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Alberta government PR staff shocked by huge shakeup set for Monday at Public Affairs Bureau

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Martin Kennedy

The Alberta government's long-controversial Public Affairs Bureau is hours away from a significant restructuring by the Prentice Government.

The massive structural change, which will reduce the PAB to a shadow of its former self and scatter most communications staffers throughout government departments, takes effect on Monday.

All but about 40 of the 200-plus employees of the monolithic centralized communications group -- long controversial in Alberta because of its size, power, $23-million budget and the perception it has become thoroughly politicized -- will now report to deputy ministers in the departments to which they are assigned.

The core PAB staffers at "the centre," as Deputy Chief Martin Kennedy confirmed to me while shovelling his front walk rather late last night, will co-ordinate interdepartmental communications efforts and help hire new communications staffers for the departments.

Kennedy described the change as an adoption of the decentralized departmental communications model used by Ottawa and the Ontario provincial government, in which communications directors and their staffs report to the department's deputy minister.

PAB employees were only informed of the changes in an emailed memorandum from Kennedy on Wednesday, with a follow-up email yesterday that outlined some of the senior personnel changes. Alberta Diary has obtained a copy of the first memorandum.

The major restructuring of government communications to a more traditional reporting model may reflect Premier Jim Prentice's approach to administration, but the impetus for change appears to have been driven by the premier's new Deputy Minister of Executive Council, Richard Dicerni, one of the three "agents of change" hired by the premier to shake up the Alberta civil service.

The "Three Amigos" seem not to have waited very long to start making dramatic changes -- the big ones at the PAB came just days after the government's Bill 10 fiasco, as the Legislature was getting ready to shut down and right before the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, when the media can be counted on to be inattentive.

The changes seem to have gobsmacked PAB employees and sparked speculation in the ranks that the restructuring was inspired by the PR disaster that accompanied the government's decision to replace Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman's private member's bill on gay-straight alliances with the government’s Bill 10, which doesn't require schools to permit students form the clubs.

However, Kennedy, who became the PAB’s top executive (notwithstanding his title of "Deputy Chief") only last April, said the shakeup was being planned well before the flames fanned by Bill 10 engulfed the Legislature.

Wednesday's memorandum informed employees that "the new structure aligns resources and reporting relationships to support departmental accountability, while continuing to support the delivery of high-quality, co-ordinated, and cost-effective communications services that help the government communicate effectively with Albertans."

The main organizational changes , the memorandum said, will include:

"Communications branches will be aligned to ministries and report to deputy ministers. Communications directors, assistant directors and communications branch staff will become department employees rather than PAB employees." (Emphasis added.)

"The role of Communication Director will focus on accountability to the deputy minister and providing communications leadership to the ministry. It will also reflect a clear expectation for continued participation in cross-government communications co-ordination activities, including established processes such as weekly directors' meetings and government-wide communication calendars, and implementation of government-wide communications policies.

"The PAB will continue to co-ordinate communications across government. We will continue to support department communications branches with cross-government communications planning, government-wide communications policies and strategies on key initiatives, and central services including media planning, news services, digital communications, advertising, corporate products, research, writing, planning and recruitment support.

"Accountabilities within the PAB executive team will be re-organized to reflect changes in PAB structure and focus. To support implementation of the cross-government internal communications strategy, one executive role will transfer to Corporate Human Resources. ..."

Kennedy said in the memo and confirmed to me that the new structure will be put into operation immediately on Monday, Dec. 15. "Documentation of the changes is expected to be completed by mid-January," the memo to staff said.

"The Public Affairs Bureau and department communications branches will continue to work together, as a team, to support the communication needs of government," the email said. "I recognize that these are significant changes for an organization with a long history and record of exemplary service in government. Organizational change can be challenging for everyone involved.

"We will work to implement the new reporting structure of government communications as quickly and sensitively as possible. I invite you to speak to your director or an executive team member, or to contact me personally if you have questions or would like to discuss the changes.

"Although our reporting relationships and structure are changing, as government communications staff we will continue to work closely with each other. Thank you for your service to Albertans. I look forward to continuing our work together."

The PAB has long been mocked in this space as the world largest advertising agency, and not a very good one at that. Whatever it has become, it doesn't seem like that's what it is any more. So while not much may happen in reality about the government's tight control of its messaging, the restructuring will remove an irritant that has become a burr under the saddle of successive PC governments.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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