With Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy's approval rating steadily below 50 percent in polls, he and his lieutenants have embarked on an unusual media-management effort — directing dozens of officials to produce "communications plans" to put out a steady stream of positive news.
The administration says this is an effort to help the public understand why further improvements in government operations are needed and not merely a political plan to polish up Malloy's image for the 2014 election campaign.
But not everyone is buying that.
Documents obtained by The Courant under the Freedom of Information Act show that in recent months, a lot of time and effort by state employees has been put into an initiative to convince taxpayers that they are being well served.
It was not scheduled to be rolled out publicly for another month or so, but the documents show that the public relations strategy began in mid-June and has involved meetings, memos, and calendars. State agencies' public information officers were directed to fill in the calendars with public events and announcements for the rest of 2012.
"You can help us by pulling together a plan that drives home how your agency is working to help residents," Andrew Doba, Malloy's director of communications, wrote in a recent memo emailed to the agencies' public information officers. "Also, there is a separate calendar template that will take you through the end of the year. Please plug in any events that you are aware of that present an opportunity to talk about the good work being done by your agency."
The information officers responded with timetables for press releases or events designed to get the governor or a top agency official in front of cameras. "Event possibly with the Governor," said the Department of Motor Vehicles' draft of a calendar entry for Sept. 19. "Announcement of teen safe driving video contest with teens who helped create this year's theme and outreach to other teens."
In a June 19 letter to his budget chief, Ben Barnes, Malloy called it "a more centralized, structured process for benchmarking the change we've all been working so hard to implement in the executive branch." He wrote that it's "not so we can pat ourselves on the back; rather, so we can use those successes as a rationale for pushing change."
Doba, in a recent email to the information officers, put it this way: "The idea behind this project is to find the best ways to connect Connecticut residents to the government they pay for. Sounds hokey, but it's something the Governor believes in. One of the ways the Governor tries to achieve this is by being out there every day, talking with residents" The "communications plans" should emphasize what agencies are doing for citizens, he said.
But a skeptical John McKinney, the state Senate Republican leader, said you can say it's about "benchmarking" to achieve change -- but it's at least partly electoral politics aimed at avoiding one specific change: a change in governors after the 2014 election.
"You can make the argument that this is designed to help us to make more positive change in government,... and it's true that governors with 43 percent [approval] ratings have a harder time passing their proposals in the legislature," McKinney said. "But I think they would be less than truthful if they said it wasn't also designed to put him in a better light than he currently is,'' McKinney said. "It is undeniable that this is also about politics.''
Malloy's senior adviser, Roy Occhiogrosso, responded that "Sen. McKinney has already indicated he is interested in running for governor in 2014, so take his comments for what they're worth."
He added: "If [politics] was the motivating factor in Gov. Malloy's mind, he wouldn't have proposed a tough budget, and he wouldn't have proposed and passed one of the most sweeping education packages in the nation. … He wouldn't have proposed many of the things he did." But he did so, Occhiogrosso said, "because he … they were the right thing to do for Connecticut, irrespective of the political consequences."
Doba, the communications director, has been the one gathering the communication plans from the various agencies, as well as meeting individually with the agencies public information officers on the subject, but he's not the one in charge. He reports to Occhiogrosso, the governor's chief media strategist, who played a key role in Malloy's successful 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
Occhiogrosso said the central coordination plan for agencies' press releases and media events is closely connected to Malloy's idea for "benchmarking" the progress of changes that the administration has been able to push through the legislature in its first two years.
"This began as an effort at the direction of the governor, who proposed a lot of change in state government and made clear to his [appointed] commissioners from day one that he wanted to change the way the state does business" and to make it "efficient, leaner and more consumer friendly," Occhiogrosso said in an interview last week.
"In his first budget … a lot of his proposed changes were met with resistance," Occhiogrosso said, and now Malloy wants each agency to take an inventory of how those changes have improved their service to the public. "He believes if he's going to make the case for more change he's got to show that the changes he's made are already working. That's what we're in the process of doing, is collecting that information."
The communication plans are intended to tell the public about the changes that Barnes and the commissioners are putting into their "benchmarking" reports, he said. Having each agency submit a calendar will enable the governor's office to coordinate announcements and events – so that two or more agencies don't schedule them simultaneously and cancel each other out in one day's news coverage, he said.
Malloy said in his June 19 letter to Barnes that he wanted the first "benchmarking" reports by July 16. Occhiogrosso said officials are still sorting through them.