What Government Communicators can learn from the Ottawa Auditor General Report

I recently had the opportunity to review the City of Ottawa’s Auditor General’s report on its audit of the Corporate Communications function. I think that other government communications organizations can benefit from reviewing this report so that they can avoid making the same mistakes.

First it is really important that a Communications Function in a large public sector organization have a clear mandate in which services they are delivering (and not delivering). A Communications organization has to clearly define what services they offer and the process for offering them. By not having a clear mandate, your clients may become frustrated as they have expectations that your organization can carry out every communications service under the sun and clearly that is not possible, so clarity of what services you offer is important.

Another major concern is branches and divisions set up their own communication function within their program, because they can’t get the service from the central corporate communications branch.

Now, I don’t have any problems with decentralizing the communications service into a program branch, particularly those that have large communications or marketing needs, (actually I think it is a good idea).   BUT the communication’s function should have the necessary authority to coordinate efforts in order to ensure consistency and avoid duplication and working at cross-purposes. In addition, Corporate Communications needs to ensure that staff carrying out communications or marketing functions are fully qualified to do this type of work.

Often at the Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing we have seen people that have no background or experience in marketing and communications, managing major marketing and communications campaigns. As the auditor’s report points out; “When this happens, the development and provision of coherent, effective and economical communications to support the public sector’s organization’s strategic and operational goals is compromised.”

In addition the report points out; corporate communication organizations should have  a Strategic Communications Framework and Communications Policy  that defines the overall policy on corporate and program  communications and identify accountability and responsibility for its various elements.

Another major finding in the report was that the strategy for the introduction of the “green bin” (Source Separated Organics Communications Strategy) campaign was inadequate.

Hard to believe but the overall marketing communications strategy had the following problems:

• The target audience(s) was not properly identified;

• The most effective methods for reaching this target audience(s) were not adequately assessed and pursued;

• The strategic messaging to these target audience(s) was not developed; and,

• The communications initiatives utilized were never evaluated to determine which were effective and which were not to guide future efforts?

First, one of the major concerns with this poorly conceived campaign was that the communications function played a very small part in delivering this project and one can assume that those who did deliver/implement the program clearly did not have much expertise in marketing or communications.

Some of the recommendations from the Auditor General included:

1. That the Corporate Communications group needs to develop a performance measurement framework that incorporates qualitative and quantitative performance indicators to measure if desired results are achieved and defined objectives met.

2. There is a need to review and monitor the use of various designs for communications vehicles to ensure the Visual Identity Guidelines are followed wherever possible. Whenever possible? Clearly the city needs to review their branding strategy. I suggest someone from the city review our CEPSM Guide to Branding in the Public & Non-Profit Sectors

3. That, as part of the development of the City’s Communications Policy, Corporate Communications include guidelines on the use of social media. If you are running a major communications organization and you don’t have social media guidelines … I suggest you get busy. Check out the federal government guidelines

4. That  communications plans/strategies, especially those aimed at changing public behaviour, be based on a thorough analysis of the environment within which the communications initiative will be launched.

I have a better suggestion. Why don’t they make sure that anybody involved in social marketing behaviour change campaigns get properly trained. Check out our training program or maybe they can invest in a workbook that has been designed to provide staff who run these campaigns with an end-to-end planning tool that lays the groundwork for a successful social marketing program.

5. That communications plans have no more than three objectives, and “should be as precise and measurable as possible in order to ensure measurement and increase mutual accountability”.

6. That all financial and human resources be identified to carry out benchmarking and performance measurement activities included in any communications plan.

7. That core messages be simple and consistent for all target audiences; that they should be tested before being made public and that adjustments to address the interests of particular audiences are added as needed.

8. That a sound media analysis be developed for incorporation into communications plans and updated on a continuing basis so that messaging and media strategies can be adjusted as needed.

9. That, in the case of a major communications plan, advertising be focus group tested before launch and evaluated periodically to ensure it continues to meet operational goals.

From what I understand The Corporate Communications Department is currently in a state of transition as its new leadership is in the process of developing a Strategic Framework and Communications Policy.

I wish them the best of luck.

Let me know what you think.





5 Replies to “What Government Communicators can learn from the Ottawa Auditor General Report”

  1. Well put Jim.

    Truly amazing that the green bin initiative which is costing millions of tax dollars annually didn’t invest in a proper marketing plan. It shows because when I look on my street on garbage day probably less than a third of the people put their green bin out.


    1. Mark as you well know having worked with my team for a number of years there is no secret to social marketing. There is a right way to do it and a wrong way. Clearly those involved in this project had no expertise on how to do it and that’s why we have the situation where the numbers of people using green bins is a lot lower than it ought to be. It never seems to amaze me that government will spend millions/billions of dollars on a program or service and then have virtually no money to market it and have amateurs doing the marketing and then complain that people are not using the product or service.

  2. The City would also do well to use its competitively-sourced standing offer lists for professional communication services instead of perennially awarding untendered contracts to a single supplier.

    1. I am not too familiar Ken with the city’s selection of suppliers but to say that they need new and/or different suppliers would be somewhat of an understatement.

  3. Great post Jim. Although communications/marketing is not rocket science, your comments and the report remind us of the importance of well trained professionals, as well as sound planning, clear objectives and evaluation.

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