Consultant paid close to $30,000 for failed marketing strategy

The Government paid $28,613 for key advice which shaped its disastrous Three Waters advertising campaign last year.

Kim Wicksteed, a consultant and former CEO of advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi New Zealand, was paid $25,024 for a “marketing and communications” strategy, delivered in December 2020, for the Government’s water infrastructure reform programme, known as Three Waters.

In addition, Wicksteed was paid $3588 to participate in the “Three Waters Reform Programme Critical Friends Advisory Group” last year (both figures include GST and were paid to Wicksteed’s one-man consultancy Advice Ltd).

Wicksteed’s strategy shaped a contentious “public information and education campaign” which has so far cost the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) some $3 million – excluding the price of staff and consultants. The campaign ultimately failed in its main aim, which was to win, through public support, councils’ voluntary agreement to adopt the Government’s reform programme for storm, waste and drinking water.

The department released the figures under the Official Information Act.

Wicksteed recommended a communications strategy that focused first on “emotive marketing” over a more traditional “information first” public service-style campaign.

As per Wicksteed’s advice, the communications plan aimed squarely at evoking an emotional response over supplying information. At its centre was a paid advertising campaign to promote the need for Three Waters, produced by creative agency FCB New Zealand.

Local government representatives overwhelmingly denounced the advertising, some describing it as “fear mongering” and “propaganda”.

It also prompted warnings from the Public Service Commission that the ads were “concerning” in the light of government advertising guidelines that say such work should only be undertaken to fill an “identifiable and justifiable” information need.

The advertising, which ran on television, in print media and online, presented among its cartoon images a slime-covered child swimming, a sick duck and other dirty, unhappy creatures; it also warned of “nasties in the water”.

The Public Service Commission said it had no opportunity to review the first advertisement, over which it voiced concern. A second advertisement was reviewed by the commission and revised before airing, and a third was cancelled before being used.

The deputy chief executive of the DIA, Michael Lovett, said “critical friends” was an advisory group, not a decision-making body. “Its expertise and advice helped shape elements of the campaign and provided a sounding board for content and direction. Not all individual viewpoints were always able to be accommodated and the final responsibility for the TV advertisement content remained with the Department”.

Most in the group were drawn from staff within the Department of Internal Affairs itself and from the ranks of consultants in, or lately in, the department’s pay. It also included Avon Adams, then the senior press secretary for the Minister for Local Government, Nanaia Mahuta. Those drawn from the public sector or local government were not paid for their contribution.

Among the “critical friends” who were paid consultants (or recently paid consultants) to the department’s Three Waters unit were: Raphael Hilbron, partner at public relations consultancy SenateSHJ, whose speciality is reputation management; Jennie Smeaton, a full-time contractor to the DIA until April 2021, and at the time of the “critical friends” meetings the COO of Te Rūnanga o Toa Rangatira, the mandated iwi authority for Ngāti Toa Rangatira; Katy Te Amo, a consultant on Māori issues to DIA in 2020, and, as of January 2021, head of strategy and insights at the newly established drinking water regulator Taumata Arowai, a Crown entity; and Wicksteed.

It’s not clear how much Smeaton and Hilbron were paid for their work. A department spokesperson said: “[their] involvement in the Critical Friends Advisory Group was part of their wider advisory work for the Department of Internal Affairs.”

It appears that the group was belatedly augmented with voices outside of central government. Late additions, following the TV advertisement launch and strong criticism from local councils, were Susan Freeman-Greene and Bridgit Sissons from Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ), and Nigel Corry, chief executive at Greater Wellington Regional Council. Corry said he doesn’t consider that he was a member of the group but, on invitation, he attended its final meeting.

“After the ads were televised, we were added to the Critical Friends Advisory Group [in time only for its final meeting].” Local Government NZ chief executive Susan Freeman-Greene confirmed: “we repeatedly provided feedback to say the ads were provocative and had landed very poorly with the sector [which] found them insulting. Accordingly, we asked for the campaign to be called to a halt.”

Lovett said the group convened four times, in May, June and July 2021, and was composed of 18 members (names listed below), who attended at least one meeting.

Freeman-Greene noted that her group was provided with “high-level concepts” of the advertising campaign just before it went public, through participation in a different group: the Three Waters Steering Committee.

The only other representative of elected local government in the “critical friends” group was Central Hawke’s Bay Mayor Alex Walker.

“I was part of a couple of brief meetings with this group. I saw early concepts but never the complete TV advertisement or copy. Some of the critical feedback I gave was reflected in small changes, but it was always made very clear that the ownership of the strategy anddecision-making sat with DIA,” Walker said.

Other external voices in the group were Heather Shotter, then chief executive of Palmerston North City Council, who joined DIA last month to head the national transition unit responsible for pushing ahead with the planned Three Waters structural changes, and James Palmer, chief executive at Hawke’s Bay Regional Council.

Where to from here?

A special unit within the DIA is leading the Government’s plan to amalgamate council-owned water infrastructure for drinking water, stormwater and wastewater into four regional bodies, and to heavily dilute the broad public ownership of those assets through novel and shared control with iwi (control is typically considered an important test of ownership).

The Government argues that the consolidation is needed to allow greater borrowing against water assets to fund needed investment which will run upwards of $120 billion over the next 30 years. It also says the reforms would result in higher quality water services including more consistently clean drinking water.

Many councils and observers agree that change is needed, including more consistent investment in and maintenance of the country’s pipes. However there is widespread disagreement on whether the Government’s planned reforms will achieve their lofty aims.

While Wellington originally promised that local councils could opt out of the reforms, it changed its tune late last year when it became clear that the overwhelming majority of local councils opposed the Government’s plan.

Mahuta now says new legislation to be introduced this year will mandate the changes, though she is considering some revisions lately recommended by a working group of elected members of local government and iwi members.

If adopted, the modifications would restore some council control of the proposed regional water bodies. However, the plan retains the controversial proposal to dilute public control of water assets, through the novel model of equally shared governance between councils and unelected Māori groups.

The Government says the asset ownership removal is needed to keep ahead of investment in infrastructure which has fallen behind, and to consistently provide good water services across the country.

Members of the 2021 Three Waters Reform Programme Critical Friends Advisory Group (names supplied by DIA):

•Michael Lovett, deputy chief executive local government, DIA
•Allan Prangnell, executive director, Three Waters, DIA
•Nick Davis, policy lead, Three Waters, DIA
•Kim Chambers, director, office of the chief executive, DIA
•Louise Yarrall, acting general manager communications, DIA
•Simon Cunliffe, communications manager Three Waters and convenor of the Three Waters Reform Programme Critical Friends Advisory Group, DIA
•Raphael Hilbron, partner at SenateSHJ, (undisclosed remuneration through contract with DIA)
•Jennie Smeaton, independent Te Ao MĀori Consultant (undisclosed remuneration through contract with DIA)
•Kim Wicksteed, Advice Ltd (paid $3588 “in line with Cabinet Office Circular CO (19) 1” by DIA)
•Avon Adams, senior press secretary for the Minister of Local Government
•Alex Walker, Mayor of Central Hawke’s Bay
•Heather Shotter, chief executive Palmerston North City Council
•Katy Te Amo, head of strategy and insights, Taumata Arowai (2020 work contract with DIA)
•Caroline Robertson, communications manager, Taumata Arowai
•Susan Freeman-Greene, chief executive, Local Government New Zealand
•Bridgit Sissons, deputy chief executive communications and engagement, Local Government New Zealand
•Nigel Corry, chief executive, Greater Wellington Regional Council
•James Palmer, chief executive, Hawke’s Bay Regional Council

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