Talk Vancouver: ‘power to the people’ or a political ploy?

Exclusive: No-bid contract with market research giant sparks privacy, democracy concerns

In an era of low voter turnout and a widening rift between the government and the governed, City of Vancouver hired one of Canada’s biggest market research firms to help it “engage” citizens.


But the founder of a community consultation website used here and abroad says that is not the real reason Vision Critical was given a contract to create Talk Vancouver. PlaceSpeak CEO Colleen Hardwick said it is a taxpayer-funded program to collect information about voters for the benefit of Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver, who hope to win a third term in November 2014.

“It’s a Vision-plus-Vision move a year out from an election that has the potential for a lot of data mining for the city, for Vision (Vancouver),” Hardwick said.

On Sept. 11, City of Vancouver unveiled the online survey system to gauge opinions on civic issues from anyone aged 15 and up who lives, works or attends school in Vancouver. Robertson promotes Talk Vancouver in this 38-second YouTube video. A disclaimer on Talk Vancouver states the city “does not share data collected through Talk Vancouver with any other organization and individual responses are treated as anonymous.” But an email address is required for users to receive “invitations to participate in studies and discussion forums in the community.”

A spokesperson for British Columbia’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said there is no plan for the time being to investigate the collection of personal information via citizen engagement programs like Talk Vancouver.

However, Cara McGregor said: “A public body cannot contract out of its responsibilities under (the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act); if a public body contracts with an outside agency, the rules for the collection, use and disclosure still apply.”

Hardwick said she developed PlaceSpeak as a tech-savvy antidote to the growing disconnect between neighbourhoods, developers and city hall.

Hardwick: no fair
Hardwick: no fair

She said PlaceSpeak has clients from Orange County, Fla. to Belfast, Northern Ireland and throughout B.C., including TransLink and Vancouver School Board.

“What we were trying to do was revolutionize the way public consultation is done online by authenticating people to place,” she said. “The most important thing for us is that we knew the concerns people have for online privacy. When people register for PlaceSpeak, that private information is not passed along to the proponent of the consultation, only that the individual had been vetted within specific boundaries.”

No public tendering

Why and how did a market research company get the Vancouver city hall contract?

Let’s start with why the two would tango.

Toronto Star reporter Susan Delacourt’s must-read new book, Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them, is about the evolution of political campaigning and government communications in Canada. Specifically, how consumerism has displaced citizenship.

Traditional product marketing techniques were adapted by strategists working for ambitious political parties and are now commonly employed by governing parties between elections in order to prolong their time in government. Policy announcements are akin to product launches and the lines between party and government have blurred. Like the business of selling soap, political entities are endeavouring to learn about their audiences and tailor their messages accordingly. The science of market research is as integral to winning votes as it is to increasing sales.

Modern campaigning and governing are no longer about what society broadly needs to achieve progress and prosperity, but instead they are now about strategically satisfying the wants of individual groups of voters to gain short-term support. You may have noticed in recent years the deliberate shift by politicians toward emphasizing “family” instead of “community” in their campaign slogans, TV advertising, news conferences and fundraisers.

Delacourt wrote: “The ad gurus were starting to be consulted on what policies would be more attractive to the citizens and what measures would be more consumer-friendly. Need a program to fight inflation or hammer out a new constitutional deal? Don’t call the political scientists. Call the ad guys.”

Now for the how.

On May 22, Robertson’s 22-member Engaged City Task Force released its “Quick Start” recommendations. On the blog, Robertson mentioned the key recommendation for “launching an online engagement panel, where residents can provide feedback on civic issues to city hall.” City council received the report on May 28.

I can exclusively report that the wheels were already in motion for at least two weeks before the report was published and three weeks before it came to council.

Robertson’s calendar, obtained by me via Freedom of Information, shows a “tour and meeting w/ Vision Critical, Re: Digital/Engagement Strategy” on May 7 at 4 p.m. See the entry in Robertson’s calendar at the bottom of this post.

The concept for Talk Vancouver was not put to public tender, despite civic policy requiring an open competition for contracts worth $75,000 and up. Vision Critical’s two-year, $151,000 contract includes an option for a third year.

Both Vision Critical and PlaceSpeak were among the 22 diverse communications companies and individuals pre-qualified in 2012 by city staff to provide general communication services on an as-and-when-needed basis, including public consultation, public engagement, facilitation, research surveys and focus groups. (The list of 22 approved companies is below.)

“In this case the contract for an online engagement tool was awarded based on the proprietary technology platform unique to Vision Critical and not offered by other pre-qualified vendors,” a representative of city hall’s media relations office said in a statement provided on the condition of anonymity.

Reimer: no response
Reimer: no reply

Talk Vancouver was unveiled eight days after Vision Critical’s Sept. 3-announced appointment of ex-Vancouver city hall director of communications Ryan Merkley as managing director and senior vice-president of public affairs. Robertson’s calendar shows he met Merkley in his office on May 6, the day before the tour and meeting with Vision Critical about the digital/engagement strategy. Merkley was chief strategy officer for the Mozilla Foundation until July. The reasons for and outcomes of the meeting between the Mayor and Merkley were not disclosed.

Vision Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer, council liaison to the Engaged City task force, did not respond to interview requests about Talk Vancouver. Vision Critical executive chairman Angus Reid declined an interview request about the contract with the city.

Reid: no comment
Reid: no comment

“We run a $100 million business worldwide based here in Vancouver — where we employ about 350,” said Reid, who was appointed Robertson’s special advisor on technology and citizen engagement. “Happy to discuss the Vision Critical story but we don’t talk about individual deals.”

“Brand love”

Reid made his name as Canada’s top pollster through gauging popularity of politicians and their parties, but understands that market research and data analysis is invaluable to those in advertising and marketing for media and entertainment, retail and consumer packaged goods, gas and electric, finance, education, healthcare and technology. The Vision Critical website says the company supports those industries.

Vision Critical’s recent story includes a $20 million investment by the OMERS Ventures pension fund in August 2012 and the January 2013-announced Brand Equity Relationship Assessment. The latter is a platform which gauges, in real-time, consumer views on 4,000 brands across 200 categories. In a corporate video, executive vice-president of marketing and decision analytics Ryan Barker waxes poetically about “creating love between brand and consumer.”

Imagine how powerful and valuable such a tool could be for politicians, who crave love for their brands in the daily news cycle and on voting day.

Vision Vancouver + Vision Critical = third term?
Vision Vancouver + Vision Critical = third term?

One of Vision Critical’s other civic clients is City of Surrey, which announced the City Speaks platform in April. Like Vancouver, Surrey didn’t publish a request for proposals. Instead, staff sought expressions of interest from Vision Critical, PlaceSpeak, San Francisco-based Granicus and London, England-based Toluna.

A request to interview Mayor Dianne Watts was not fulfilled. Surrey marketing and communications manager Darryl McCarron said no request for proposals was published because “it’s a pilot project that enables us to get more information on a partnership basis from a vendor and ensure we’re getting the best value with our tax dollar.” He said the Vision Critical contract is worth $160,000 over two years.

“We researched who out there is doing that kind of work and met with some vendors and looked at their fee structure and reviewed some of the specific criteria we were looking for,” McCarron said.

The Vision Critical “powered” City Speaks collects “aggregate data” on feedback about programs and services, he sad. “If council is receiving this information, if it does help them serve the public better, then that is part of the perspective,” he said. “Any city that implements a citizen engagement technology is basically advancing, being progressive, the opportunity to be more open and accessible to the public.”

Hardwick, the daughter of TEAM co-founder and University of B.C. geography professor Walter Hardwick, lost a 2005 bid to become an NPA councillor but was appointed to Robertson’s 2012 Task Force on Housing Affordability. PlaceSpeak’s chair is ex-Mayor and ex-NDP Premier Mike Harcourt, who endorsed Robertson’s 2011 re-election campaign, which included a promise to support local digital media.

“I’m disappointed the city did not support its innovative technology startup which would have been in keeping with the philosophy it espouses,” said Hardwick.

Talk Vancouver is the latest innovation for the ever-expanding Vancouver city hall communications department. It has ballooned from nine to 20 employees over the last four years and annual spending has tripled over the last seven years, from $631,000 in 2006 to $1.94 million last year.

When he was sworn-in on Dec. 8, 2008, Robertson promised to “ensure transparency, accountability and public debate at city hall.”

“I will not let you down on making city hall more open and accountable,” he said.

Almost five years later, many say that Robertson has not delivered on that promise.

On Oct. 24, Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods announced its formation. The citywide union of 18 residents’ organizations, from Northwest Point Grey to the Downtown Eastside, said the Vision Vancouver-dominated city hall is ignoring the will of the community in favour of developers. CNV’s news release said “the disenfranchisement of neighbourhoods must end. The Coalition will not accept with equanimity any more faux ‘engagement’ circuses in which ‘consultation’ produces nothing but disappointment and damaged communities.”

NPA Coun. George Affleck said he regularly receives complaints from citizens and journalists about the November 2011-instituted ban on interviews with senior staff, the declining amount of information released to the public and media via routine and formal channels. Affleck received unanimous support at the Sept. 24 city council meeting for his motion to order an explanation from staff for city hall’s restrictive media policies and the increase in communications spending.

“If we properly engage and do proper PR and communications, you wouldn’t have citizens across the city feeling like they aren’t properly engaged,” said Affleck, a former CBC journalist who owns the Curve Communications public relations and marketing agency.

PlaceSpeak-Pub-SummitFact box: Communications suppliers pre-qualified by City of Vancouver in 2012

Earnscliffe Strategy Group; Gravit-e Technologies; James Hoggan and Associates; Nancy Spooner Consulting; Newad Media Inc.; Selena McLachlan; Uncover Editorial and Design; Slingshot Communications Inc.; Traction Creative Communications Inc.; Sustainable Cities Foundation; EcoPlan International; HB Lanarc Consultants Inc.; Mustel Research Group; National Graphic Solutions Inc.; New City Ventures Inc. dba PlaceSpeak; Rhonda Ganz dba Popular Girl Productions; Sentis Market Research; Signals Design Group; Susanna Haas-Lyons; The Idea Partner; Vision Critical Communications Inc.; Purple Forge Inc.

Robertson, Merkley and Vision Critical

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