So long PAB! Alberta restructures government communications, eliminates notorious Public Affairs Bureau

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PHOTOS: Public Affairs Bureau Managing Director Corey Hogan during his days as a political commentator for CBC Calgary, shown in a screenshot of a CBC broadcast. Below: Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley and Conservative premiers Alison Redford and Jim Prentice.

A terse news release by the Alberta Government Wednesday announced that a significant shakeup of the government’s communications and marketing functions is set to take effect on Sept. 1.

The reorganization will consolidate all Government of Alberta communications and marketing operations “as a corporate service” that will now be found on the government’s organizational chart as a division of the Ministry of Treasury Board and Finance.

When the new structure goes into effect on the Friday before Labour Day, Alberta’s famous – or perhaps we should say infamous – Public Affairs Bureau will be no more, at least as an entity known by that notorious name.

At first glance, Communications and Public Engagement, as the unit of approximately 350 employees is to be known, sounds a lot like the Tory Era PAB, which was controversial for its size, power, budget and the sense among members of the public it had become thoroughly politicized.

But while the same claims will likely be made by Opposition politicians – viz., essentially the same people, albeit now operating under a new trade name, who benefited from the old PAB – supporters of the NDP Government of Premier Rachel Notley may be disappointed to learn this restructuring remains firmly within the tradition of a professional civil service and does not seem to be designed to play a partisan political role.

In other words, whether it is wise or not for a party with uninspiring polling numbers to behave responsibly, Ms. Notley’s NDP seems determined to continue to lead by good example.

“With our new model we are approaching the allocation of government communications resources differently,” said PAB Managing Director Corey Hogan, who expects to remain as Managing Director, Communications and Public Engagement.

“Prior to this reorganization the reality was that departments were not uniformly busy but had needed to keep bodies on hand for busy times,” he said yesterday. “Now, instead of staffing for peak load we will staff for base load and augment with swing capacity” – which is a fancy way of saying Treasury won’t overstaff departments but will send additional communications specialists hither and yon as they are needed.

“We need to be more efficient with resources and innovate in our approach to the delivery of services,” said Hogan, a former Alberta Liberal Party executive director and CBC Calgary political commentator who was appointed to the PAB job last October.

“Simply put, pure economics call into question having 23 communications branches and five marketing branches,” he said. The change will save about $4.5 million a year, roughly 15 per cent of the government’s communications budget.

“Our approach now will be to pool functions such as design, A/V, web and consultation, treating them as a corporate resource,” he explained. “This will mean better utilization and less reliance on outside vendors.”

Under Tory premiers Ralph Klein and Ed Stelmach, ministry communications directors served two masters. They were civil servants who managed the government’s communications departments and at the same time partisan political advisors whose job included helping the PCs get re-elected. Needless to say, one function strayed into the other from time to time.

To her lasting credit, that inherently conflicted blend of work was ended by PC premier Alison Redford, who implemented a system of press secretaries who are political appointees fulfilling the partisan role and communications directors who are members of the public service doing the public’s work. That separation of “church and state” has continued under the NDP.

Mr. Hogan said Communications and Public Engagement was placed under the Treasury Department because Treasury is also home to the Public Service Commission – in effect the government’s human resources department – so “it made sense to collect this new corporate service there as well.”

The reorganization rolls back one significant alteration made in the last shakeup of government communications – carried out with little notice right before Christmas 2014 by the PC Government of then-premier Jim Prentice.

In that 2014 change, most communications employees were assigned to government departments and thereafter reported to deputy ministers, who are the senior civil servants in each ministry. Communications directors, assistant directors and branch staff became department employees, rather than part of the PAB. The PAB was reduced to a 40-member secretariat responsible for co-ordinating communications across departments.

At the time, there was speculation the Prentice Government’s shakeup – which deeply shocked PAB employees, who were not notified till a few hours before – was prompted by the PR disaster that that accompanied the Prentice Government’s decision to replace then Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman’s private member’s bill on gay-straight alliances with the government’s own legislation, which at that time didn’t require schools to permit students to form the GSAs if they wished.

Despite Mr. Prentice’s later capitulation on requiring schools to permit students to form GSAs on school property, for some reason the same issue continues to bedevil conservatives in the Alberta Legislature.

The name of the new division is very similar to that of a branch within the B.C. Government, although the structure of all Canadian government communications operations was surveyed and best practices were borrowed from several, Mr. Hogan said.

Categories Alberta Politics