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Ombudsman highlights ‘several’ times City of Toronto gave ‘incorrect’ COVID-19 information

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When it comes to navigating COVID-19, it can be often be challenging to get the most current and accurate information, and in Toronto the local ombudsman says there have been “several” instances where City staff have struggled to keep up.

“I do commend the City staff for the hard work that they’ve done and continue to do in these difficult circumstances, but I encourage the City to do everything it can to keep working on looking at its communications, improving its communications and try everything it can think of to reach every person in the city,” Susan Opler told Global News Friday afternoon.

“[City services] affect all of us every single day and information about how the pandemic is affecting everybody’s lives and affecting how the City is serving people has to get through clearly to everyone.”

Opler, who is leaving her post after serving as Toronto’s ombudsman, said in her final annual report that for as long as the office has been in existence, issues with poor communication have been “front and centre.”

Read more: Coronavirus: Expert rates Ford government’s communications as ‘solid C- performance’

“Good communication goes both ways. It’s a matter of conveying information that is accurate, that is timely and that is in a form people can understand and use. And then it’s a matter of listening to people and seeking to understand their circumstances and needs so you can provide them equitable service,” she said, adding her office’s mandate is to also push for fairness.

“But fairness isn’t a question of effort of the people doing the service, it’s a question of impact on the people being served.

“What we found several times during the pandemic, the communication the City was putting out to the public wasn’t of the quality that the public should expect. But not through lack of effort by the City … because it’s been a very, very challenging time with changing circumstances and a lot of uncertainty and fear.”

In the 2020 annual report, Opler and her team cited times when “incorrect” information was given out dating back to May when a chatbot feature on the City of Toronto gave “outdated and wrong” messaging about the city’s sports fields and tennis courts being closed when the facilities were listed as open in a widely circulated news release.

Click to play video: Dissecting the Ford government’s coronavirus pandemic communications strategy

They also noted there were several links on the City’s website that “did not properly direct people to the intended web pages, which contained critical information.”

But one of the biggest things that stood out, Opler said, were reports received from community advocates and residents early in the pandemic who said those experiencing homeless were turned away from shelters and respite sites because the facilities were full even though the City listed beds being available. She noted the “critically important” matter of unreliable data was first raised in 2017.

“In any given year, shelter and respite capacity data is an important tool for people experiencing homelessness and those who advocate for them. In 2020, this information became even more important, because of people’s concerns about safe physical distancing in shelters and respite sites,” the report highlighted, noting staff eventually manny posted information on a daily basis to make it more current.

When asked about the matter on Friday, Brad Ross, the City of Toronto’s chief communications officer, thanked Opler for her report and said staff agreed about the need to ensure up-to-date, critical information is posted online.

Read more: Auditor general highlights Ontario’s ‘confusing,’ indirect communications on COVID-19 in new report

“In the early days of the pandemic, the City re-worked its website to ensure we were driving people to crucial information – information that was continually changing – not just by the day, but sometimes by the hour,” he said in a statement.

“We worked day and night to keep it accurate and refreshed. The chatbot was added as a pilot project as one more way to get information into people’s hands. We continually tested it to ensure information it was providing was accurate and when it wasn’t, we acted quickly to correct it.”

Tamara Cherry, a senior associate with KPW Communications and a former journalist, reviewed Opler’s report and said her findings align with broader issues about how all three levels of government in Canada have been dealing with issues of trust and buy-in from residents due to mixed messages or not properly engaging residents.

“It has never before been more important for clear, concise, accessible information and messages that line up with each other,” she told Global News, calling the chatbot observation “unacceptable.”

Read more: ‘Complex barriers’: Spreading COVID-19 messaging to Canada’s non-English speakers

“In this age of conspiracy theories, ‘anti-maskers,’ ‘anti-vaxers,’ misinformation spreading faster than the virus itself on social media, our government institutions cannot afford to give the public any reason not to trust them.

“COVID-19 set the bar way higher than it was before. These sorts of seemingly little things may have been forgivable before this pandemic, but doing something seemingly small during a pandemic is giving people another reason to say, ‘See, one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing, we can’t trust them so let’s go to this unverified source of information.'”

Cherry also said when it comes to communications, provincial COVID-19-related announcements being made with municipal representatives either commenting without confirmation or giving contradictory information has also been an issue.

In addition to simplifying and clarifying communications in an effort to combat “COVID-19 fatigue,” she said there needs to be a greater awareness of what residents in various communities are talking about on the ground — especially in other languages and in ways that are responsive to those communities.

“They need to keep all audiences in mind and really think about how they can … counteract misinformation,” Cherry said.