Hamilton has a hard time with large civic projects. A major part of the problem is the city’s inability to manage political communications.
By Andrew Richardson
Published April 26, 2017
The City of Hamilton has a problem and poor political communication is the culprit. It's a problem that has shaped many of Hamilton's large civic debates, such as the ongoing Light Rail Transit (LRT) debate, the stadium debacle, or the Red Hill Valley Expressway debates.
It's not necessarily a problem that focuses on any one particular faction of city councillors, but rather it seems to be a chronic civic condition that the city has not been able to shake.
Over the last year, City of Hamilton and Metrolinx staff have crisscrossed Hamilton in a series of events designed to gather public feedback and communicate information regarding the planned LRT line. The staff did their jobs well, but in some cases City Councillors opposed to the project used the events as an opportunity to voice their concerns in such a way designed to engage constituents to oppose the project.
We may begrudge and disagree with the councillors opposed to the project, but politicians will be political and City and Metrolinx staff are not. They are simply not equipped by training, or by virtue of their positions, to engage in political back-and-forth to defend the project from such political attacks.
As unfair as it may seem, opposition politicians used their situational leverage and power to sow doubt.
Since the point of this piece is to not lay blame on anyone - and since the problem is larger than one project it would be pointless to do so - I want to focus on a constructive lesson for the future: political communication matters.
Political communication as a larger theme can be broken down into three more precise categories: Issues Management, Constituent Communications, and Embracing Transparency.
Big projects will be political. It's up to city leadership to anticipate issues and have a plan to respond to them effectively in an efficient manner.
For example, it should have been anticipated that anti-LRT councillors would use opportunities to discredit the province's investment in LRT, even to the point of tolerating ridiculous attacks (such as comparing LRT to AIDS). Responses to political attacks should be factual, rapid, and conducted by politicians and political staff.
But more to the point, the mayor and city councillors seem to lack the resources to stay on top of every developing political issue. Particularly in the case of the mayor's office, there can be little doubt that communications staff are strapped handling the large amount of basic communication that running a city requires.
At the very least, the mayor's office should be afforded the funds, or otherwise organized, to include a Director of Issues Management: someone who is tasked with the political combat required to defend the mayor's political priorities from ambush and who can anticipate political problems.
Since this would apply to any future mayor regardless of their priorities, it is hard to see how dedicating funds to such a position would be seriously controversial.
Communication isn't just the responsibility of staff, and on balance the larger burden rests with City Council and the Mayor. City politicians need to do a better job of engaging their constituents directly: more town hall events, more canvassing, more phone calls.
There is no excuse for not engaging directly and often. Better constituent engagement will mean that councillors will be better able to engage residents and deliver project-related messages while simultaneously receiving real time feedback.
The depth and breadth of high quality constituent engagement will improve the decision-making process and relieve at least some of the criticism relating to transparency and accountability, while marking a large step towards improving City Hall's political communication efforts.
This leads me to my last point: embrace transparency. There has been discord over the years concerning how and whether or not to stream council meetings, committee meetings, or other official city proceedings.
This hasn't served Hamilton's politicians well, it's made relationships rockier than they ought to have been, and has needlessly complicated Hamiltonians' access to their civic institutions.
City politicians should embrace cameras, questions, and journalists as an opportunity to spread their message. Not every journalist will like you, or agree with you, or buy the spin you're selling, but the fact that they are engaging with you buys you political opportunity.
Political communication isn't always about having your words repeated verbatim, sometimes it's good enough (or downright ideal) just to be seen to be engaged.
I sincerely hope that the political lessons of the LRT project and other past civic issues are not lost on city leadership. It won't be the last time an issue of this scale comes up.
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