Saturday, June 22

Comms versus Competence

Sunday morning of last week, my former place of employment was suddenly threatened by an ‘armed offender on the University City Campus’. The email from Security went on to elaborate that this was ‘a male Offender armed with a long weapon of some description’, and that Police were in attendance.

But there was no offender (let alone Offender), armed or otherwise. As a message a few hours later divulged, there was a person present, but he was legitimately there on a bird-culling operation. There was never any danger. The problem was one of communication: a breakdown there between whoever had authorised the culling, and the university authorities. 

It wasn’t this error, however, that was acknowledged in the messages to staff.  Rather, the priority was to wheel out the Vice-Chancellor to deliver compliments: ‘she was very pleased to see how quickly and effectively the University had responded to a potential threat. The safety of our staff and students, as well as of the wider community, is paramount’.

Not paramount, apparently, was pinpointing the communication failure, or indeed exercising any actual thought. It had occurred to yours truly that if an armed offender was on the loose, a uni campus on a Sunday morning after the exams were over would be a spectacularly stupid place to hang out with shooting in mind. Had such a man existed, he would be unlikely to have endangered anyone’s ‘safety’.

The rise of ‘Comms’ has been a salient feature of organisations in recent years. That is, hordes of people – or sometimes bots – whose actual if not ostensible roles are to make the place sound good, rather than actually do anything.  I can immediately cite two other examples, one again from Auckland Uni, and the other from Auckland Council.

I will admit that I am myself not perfect. I have a uni ID card, but mislaid it in my travels. I hence filled in the necessary form for getting a replacement, and promptly received a message saying that the request would be dealt with within five working days, and if it wasn’t, I could write back with my reference number.  Seven working days later, that’s what I did. And nothing happened. Eventually, I went in to the place where they issue cards: the man there figured I looked vaguely like the person whose photo was in the records, and noticed that I remembered my card number (he didn’t ask for the reference number). He issued me a card in about 30 seconds.

And then something else happened…. The system registered that my card had been issued, so sent me a ‘how did we do?’, survey, which included the comment that respondents might be contacted in person.  I naturally gave them the lowest possible score, while complimenting the man who’d finally issued the card.  I was not contacted in person.

An arena in which I am quite irritatingly perfect is in putting out my inorganic rubbish for collection by Auckland Council.  Hence a small but perfectly formed batch of approved items was out in the stipulated space by the stipulated time. On the designated day, the guys in the trucks shot straight past. I did locate them but couldn’t get anything coherent out of them (we National Super annuitants are pretty scary). So, first call to Council: another truck will be along later today. Nothing happened.  Second call: either my rubbish would be collected in the next couple of days, or someone would be in touch.  Guess what?

I took advice and sent in a form. The response here was that I’d be contacted by 8 December. I queried the delay. The next afternoon I was told that, ‘the 10 working days are to ensure that we can either grant you with a new collection day, or for our Waste Advisors to respond to the issue’.  In fact, two hours earlier, the collectors had turned up and taken the rubbish. It was just that once again, the Comms team were operating in a sort of bubble of set responses without attempting real communication.

In both organisations, however, I think the number and / or kind of staffing is an issue. Why was University Security not told about the bird-culling guy?  Why is the Comms part of card-issuing so disconnected from the physical activity? As a former academic, I am bemused by online hysteria about the supposed dominance of Cultural Marxism in tertiary education. If only. The more likely predicament is that some poor sap would be employed on an hourly rate to teach Liberalism, neo-Liberalism, Marxism, and the theories of Benjamin, Foucault and Habermas, in twelve weeks. The same cost-cutting and short-staffing are evidently affecting the uni administration area.

There may be more hope for Auckland Council. The impression I had was that Comms had been contracted out to a call centre, rather than handled by Council staff with specific knowledge. That would also be a cost-saving measure. The two people I reached on the phone were obviously reading from scripts; the written communications were then about process, rather than about things that might happen.

But I had my secret weapon to deploy if necessary – Desley Simpson, Deputy Mayor, and my local Councillor.  Admittedly she often has the role of trying to make Mayor Brown look good, like a Comms person.  But evidence suggests that she also, er, does stuff?