme and Airport to Botany.
Hannan said any final decision will be made by senior management and, possibly, the AT board.
A panel of providers is best practice and AT currently uses the same model for a number of engineering services as well as for advertising and marketing campaigns, he said.
"As members of a pre-vetted panel, these service providers would not be paid any fees on an ongoing basis – work will be allocated project by project," he said.
A spokesman for Mayor Phil Goff said "this is an operational matter. We understand it will save Auckland Transport money, and we welcome any savings."
In May, Goff publicly criticised AT's dealings with communities, saying they are not a dictatorship, but accountable to the people.
Mike Walsh, the acting chairman of the St Heliers Residents Association, questioned the effectiveness of hiring PR people.
"We've had some sad cases of where PR people have come to our public meetings and just been left floundering without the ability to answer questions," he said.
Walsh said what communities need is early notice of proposals and discussions on the detail before a solution is put up.
"The community engagement should be done by AT staff who are well informed," Walsh said.
Deborah Pead, chief executive of Pead PR, said it would be a "massive, massive task" to improve the image of AT with its many roles and stakeholders.
She said it was not unusual for big organisations to bring in external support to improve their image. The first thing to do is to define and develop a strategy and then implement it to achieve the objectives.
There is no quick fix, said Pead, saying the plan would require ongoing support from an external PR company.
Dr Bodo Lang, head of marketing at Auckland University, said he did not have a specific view on AT, but generally speaking it would take a great deal of work to turn an organisation with a poor image into a good image.
"One could argue this is an insurmountable task unless you fundamentally change business practices... it can't just be done with a bit of comms work," he said.
Lang said council-owned bodies like AT are expected to work like a commercial entity and a certain amount of public relations work and spending is appropriate.
He said it could be counterproductive for a large monopoly like AT to spend large sums of money on PR when there is a perception that the core problems are not being addressed.