Tuesday, 14 May 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions
Strategic Communications Unit
Given competing demands, it has been decided not to undertake the research survey at this time. If the position should change, I will, as previously committed to, brief Opposition parties in advance of the running of the survey.
It is interesting that the survey promised after the winding-up of the strategic communications unit was not proceeded with. It was intended to happen and we were to be briefed on it. As the European and local elections approach, we are faced with launch after launch by the Government, the Taoiseach and his Ministers. The Government spent more than €4.3 million on advertising last year, of which €1.3 million was spent by the Department of the Taoiseach. That is interesting given that the Department does not have much direct involvement in strategic oversight and is not a line Department per se.
The strategic communications unit was established under the Department and, after public furore, was disbanded after its communication campaign for Project Ireland 2040. I will not get into the exact issues that arose. Two weeks ago, there was another launch of Project Ireland 2040, namely, the launch of its so-called first annual report, which was attended by the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe. It was another chance for Government to set out everything it is going to do. Does the Taoiseach understand that what people want is not repeated launches or glossy documentation, which we all received last week in respect of the national broadband plan?
Some Ministers had distributed the documentation to the media before some Deputies received it. It was voluminous and printed in full colour, although no contract has been signed and there is no likelihood of any contract for months. People have gone beyond the point of constant announcements of strategic issues. They want action. Does the Taoiseach agree the debacle over the strategic communications unit should have been the wake-up call to stop the spin and have proper announcements of delivery? The people should be spoken to on the basis that they will receive not simply spin but rather an explanation of what is being delivered to them.
In late 2017, the Taoiseach stated his marketing unit was tendering for research of public attitudes to State communication. He assured the House that all parties would be consulted before it went ahead and apologised for his office seeking to poll only general election voters, thereby excluding younger people and those without Irish or UK citizenship. There was no consultation, however. In early 2018, the Taoiseach informed the House that the tender had been awarded to a company and that he would ensure that other parties were consulted on the survey contents. Again, there was no consultation. When he eventually agreed to close the marketing unit, he told the House that because the contract had been awarded, the survey would proceed in any event and there would be consultations on revised survey content. Once again, there was no consultation. The reason the question keeps arising is there is no clarity on what happened to the contract, whether the money was retained by the Department of the Taoiseach or whether it has been entirely abandoned.
Who paid for the glossy broadband brochures issued last week? How much did they cost? I was amazed those brochures were put together in the absence of any contract being signed. Today, the Taoiseach said it would be September or October before a contract on broadband would be signed yet glossy brochures have been sent to every Deputy and probably to every public representative by the Government telling us how much will be done this year and next year, notwithstanding the fact nothing was done for seven years with regard to this contract. How do brochures get financed and published by the Government in advance of contracts being signed? It reduces the Government's leverage when negotiating contracts. The €5 million spend on this is extraordinary. We are being treated to launch after launch and, unfortunately, very little delivery on a lot of issues.
Very simply, the contract for the research survey was awarded to Behaviour & Attitudes but we decided not to continue and not to do it because, quite frankly, there are many other priorities in the Department and it had become politicised. Initially, this was seen as a genuine effort to track public perceptions on public services, the information received from the Government and the performance of the Government and the public sector. It was a genuine project but it got caught up in the party political back and forth we have had in the Chamber. Everyone thought there was no point in going ahead in that context. Perhaps a future Government, perhaps even involving people here, might see the value of it and decide to go with it. It would have been misrepresented and for those reasons it was judged best not to do it. It was not done and will not be done.
Deputy Howlin asked about the €1.3 million. I imagine it was all from the first half of 2018 when the strategic communications unit was operating. At that time, communication campaigns were being centrally managed. They are not any more. The communications on Project Ireland 2040 are now done through the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in the way they were done in the past. The national development plan was done through the old Department of Finance.
What was launched was not promises for the future, it was a one year report on what had already been achieved in the years since Project Ireland 2040 was launched. It included road projects, such as the fact the N4 and the western distributor road projects in Sligo that are now being built.