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OPINION: Communications Vs. Safeguarding Administration

Municipalities are facing a critical turning point, where the significance of communication within their organizations is becoming increasingly evident.

In this evolving landscape, it is crucial to carefully evaluate the pros and cons of municipal communications and foster an environment of openness, honesty, and transparency while safeguarding the well-being of the administration.

However, it is essential to acknowledge that an "everything should be communicated' approach to communication may not always be the most effective, financially sustainable, or beneficial strategy. Having worked in a municipal government organization for six years, I have witnessed firsthand the challenges that arise when attempting to provide communications cart-blanche, but forgetting the potential negative impact on municipal employees.

Residents often express a desire to know specific details, such as the location of a grader in their community, the streets it will be working on, and the estimated time of arrival. In response to the need for greater transparency, mayors and councils have agreed that increased communication is necessary regarding the day-to-day operations of municipal staff. It is vitally important to consider the potential downsides of this approach.

For instance, what happens if unforeseen circumstances prevent the grader from reaching the designated area at the communicated time? Over-communicating every minute detail can lead to unintended consequences and create unrealistic expectations among the public, expecting them to be aware of every single municipal operation.

Municipalities must acknowledge that unexpected events can occur beyond the control of municipal employees. Equipment may break down, workers may fall ill, or unanticipated issues may arise. Consequently, a balance must be struck between transparency and practicality.

As a former member of the administration staff, I have witnessed the toll constant communication can take on employees' well-being. The relentless criticism faced by grader operators, park employees, and others can be overwhelming. Imagine being in a position where your job is scrutinized daily, and council members or top administrators believe that communicating more with residents about your every move is necessary.

During my tenure, I once communicated the grader's schedule for snow plowing in a specific area, only to find out at the end of the day that someone had taken a photo and posted it on social media. This act by a resident led to the grader operator being subjected to online attacks, bullying, and threats for leaving a windrow in front of a resident's driveway. Unfortunately, this is just one example of the daily challenges faced by municipal employees, all in the name of transparency.

While communication is a useful tool for spreading messages, it is vital to remember that residents have diverse ways of gathering information. As social media platforms gain prominence, municipalities must not neglect those who lack access to computers or phones. Relying solely on a single communication channel risks excluding a significant portion of the population that also deserves accurate and timely information.

For instance, my grandmother does not use social media, rarely uses a phone (she still has a flip phone), and struggles with computers. Should she be denied information about the grader's whereabouts simply because she doesn't use Facebook or Twitter? I firmly believe that all residents, regardless of their preferred means of communication, deserve equal access to the same crucial updates. Municipalities should strive to accommodate the diverse methods residents employ to obtain information.

We are seeing it first hand right now unfold in places where wildfires are breaking out. Municipalities are working around the clock to protect their communities. Municipalities heavily rely on social media to communicate with their residents. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but not everyone has social media. While the media landscape in this province, and country, has changed and people aren't watching the 5 o'clock news, or listening to the radio at the moment they need to be to hear an update - not everyone in Canada has access to high-speed internet or reliable cell phone coverage to get communications updates via Facebook or Twitter or even a Town Website.

We must also consider Canada as a country as well. As it becomes increasingly multicultural, municipalities must recognize that English is not the sole primary language. Failing to address the needs of non-English speakers would be a disservice to the community. During my tenure, I made a deliberate effort to respond to residents who approached me in languages other than English, ensuring they felt included and informed. (Whether it was French, Spanish, or even once Cantonese I made an effort to respond to people int he language they approached the municipality).

It is high time for municipalities to engage in serious conversations about their communication goals, recognizing that quality should outweigh quantity. They must acknowledge the diversity of communication preferences and consider the limitations of excessive communication.

Municipalities need to strike a balance between transparency and the well-being of their administration. Municipalities need to strike the right balance between what is being communicated, and what should be communicated.

If a community desires effective municipal communication, it is essential to approach the matter with the seriousness it deserves, and not communicate for the sake of communicating.

By achieving this delicate balance, municipalities can foster an informed and engaged community, empowering residents while safeguarding the well-being of their dedicated administration.

And if municipalities don't strike this delicate balance, then municipalities won't be - and to quote a friend of the show - asking just "Who is driving the grader?", but will be asking, "Why don't we have people driving the grader anymore?"

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