Archives for posts with tag: spin

Just over a year ago, it was reported that CERA had a disproportionately high number of staff employed in communications – with 5.5% of total staff in a communications role, the next highest government department being just over 2%. Well, they obviously decided that wasn’t enough, and a year later, that figure is now around 7.3%. From the Press:

The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) has almost doubled its communication budget and increased its public relations staff by a third in the past two years.

The big problem for CERA is that public trust in them as an organisation is close to zero. Instead of realising that this is a fundamental issue with the way they communicate, they’ve decided that it must be because they don’t communicate enough. More petrol on the fire, then. In the last year, we’ve had highlights such as the smartphone app that cost $80k to develop and was downloaded just over a thousand times. We also had the fantastic “Live Central” campaign, which encouraged rich white people to live in the CBD. It’d be interesting to know if they provided any advice to the PR shambles that was CEO Roger Sutton leaving.

But far more important than what the CERA comms team tells us is what they don’t. Their job is to manage the story, to ensure that the CERA version of events is the one that gets out.

The best way to ensure that they control the message is to say as little as possible. From time to time we hear stories about the number of communications and PR people employed for every journalist in the country. It’s worth thinking about that ratio in the context of the rebuild. CERA is a massive, political government department which has been placed (rightfully) in the city where it acts. Beyond the initial reporting of the disaster, there has been no increase in the resources dedicated to covering the rebuild. If anything, due to cut backs at the various media organisations, there are fewer journalists in the city than there were in 2011.

The media organisations in this city haven’t been able to increase their staffing to cover the increase in government activity post-quake. The Press, which Brownlee infamously called “the enemy of the rebuild”, has two reporters who cover the rebuild. They have some very good reporters on other beats which frequently overlap with what CERA does, such as the business and property sections. They also have some excellent feature writers, with articles from Philip Matthews and John McCrone often leading the debate on rebuild issues. Radio New Zealand has 4.5 reporters in the city, who are meant to cover everything that happens here – not just rebuild issues. Campbell Live was obviously a champion for the city, doing a lot of great reporting on the state of the rebuild, and they’re now gone. Aside from that, the TV networks don’t have the resources based here to do complex investigations.

I know that the journalists working in this city are doing their absolute best to get stories out. I also don’t doubt that the people who work in comms at CERA are good people, trying to do their best as well. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves; CERA is one of the most powerful, least transparent government organisations New Zealand has seen in a generation. Like something from the Soviet Union, it is a command and control department; and also like our socialist brothers, command and control of the media message is a critical part of its ongoing success (while I’m riffing on the Marxist metaphor, Fiona Farrell talks about Brownleegrad in her recently released book).

The suppression of any genuine opposition to the government’s actions in Christchurch, despite the obvious failures in the CBD and out East, is remarkable political management. That the Message® about the recovery is so removed from the situation on the ground is victory for the comms department – Duncan Garner wrote about what he saw when he was down here last week, and he didn’t pull any punches. It’s not that these people are bad at their job; it’s that the job they are doing is actively misleading the people of Christchurch about the state of the city. That’s something we should all be alarmed about.

I’m not sure quite why it chose a Sunday, but this morning, John Key’s twitter account belched out three infographics about the Christchurch rebuild. They contain figures, numbers and some ticks, and are all in a soothing blue palate. But they aren’t very useful.

This one was about building consents. It shows a steady increase – although under the new CBD plan, the towers to denote Dec 2011, Mar 2012 and June 2012 would be prohibited from being built in the city, as they breach the 7-storey height limit outlined in the City Plan.

At the top of the graphic, it mentions the $3.9 billion spend up to the December 2012 quarter*. So why aren’t the Sep 2012 and Dec 2012 consent numbers included on the graph? Well, it’s because the December 2012 numbers are about 150 down on the September ones, so it wouldn’t much such a happy graph. So they just ignored it.

Update: I made the graph with the Sep and Dec quarters. Wasn’t hard to do – I even did the bars in a nice soft blue. You can see why they didn’t include the Dec quarter.

Total Consents in Canterbury

Another problem here is the scale – it looks impressive, as it comes off of a very low base. This base has been set low by the September and February quakes. I can’t imagine many people lining up to build after those events – and that’s what the numbers show. So this doesn’t really say much, as you’d expect that these numbers would increase. The problem with this info-graphic – and the other two really – is that they don’t place the numbers in any sort of meaningful context. Is 719 earthquake-related building consents in a quarter a lot?

An earthquake-ralted building consent is apparently any building consent (residential, non-residential, non-building) issued since September 2010. I’m not bored enough to go back and tally up all the building consents in Christchurch over the last decade, but I did find the numbers for residential building consents. They go like this:

New residential buildings for Christchurch city for the year to December:

2003 – 2542

2004 – 2492

2005 – 2095

2006 – 2240

2007 – 2375

2008 – 1282

2009 – 1248

2010 – 1492

2011 – 979

As you can see residential building consents have been falling for years. This graphic takes an arbitrary low point and calls it a baseline, without giving us any other context. And even then, the number of ERBCs from Dec 2010 through to Jun 2012 – 2,412 – is lower than the number of residential consents per year from the mid 2000’s. Or number for context – we’ve lost about 10,000 buildings since the quake.

All the consent numbers are on this page at Stats NZ, so if you like your figures hard and truthy, rather than soft and manipulated, that’s the place to go.

* this figure – $3.9 billion – can’t be just the value of earthquake-related building consents, as that is only $793.3 million since Sept 2010. I assume it includes other building work in Canterbury, but don’t know where the number is from. If the bars below show numbers for one thing, then the figure at the top should relate to the same data set. Bad form.

This one is probably the worst of the three. The figures have been cribbed from the Press lift out I mentioned above (which cites their sources as CERA, EQC, Stats NZ and SCIRT.) The figures are pretty much the same, though with some generous rounding up (the Press says 104km of wastewater pipe, National rounds up to 111km.) Again, the problem here is context. 21 km of fresh water pipe means nothing if you don’t tell us how much they have to repair. If there is 25km to repair, we’re almost there; if there is 1000km, we’ve barely started. SCIRT estimates that there is 51km of water pipe to repair – so almost half way. Pretty good. Wastewater damage is estimated at 528km, so about a fifth. Less good. Roading damage is listed as 1,021km, but the info graphic has gone for square metres of pavement. My suspicion would be that they have used that unit to make it sound more impressive.

The real red herring is the number at the top – $100m on 181 projects. Again, context. A dollar figure is completely useless unless you give us some context. This article in the Press lists infrastructure costs as up to $4 billion – which would mean that only about 1/40th of the job (by monetary value) have been completed in two and half years. Less impressive when you put it that way.

This last one is really ugly and kind of pointless, though I’m not going to argue with it as an info-graphic really. The cordon went up immediately after the quakes because there was an emergency. Then, a few months on, it was up to keep us safe, while they demolished buildings. As the buildings came down, so did the cordon. Many of the buildings that came down were unsafe, many were heritage buildings that could have been saved by a more enlightened dictator. There was another group of buildings that fell into a strange grey area, where they could have probably been fixed if the money (read: the insurance companies) had been right. Whatever happened, they’re gone now. Another way of saying this would be that they’ve demolished 9/10th of a city. Only 1/10th to go!

Final word has to go to Guy Williams, for this fantastic tweet in response to the PM.

I don’t need to tell you that the two-year anniversary of the quake is coming up. As I wrote about previously, Gerry is well aware of it, and is fast trying to turn what many people from Christchurch would describe as an example of torpid mismanagement into a PR win. His latest attempt is an optimistically titled press release, “Wellbeing survey reveals positive outlook“. Gerry has hand picked some stats that suggest that every thing down here is going just swimmingly. For those of us that don’t just read headlines, you can actually dive in and read the full survey. It’s not exactly as Gerry says.

The key to this survey is in the methodology. It was undertaken between August 29 and October 15 last year. 2381 people responded to the survey. 1156 of them were from Christchurch City, 618 from Selwyn District and 607 from Waimakariri District. So that means that of the people who did respond, more than half (1225) aren’t actually from Christchurch. I mean no disrespect to the people of Rolleston, Lincoln, Rangiora, Kaiapoi etc. I am sure they have had a hard time. But they don’t have the same issues that people who actually live in the city do. They haven’t had to deal with a lack of services, portaloos, red zoning, TC3 land, roadworks to the same extent that people who live in the city do.

The response rate to this survey was barely half – 52%. I would hazard a guess that if you were in the battered East of Christchurch, struggling through two snow falls in an broken shell of a house, answering some questions from CERA were lower on your list of things to do than they might have been for someone living on a lifestyle block in West Melton.

The survey does actually acknowledge this discrepancy, as early as Page 3:

As an overall observation:

Residents of Christchurch City rate their quality of life less positively than residents of Selwyn District and Waimakariri District

Higher proportions of Christchurch City residents have experienced issues as a result of the earthquakes that have had a strong negative impact on their everyday lives.

Yet the survey then merges these three population groups, and continues to extrapolate from the combined population for another 100 pages. If you get to the end of the report, you’ll find the populations of Christchurch, Selwyn and Waimakariri. They are 289,000, 30,000 and 36,000 respectively. More than 80% of the adult population lives in Christchurch, and yet more than 50% of respondents come from less than 20% of the population, a section of the population that the survey shows have a more positive response in this survey. In the appendix to the report, it says that the survey has been “weighted” to factor in this bias. As it does not explain how, I remain dubious.* 

Lies, damn lies, and statistics.

The Herald pretty much ran the press release from CERA without digging down into the numbers. There is this sentence, for example:

When asked about their confidence in Cera’s decision-making, 68 per cent of respondents were very confident, confident or neutral.

Why is “neutral” included with “confident” and “very confident”? The percentage for neutral – 28% – certainly makes for a better headline for the Government. I would argue that if you wanted to, you could just as easily add the “neutral” numbers to the “not very confident” and “not at all confident” numbers, which would then give you 57% of people not confident in CERA. Or you could take out the neutral people all together, and you have 39% confident, and 29% not confident, which would be far more balanced.

This is a flawed survey, which almost half of participants failed to respond to. The government and their cheerleaders will try and spin it as best they can, but most people living in Christchurch want more than just PR. We want solutions to real figures such as 70% of quake claims not yet dealt with 2 years after quake.

* Here is the explanation of the weighting: 

Weighting increases the influence of some observations and reduces the influence of others. So, for example, while 618 or 26% of completed interviews came from Selwyn District, the population of Selwyn actually represents about 8% of greater Christchurch. Thus, the data was adjusted so that 8% of any ‘greater Christchurch’ result reported is based on the responses of Selwyn residents.

UPDATE: If I was to go and hand-pick some numbers from this survey (just look at Christchurch City, not “Greater Christchurch”) here are some I could highlight:

48% of people have experienced additional financial burdens due to the quakes

54% live day-to-day in an earthquake damaged home (22% of which describe this as a moderate or major negative impact)

39% of people have had moderate or major negative impacts on their day-to-day lives due to dealing with EQC / Insurance issues

43% of people have had moderate or major negative impacts on their day-to-day lives due to distress or anxiety caused by ongoing aftershocks

97% of people have experienced stress in the last 12 months that has had a negative effect on them

57% of people have experienced a decrease in their quality of life since the earthquakes

38% of people are not confident that decisions made have been in the best interests of Christchurch