It’s been about three months since Premier Kathy Dunderdale shuffled her cabinet and created the “Office of Public Engagement” and since then, the government has been talking it up a fair bit.
Opposition politicians, though, say it’s nothing but a public-relations exercise, and it’s bound to cost taxpayers money.
Routine disclosure measures
Minister Keith Hutchings, who’s responsible for the new office, has been pretty busy. Shortly after the shuffle he announced new “routine disclosure” measures to make government documents public, including restaurant inspection reports, school repair and maintenance information and annual reports of professional health governing bodies.
In the past few weeks, the government has issued a cavalcade of news releases, and Hutchings has been to a series of events in his role as public engagement minister.
Amalgamation of services
The new office is getting a more prominent treatment in government communications, but Hutchings told The Telegram Friday that it’s really just bringing together a bunch of things that already existed in the government.
“These entities have existed already for some time,” he said. “All of these entities have been doing quite valuable work in terms of interaction on the ground in Newfoundland and Labrador in terms of volunteers and driving social and economic policy.”
The Office of Public Engagement — during the interview, Hutchings referred to it as “OPE” — brings together the Rural Secretariat, the Voluntary and Non-Profit Secretariat, the Youth Engagement office, the Strategic Partnership Initiative, and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Office.
We likely won’t know until this spring when the government brings down its budget, but Hutchings said by folding those five entities together, it’ll actually save money, and the new office’s budget will be lower than the sum of the five bodies that have been lumped together.
“When we’re finished and I go through the budget process and bringing an estimate in a few months as part of the overall budget process, I do believe, yes, there will be efficiencies that will be achieved in the overall budget envelope,” he said. “We think there’s certainly collaboration and synergies that can be done more effectively and efficiently.”
Liberal MHA Jim Bennett doesn’t buy it.
“Every time government does anything, even if they have a mini-shuffle and have to change the letterhead, it costs money,” he said. “This is just an exercise in trying to look good. It doesn’t do anything of benefit for anybody.”
Bennett said the best thing the government could do to engage the public is to just provide the services that people want.
“I think the biggest make-work project in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador is the Tory government,” he said. “The office of public engagement is just the icing on the cake — it’s a total waste of money. Why doesn’t government just do something. If you just go do your job, people will figure out what you’re doing.”
New Democrat MHA George Murphy agreed with that assessment.
He said his assessment of the new initiative is that it’s serving the Tory government more than the public at large.
“They’re trying to promote themselves, I would say,” he said.
Murphy pointed to the Muskrat Falls debate that stretched back for the past two years, saying that for him, it typifies the way the government does public engagement.
“They only broadcast the message one way. They didn’t listen,” he said. “They didn’t engage the public to hear the public’s reaction to it, and they ignored most of what the arguments were that were being told to them. They stayed focused on the message.”