Transparency in Action: Destination Cape Breton Association

Transparency is so rare in Nova Scotia that most people recognize it only by its absence.

DCBA board "packages" -- for somebody's eyes only.

DCBA board “packages” — for somebody’s eyes only.

Our region is home to a number of organizations that rely largely (if not entirely) on public money and yet are not in the least accountable to the public. To me, they’re like big closed doors that I occasionally must kick at and today, the door I’m kicking at belongs to Destination Cape Breton Association (DCBA).

The tourism industry organization is funded entirely by public monies — a 2% levy on tourist accommodations in Cape Breton, plus municipal, provincial and federal grants — and yet is immune from public scrutiny because it is not considered to be a “public body” under Nova Scotia’s Freedom of Information Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPOP) nor is it subject to federal Access to Information and Privacy requests.

 

Destination Dollars

Before we go any further, I need to show you why DCBA’s lack of transparency matters, and the best way to do that is to show you how much public money the association has received since 2012 (I decided to go back five years, although arguably I should have gone back to 2011 which was the first year of the accommodations levy, which puts a 2% tax on accommodations with more than 10 rooms).

Were DCBA a transparent organization, this information would all be readily available on its web site, could be presented in its totality and would contain no blanks. Unfortunately, DCBA is not a transparent organization, pulling this information together required a scavenger hunt through a string of government departments and the totals are not total — there are some numbers I couldn’t get.

For example, according to Heather Desserud, spokesperson for the Nova Scotia Department of Business (which is responsible for tourism), the provincial funding stats included in the table below do not include “funding for other Cape Breton initiatives for which DCBA would have project managed/partnered.”

She also notes:

In 2016-17, Tourism Nova Scotia transitioned from an annual partnership funding agreement model with regional tourism organizations to a co-investment program model. As a result, they no longer provide CORE/operational funding to Destination Cape Breton Association or any regional tourism organization in the province.

Tourism Nova Scotia now co-invests with organizations like Destination Cape Breton through its partnership marketing programs and local/regional visitor information centre funding program. Tourism Nova Scotia also invests in strategic opportunities with organizations if they align with Tourism Nova Scotia’s marketing objectives and have the opportunity to generate a positive return on investment.

The federal figure, supplied by ACOA, was not broken down by year or program or project, it simply represents all ECBC/ACOA funding provided to DCBA since 1 April 2012.

I emailed DCBA CEO Mary Tulle to ask for the most recent accommodations levy totals and she told me to ask the municipalities responsible for collecting it. (Which I will do, although I probably won’t get the information for this week.)

Here’s the best estimate I could assemble for total public monies received by DCBA since 2012/2013 (set the table to show 25 entries so you can view it in all its glory):

Funding Type2012/20132013/20142014/20152015/2016YTD 2016/2017Total
Provincial
DCBA Core Funding/Operational66,00066,00066,00066,000264,000
TNS Local/Regional Visitor Information Centre Program Funding50,40050,40050,40050,40057,960259,560
Festival and Event Program Funding26,00020,00020,00020,00086,000
Cooperative Marking Activities70,00070,00070,00070,000280,000
Trump Bump Marketing Partnership40,00040,000
Cape Breton Industry Day Sponsorship2,5002,500
SEM Partnership Program*50,00050,000
ACOA/ECBC6,817,300
CBRM80,00080,00080,00080,00080,000400,000
Accommodations Levy560,000650,000650,000374,878**2,234,878
Total10,434,238

*Search Engine Marketing Programs.

**CBRM share only

That’s $10 million (and counting) since 2012/13, all public monies and therefore, by definition, monies that could have been spent on other things or given to other agencies.

 

Can We Talk?

As with all associations, the success of its accomplishments is directly related to it’s [sic] industry partners and their input into the association.–DCBA ‘About’ Section

In June 2014, DCBA received an Industry Relations Assessment Report it had commissioned from Tourism Synergy Ltd.

The author, Laurel Reid, sent email surveys to the 602 operators on DCBA’s list in 2014 and received 89 completed surveys back, a 14.8% participation rate. She also did interviews with 15 selected tour operators representing 2.5% of the list. Even assuming the two groups did not overlap, my numbers people tell me the sample size was statistically invalid. Realizing this, Reid made sure the operators interviewed represented a good cross-section of the industry — both geographically and in terms of the type of business they operated. Here’s the list of participants (and yes, I’m quite sure “Sidney” is actually “Sydney.”)

List of interviewees, 2014 DCBA Industry Relations Assessment

This lack of response on the part of operators is not limited to relations assessment surveys. As Reid notes in her report, despite making “several marketing inroads during the past several years” there “is limited operator engagement in [DCBA’s] activities.”

The reason most often cited by respondents for not becoming more involved in the industry association was “lack of time” (77% said it was “a major or somewhat of a barrier”) which, arguably, is not something DCBA could change. But the second reason was cost — cited by 62.9% of respondents — and the third was lack of awareness of opportunities — cited by 62.3%, and both of these land squarely at the feet of DCBA.

Reid asked the operators she interviewed to name areas in which DCBA could better serve them and, as you can see from the table below, “Communications — Input” was the most frequent response.  (I don’t know why there is no Number 7 in this list, or why the numbers run 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,5,6.  Perhaps “counting” is an area in which Tourism Synergy Ltd. needs improvement.)

 

How can the “official Tourism Industry Association” for Cape Breton operate with “limited engagement” from the region’s tour operators? Especially when it states, on its own website, that its “success” as an association is entirely dependent on such input?

The gist of the interviews seemed to be that operators want actual meetings, in person, with DCBA representatives. That’s certainly what Reid concluded, advising DCBA to:

Establish a program of face -to-face meetings with groups of operators to establish contact and familiarize operators with DCBA offerings and opportunities. These meetings should rotates [sic] around the Island yearly (during shoulder and off peak times ) and complement the “Town Hall Road Show” noted in #2 below. (i.e. If Town Hall Road Show is held in the fall – operator meetings are in the spring (to reiterate offerings)

DCBA Road Show: Consider a “Town Hall Road Show” once yearly at locations in each of the five Counties to present DCBA successes and upcoming opportunities. The timing of this (e.g. Fall) should complement the operator meetings noted above (1.ii).

Although I could find nothing on the DCBA web site about them, Tulle told me, “A series of ten such meetings begins soon.”

 

The ‘G’ Word

You may have noticed Number 4 on that “needs improvement” list — ‘Governance and Board.’

The DCBA is an “industry association” but it is not a member-based association so who, exactly, votes in board members? The current board, for the record, looks like this:

 

 

 

 

Apparently, tour operators are also curious as to how the board is constituted because Reid’s report contains this recommendation:

Board and Governance: Strive for transparency, providing access to the Board on the website as well as bylaws etc. and show how the Board is selected.

I scoured the DCBA website looking for names and contact information for board members, a list of the group’s by-laws and any information about how the board is selected but, 20 months after Reid made her recommendations, I found nothing. If DCBA has been striving for transparency, it’s been doing so in secret.

I asked Tulle how the DCBA board was selected and she said:

The nominating committee, a standing committee of the board, gathers names of persons to fill board vacancies.  A vote is held at the annual meeting.

I don’t know how the nominating committee gathers names (can tour operators suggest people?). And I don’t know who can vote at the annual meeting. And I don’t know how the original board was chosen. And I’m starting to see Reid’s point — it would be helpful to have this all spelled out somewhere.

Tulle did tell me that directors’ terms are three years and a director may serve three consecutive terms. DCBA posts its board and committee minutes on the website, but they are password-protected. I asked Tulle who was entitled to read them and she said:

Board and committee members are entitled to read the minutes.

And if you think they can’t pull the drawbridge up any tighter, you underestimate DCBA. I asked Tulle if there was any plan to follow through on Reid’s recommendations regarding the board and governance and transparency and she said:

No, but if the board wishes to make it a priority, it will be done.

Other governance-related concerns raised by Reid’s interviewees included:

Because DCBA is not membership driven, there is no accountability for industry — a barrier that can be overcome.

I am interested, as a contributor to the marketing levy. DCBA needs to be transparent. This is a barrier. Need quarterly updates. Marketing campaign is great. And Golden Globes gives exposure but it is a unique niche market. What is the return?

Awards need to be more transparent — how do people get nominated?

Need to tell people what strategic plan is all about – need more input from stakeholders.

I’m becoming increasingly familiar due to committee involvement; familiarity is improving. The level of familiarity at the operator level is much too low. There seems to be an issue with disseminating information, and access to the most complete information only results from sitting on committees.

I’m somewhat familiar with what they’re doing; read their newsletter and review of successes. But I’m not sure what I don’t know – or what I’m unaware of. And I think a lot of operators feel the same way.

Lack of accountability, lack of transparency, problems disseminating information, lack of input from stakeholders — these are serious governance issues for any organization, let alone one entrusted with the expenditure of millions of public dollars.

And Grant Haverstock of FireHouse Ironworks in Whycocomagh takes it a step further, claiming that DCBA not only didn’t help his business, it actively blacklisted his operation from a travel writers’ tour last spring because he’d been critical of the organization. (Interestingly, he’d criticized DCBA for not being sufficiently vocal in its support of the island’s Visitor Information Centers, VICs, which were in danger of closing in 2016. Reid’s report states: “By far, respondents place the greatest value on the visitor servicing function at VICs. 67% of respondents place very high/good value on this function.”)

Tulle denied Haverstock’s accusation at the time, but Haverstock remains unconvinced, tweeting as recently as Wednesday:

 

Attach some strings

Why am I writing about this? I am not, after all, a tour operator, why do I care how DCBA operates?

Because my tax dollars — and yours — are being poured into an organization that is apparently accountable to no one, not even the tour operators on whose behalf it claims to work.

Because I believe that organizations, agencies, associations or any other bodies that receive significant amounts of public funding  should be open to public scrutiny and I believe it so sincerely, I have stated it not once but twice in this week’s issue in almost the same terms.

If DCBA runs entirely on public money then DCBA should be accountable to the public: its by-laws should be publicly accessible, its hiring practices should be clear and fair and the process by which it chooses its board should be posted on its web site.

(We should also have criteria for judging DCBA’s activities and tourism stats alone don’t really cut it. For one thing, Nova Scotia’s are problematic. Take “accommodations activity,” for example. It includes “Nova Scotians and people traveling for reasons other than tourism.” So the 24% year/year jump in “room nights sold” in Cape Breton in October 2016 includes anyone who went to a hotel or motel after the Thanksgiving floods, as well as anyone — insurance adjusters, reporters, EMO personnel — who came to town because of the floods.)

I’m not saying this could be changed overnight, but how difficult would it be for the federal, provincial and municipal governments to attach some strings to the money they pour into this non-transparent organization?

 

 

 

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