Auckland

Good comms, bad comms: assessing how Auckland Council spends its $45m communications budget

The Herald says communications spending at Auckland Council is out of control, but is that true? Simon Wilson looks at what council comms should be doing and why.

The water went off in parts of Auckland yesterday. But Watercare didn’t post anything about it on its website and it put out no information on social media because, incredibly, it doesn’t do social media. Watercare made almost no effort to tell its customers what was going on.

If that had been a railway stoppage, Auckland Transport would have Facebooked, tweeted, and carried advice on its website. In the stations there would have been signs and frequent advice on the intercom. They’d have got it onto the radio news.

Which council-controlled outfit has better communications? That’s a no brainer.

Except, apparently not, according to the Herald. They were busy over the weekend with the news that the council spends too much on comms, in particular on comms staff. The Herald held up Watercare as a model for responsible spending, because while most other parts of council have busy communications programmes, Watercare just keeps to itself.

The Herald reported on the contents of an internal review, which it said criticised the council for not having an overall strategy for “communications and engagement”, despite resolving in 2014 to develop one. The Herald also said the $45.6 million the council spends on communications was the result of “a huge blowout” since 2013, and identified large increases in salary costs in several council agencies.

But it did not say if the increases were unbudgeted (which is what “a blowout” means) and nor did it comment on any of the non-salary components of the communications budgets. The focus on salaries carried a clear implication: that salaries are responsible for that $45 million.

Yet comms work generates a lot of non-salary expenditure. It includes advertising, with creative, production and bookings costs; information and promotional tools like videos and print material; visitor hosting; and many elements of event spending. It often includes design input to projects at the start and marketing input as projects reach completion.

It’s certainly true that we need to be debating council spending. I’ve argued before that large unbudgeted increases in costs are not acceptable and I’ll be happy to do so again. Mayor Phil Goff is right to take the razor to council costs and he’s right to have decided communications is one of the areas to look closely at.

But hang on. The Herald said there are 234 comms staff at the council and all its agencies. Taking the Herald’s inference that those staff cost $45 million or close to it, the average salary would be almost $195,000. The Herald says ATEED (the tourism and economic development agency) has a comms budget of $12.7 million and 31 comms staff: again, that suggests they earn on average over $400,000 each.

This is plainly ridiculous. It’s possible comms salaries are overblown at council, and it’s possible there are too many comms staff. Council does need to cut spending. But this kind of reporting is little short of hysterical. It doesn’t further the debate on council costs so much as set fire to it.

And the problem with that is, we’ll stop talking about one of the other really big problems council faces: it needs better communications.

Remember that poll taken in the time of the previous council, when a mere 15% of Aucklanders expressed confidence in the council? That’s still a big problem for council and for citizens. We need to be able to trust the organisation we rely on to keep the water clean and flowing, fix the potholes and maintain the standards of our parks, libraries and swimming pools. We need to trust that it will lead the process of decongesting the transport networks and fully embrace the need to get more affordable housing built.

By virtue of the fact it collects rates, the council has a social contract with citizens: we’ll pay and they’ll do a responsible job with the money. We need to know what they’re doing, how they’re doing it and why, and how well it’s all working. Council can’t tell us those things without good communications.

Yes, it’s not always going to tell us when things go wrong and, when that does happen, it will rarely tell us the real reasons why. By definition, council comms will give us the official explanation for everything. So you need media – mainstream and alternative, professional journalists and citizen investigators too – to get the whole picture, or more of it at least.  But media needs good council communications too. Journalists and analysts don’t need to trust a blessed thing they say, but we do need to know what they have to say and we do need to filter it, analyse it, push it through the wringer of truth testing. Good comms is part of the social contract.

Comms, by the way, is not just spin. It includes spin, but it is also other elements of PR, and marketing, public service information, internal communication, community building and more. Good comms is essential to many of the larger purposes of government. Here are five council examples why.

1. Watercare: the secrecy is scary

Watercare, the council-controlled organisation that runs our water and sewage systems, has a comms budget of only $1.5 million, according to the review. But that’s not a good thing. Watercare has very few comms staff and it does little to engage. Internally at council, it doesn’t even bother to attend the regular meetings of council communications units, whose purpose is to help them all work together.

It’s not just problems like the water stoppage in Pt Chev this weekend. Remember the water crisis in March this year, when heavy rain silted up the Ardmore dam and the whole city was in danger of having to boil water? Watercare ignored offers of help from the council’s other comms units and engaged external PR consultants to help out. That led to lack of public information, inconsistencies in what we were told and other problems, all of which Todd Niall at RNZ covered here.

We know less about Watercare than any other big council agency, and that’s probably due to the influence of the late Mark Ford, its former CEO and before than the head of the super-city transition team. Ford famously kept as low a profile as he could manage, for himself and for the places he worked, and the lack of information that caused has never been in the public interest.

2. ATEED: when your business is promotion

ATEED is the big spender among council comms teams, but you’d expect that. It’s involved in most of the city’s major events. It’s the agency charged with promoting the city to the world. It also has an important role, through various events, in promoting the city to its own citizens. And it is contracted as the local delivery agent for some of the work of Trade and Enterprise, Tourism NZ and other central government organisasations.

ATEED’s business is promotion. Its remit is to grow the reputation of Auckland as a place for people from all over the world to come here to live, work and play, and for people who do live here to enrich their lives, and that requires all sorts of events, opportunities and programmes.

You might want to argue, as Phil Goff does, that ATEED shouldn’t be doing all that work. But that’s a separate debate. Given that ATEED is doing these things, you can’t argue it should take the communications elements out of them.

3. The 10-year budget: making consultation meaningful

The council is hard at work right now developing a new 10-year budget. This will be the single most important document produced by Goff in the current term. The first draft will be made public next month, and then the debates will begin, at first around the council table and then in a big series of public consultations next year.

Comms money will be spent on those consultations. Communities throughout the city need the opportunity to hear what’s proposed, to debate and to propose new and better ideas themselves. Multiple channels are needed: some people will go online to engage, others will go to meetings, some will write letters and sign petitions, some will do it all on social media. Some will do it in the midst of doing something else: go shopping in the mall, or go to a sports fixture, and have your say on council spending while you’re there? Right now the council uses some semi-game online tools in south Auckland: they’d probably horrify some citizens, but they’ve worked minor miracles for youth engagement.

Council comms needs to turn dense data and analysis into easily digestible information, and do it for all the different sorts of audiences in the city.

It needs to spend the time and the money to ensure it’s not just the usual suspects who get heard – that would be the wealthier, whiter and older residents of the eastern suburbs. Yes, of course their views are important, but the less comms work there is, the more public engagement will skew towards the already-more-privileged.

Think about that, by the way, next time supposed ratepayer watchdogs start baying about wasting money on communications.

4. The City Rail Link: taking the chance to change

If ever there was a missed opportunity for good marketing, it’s been the CRL. The traffic is disrupted, the retailers are disadvantaged, the public generally is discomposed. And the disruption is going to get worse: the new government’s commitment to a flying start to light rail will put the diggers and roads cones into Queen St as well.

But please please please could this not be treated merely as more disruption to be endured? We’re changing the way the central city operates and the way people get into and out of it. Let’s really embrace that now, by using the road closures to experiment with different possibilities – for transport, for retail, for community events, for entertainment. Try some short-term street closures, more street events, allowing retailers out from behind the construction hoardings and onto the streets, and above all, boosting the value of public transport and active (cycling and walking) transport… And if we’re going to do all that, it will need a lot of splendid marketing.

In fact, in addition to the CRL and light rail several other transport issues in Auckland right now need some excellent comms. They include:

  • The proposed new fuel tax.
  • The role of parking regulations (the cost, number of parks and more).
  • Improvements to railway stations.
  • Improvements to bus stops and the larger bus stations.
  • Increased public transport services.
  • The value of bike lanes.
  • The potential of bike infrastructure around schools.

When it comes to transport, it’s not enough to say the engineers will build it, the accountants will control them and the people will come. What designers and marketers bring to projects is critical, and their work – not all of it but decisive parts of it – is comms work.

5. Panuku: putting communities first

Panuku Development Auckland is the council agency charged with leading the regeneration of many local centres around the city – they’re busy right now in Panmure and Papatoetoe, Tāmaki and Takapuna, Northcote, Henderson, Avondale, Whangaparāoa and more. Sure, they could do it with minimal comms, but why would that be a good thing?

The task facing Panuku is the same as the task facing the council with its 10-year budget. For Panuku to do its job properly it needs to be in the communities, generating enthusiasm for the process by giving leadership to those communities. A meeting of minds: professional skills and experience and creative flair, enabled by genuine ground-up consultation and engagement.

You do that by maximising the comms. Yet Panuku has a communications budget even smaller than Watercare’s. That’s a worry. It suggests Panuku is laying its plans down on top of communities, instead of working with them to ensure the projects are community driven.

That should change. Panuku needs to spend more on comms, not less.

As for the mayor and Auckland Council, they definitely need to get better at what they do. Financial rigour is vital. Better comms is vital too. It’s not either/or. We deserve both.

simon@thespinoff.co.nz @simonbwilson


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