Protecting public services by talking about the elephant in the room

ElephantTalk.ca public service awareness campaign logoListen to the public conversation that goes on around government budgets, and you’d swear the only important questions are whether they’re balanced, whether they cut taxes and whether they reduce spending.

The impact those budget decisions have on public services? That usually gets lip service — at best.

That’s partly because many media decision-makers are happy to limit budget conversation to conservative turf. But it’s also because it makes for a simple, easy-to-tell story: lines on graphs go up or down, figures are positive or negative, bond rating agencies are happy or grumpy, and dash 30 dash the article’s done.

Stories about the impact those numbers will have on transit services, ambulance response times or your local library’s supply of new books demand a lot more digging, research and analysis. So too often, they just don’t get told – and the growing pressure on services becomes an elephant in the room.

The Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union is working to change that, starting with a new campaign we’ve helped them to launch.

Its most visible face is a TV ad that makes the elephant in the room impossible to ignore, and encourages Manitobans to start talking about it.

The ad pairs an upbeat, playful tone with a serious message: the services that families rely on are getting squeezed, and we need to talk about how we can sustain them for the long term.

That tone carries over to the ElephantTalk.ca website, where people can:

  • find more detailed information about public services
  • speak out for the services that matter to them
  • and share their own experiences.

ElephantTalk.ca websiteWhile the advertising and the website are highly visible, there’s another element that may not be as prominent, but which plays just as important a role. And that’s opinion research.

Before you start a conversation about an elephant in the room, you want to make sure it’s really there: that people feel there’s an important issue that’s being overlooked. The MGEU hired our partners at Viewpoints Research to conduct a survey that identified widespread public concern over the state of public services – and solid support for more funding and resources, even if that means raising taxes or taking longer to balance the budget.

Changing the focus of political conversation takes time, effort and commitment. But it also takes listening, and that’s what the MGEU did through research. And in this case, the survey results play a double role, allowing the union to point to clear evidence that Manitobans want a strong commitment to public services (PDF: 750 KB).

These are still early days, but the first sign of progress has already appeared in an unlikely source: the Winnipeg Sun, where the campaign got a huge front-page story — and a furious response from one of the paper’s most conservative columnists. And when the conversation’s happening on your turf, it’s a sign you’re winning.

That’s just one exchange, of course. But we hope it will be one of many — in a conversation that can change government priorities, and help protect public services for everyone.

Want to join the conversation? Visit elephanttalk.ca, and follow the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

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