The controversy over the Williams Governments plan to cut services in Lewisporte continues to escalate, and threatens to leave a stain on the credibility and popularity of this government.
The bizarre thing is, it was all so unnecessary. Government mishandled this file from the beginning, and theyve been lurching ever since from one bad headline to another.
I will explain what should have been done to keep matters from spiraling out of control.
But first, lets look at what government did wrong.
I will not debate the right or wrong of governments decision to phase out services. Lets assume theyve made the decision, for better or for worse, and must now break the news to their constituents through the media, of course.
The first mistake was the press release, issued on Monday, August 31 at 1:45 pm. Thats a good time, by the way it doesnt invite suspicion the way a late Friday release would.
And thats the thing about this release. It goes to great lengths to avoid suspicion; to duck under the radar. VOCM Open Line host Randy Simms was the first media person to pick up on the sneakiness of what was hidden in this release.
Lets look at it more closely, and think about how Government broke the news to Lewisporte. My comments will appear in boldface italics.
Province Assessing Laboratory and X-ray Services
(The headline is not alarming, and gives no hint of whats to come)
The Provincial Government has begun an examination on how laboratory and X-ray services are provided and is making changes to streamline and improve services. (This actually sounds positive like they plan to improve services.) Today, the Honourable Paul Oram, Minister of Health and Community Services, announced that as part of this assessment, and recent infrastructure investments, there will be modifications in the future delivery of laboratory and X-ray services in Lewisporte and Flowers Cove. (This almost says something, but there are no alarm bells yet.)
The new construction and redevelopment of healthcare facilities in these communities have resulted in programming changes, said Minister Oram. Overall, were taking a look at laboratory and X-ray services in the province to determine the next steps to further improve quality and service delivery in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Still no alarms. The reference to further improving quality is actually reassuring.)
In Budget 2009: Building on Our Strong Foundation, the Provincial Government invested $5 million for site infrastructure and to redevelop the long-term care home in Lewisporte. $500,000 will be invested to continue planning of a new $9 million health centre in Flowers Cove. (This sounds like good news too.)
Residents in the Flowers Cove area requiring laboratory or X-ray work will access these services at the Curtis Memorial Hospital in St. Anthony, while those in the Lewisporte area will access services at the James Paton Memorial Hospital in Gander and the Central Newfoundland Regional Health Centre in Grand Falls-Windsor. (Whamo! Major alarms! If youre in Lewisporte, this is where your blood pressure starts to rise. But if youre a reporter in St. Johns, this might not mean a whole lot, unless you are looking at a map.) Blood collection services will continue in Flowers Cove and Lewisporte. The effective date of this change will be announced later in the fall. The new Flowers Cove health centre will also operate on a 12-hour basis. (Down from 24-hour, which they dont say.)
This change in service delivery will occur over time, said Minister Oram. The intent of the provincial assessment process is to build upon the strong healthcare foundation we have in this province. Also, to ensure a strong healthcare system tomorrow, we need to take the steps today to keep us on course. (Whatever. Weasel words.)
Budget 2009 provides an additional $21.4 million to further enhance laboratory services in the province. This investment builds upon the $54.3 million invested since 2007. In keeping with the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry on Hormone Receptor Testing, the Provincial Government is also moving forward with implementing recommendations regarding laboratory accreditation. (What the hell the Cameron Report had to do with phasing out services in Lewisporte is beyond me. Its just more weasel words.)
Despite governments attempt to back into the release that is, to bury the main information near the bottom the news still went off like a bomb in Lewisporte, with reverberations across the province.
The media tracked down the area MHA, Wade Verge, who surprised everyone with a strong stance against his own government. Verge said he was not aware of the cuts, and stood squarely behind his constituents instead of Government.
The premier then mocked the MHA, suggesting Verge had been informed of the cuts well in advance and suggesting with a dismissive pfft that Verge was stupid. In the meantime, the premier (or, more likely, his senior staff) apparently got to Verge and laid down the law, because Verge pulled a complete about-face at a protest rally the next day, defending his government and claiming he had been misquoted by media. Which is bullshit, of course Verge made his position quite clear in a CBC interview.
After that, media reports were dominated by discussion about who knew what, when. The Open Line shows went nuts. Doctors threatened to resign. Residents formed a coalition and launched an advertising campaign.
On September 11, Government issued a news release, attempting to bolster its claim that the cuts had been suggested by Central Health. The release contained letters from the health board outlining a variety of potential cuts to services in the region. It did not contain the letters from government that requested the cuts.
But never mind that. The release was issued on a Friday, at 4:10 pm, when the lights were switching off on the hill and no one was available to comment. The Telegram has a great editorial about this in todays paper, in which they repeat this famous quote from the premier:
But, y'know, when Eastern Health comes out ... late on a Friday afternoon, and puts a heading out that's misleading with regard to the real content of what the release is all about, and then says there's nobody there to comment on it, it's disgraceful. They should be shot over there ...?
Quite simply, someone in government should be shot though I prefer language that is less inflammatory, and prompts a reasonably credible action. How about: Someone should be fired or Someone should resign.
Even today, government is still in damage control, attempting to disown the decision. Paul Oram is under pressure to release more documents, showing the letters from government that prompted the letters from Central Health. The finger pointing continues and the crisis threatens to cause real harm to this governments popularity.
So where did this go wrong? How should government have handled this, to prevent such a controversy? From a procedural point of view, the announcement of cuts in Lewisporte should not have come from the Department; responsibility for cuts should rest with Central Health. They should have made the announcements. However, since it is now clear that the cuts were driven by the Williams Government, you can see why Central Health didnt take or wasnt given the lead on announcing them.
That said, the biggest mistakes still occurred during the communications process.
We saw the first release, with its awkward attempt to hide the bad news. We saw government try to redirect blame for the cuts back to Central Health. We saw government issue a news release on a Friday afternoon, then creep away like spineless worms.
Heres what Government should have done, assuming they had done their homework on the rationale for the cuts.
They should have issued a news release that was up-front about the planned cuts. They should have referenced the cuts clearly in the first paragraph, followed by reasons why this is happening. This alone would have prevented the public relations disaster that now engulfs government.
First, by being honest and direct about the cuts, the debate would have been reframed completely. The discussion would have been focused on the need for the cuts; on whether they were fair and appropriate.
Yes, there would have been headlines. Controversy would ensue. The people of Lewisporte would be just as angry. There would still be pressure on Wade Verge to break ranks with his government.
But by taking ownership of the decision, and communicating it clearly, government would have nipped much of this controversy in the bud. Cuts to services do happen. The media and the public know this. They will ask tough questions and those affected will cry foul, but as long as the debate is open and frank, the controversy can be contained.
Take a look at the headlines in recent days. Theyve been dominated by finger-pointing, and by governments craven attempt to dodge blame for their own decision. This has become the news story. Theres very little discussion about the rationale for the cuts, whether justified or not its all about blame.
(As an aside, I know many government public relations people who work at the departmental level, and the vast majority are professionals who take their work seriously. A good communicator would never advocate a ham-fisted release like this. I expect many are extremely frustrated about working in an environment that favours spin and manipulation over clear and open communication.)
Bottom line: when you make a tough decision, you have to own it, explain it and stand by it. Communicate clearly. And be honest, not evasive.
Yes, this approach would require openness and accountability.
And that may be too much to expect from the Williams Government.