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Fixing Strategic Communications at National Defence Demands a Whole-of-Government Effort

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Image credit: Cplc Richard Hallé, Forces armées canadiennes

POLICY PERSPECTIVE

by Brett Boudreau
CGAI Fellow
June 2022

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Table of Contents


Introduction

The Strong, Secure, Engaged (SSE) defence policy refresh – the catalyst being the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine – offers a real opportunity now with our eyes wider open, to better reflect the new realities of modern conflict and address known shortcomings since the document’s issue in June 2017. This includes how Defence and government more broadly operate in the information environment – a key domain in war, conflict and the domestic security space.  This paper describes the current situation, offering five recommendations to improve Department of National Defence (DND) and government communications capability to tackle this decidedly conjoined, whole-of-government challenge.

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Overview

Strong, Secure, Engaged identified a need to develop a broader array of fit-for-purpose information-related capabilities, mainly for offensive purposes during conflict or during times of tension but less than war. The policy described the intent to improve the Canadian Armed Forces’ (CAF) cyber-operations field, increase the size of the intelligence branch and upgrade surveillance and reconnaissance capability. The policy also confirmed the army reserves would be the lead to source personnel to conduct information operations and influence activities, including psychological operations (PSYOPS), and committed to “enhancing” their existing roles.1

The interest in more effective offensive and defensive capabilities in the targeting and inform-influence-persuade-coercion of audience fields was a necessary and overdue initiative – albeit a surprising inclusion for Canada, especially the focus on the attack element – and flew under the media’s radar. Unfortunately, SSE missed the opportunity to provide important context and perspective about the specific need, and precision about what was envisioned. The policy also doubled down on a Cold War-era communications mindset and organizational structure, rather than conceptualizing a model fit-for-purpose for today’s needs and demands. In so doing, policy-makers inadvertently set in motion a military strategic communications change initiative led by CAF Public Affairs, which Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre and then-deputy minister Jody Thomas acknowledged (in June 2021) lacked “institution-wide strategic level direction and guidance” to build capabilities that were “governed by appropriate authorities and oversight.” The senior leaders also admitted the scheme was “incompatible” with Canadian government communications policy and contrary to the Defence Public Affairs mission, vision and principles.2

The policy update offers an opportunity to correct four notable strategic communications-related shortcomings in SSE:

  • The extant version does not confirm information as an operational domain on par with land, sea, air, space and cyber;
  • It does not distinguish between the use of military capabilities against adversaries in contested environments overseas and those used in Canada during routine operations and activities;
  • There is a real imbalance of effort and interest in conducting offensive information operations at the expense of satisfying more pressing domestic public communications needs. The wrong focus has seriously impacted organizational credibility and institutional reputation; and
  • The policy commits to the least effective method to source people in the relevant fields (the task is assigned to the army reserve, rather than an all-services joint function based on the regular force and augmented by reserves).

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How Are We Doing?

We are awash in a daily tsunami of mis- and disinformation, enabled by technology that allows anyone, anywhere, anonymously if desired, to produce, distribute and amplify malign content to a global audience. The vitriol is increasing in volume and accelerating. Canada is not immune to truth decay or its effects, including the rise of extremism – mostly of the populist and far-right variety – that impact peace, order and good government. Our institutions’ ability to effectively address big societal issues is now at real risk.3  Arguably, the greatest contemporary threat faced by liberal democracies is how quickly citizen faith, trust and confidence in government and public institutions is eroding. Arresting this trend and restoring trust, credibility and reputation is the ultimate challenge for elected officials and communications practitioners.

There are some encouraging signs recently that our leaders and institutions are beginning to be more attuned to the profound impact of mis- and disinformation on our society, including recent noteworthy remarks by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during visits with European leaders in March 2022 (“something we spent a lot of time discussing”), CSIS director David Vigneault (“keeping Canada safe requires a national security-literate population”) and national security and intelligence advisor Jody Thomas (“this is a problem that is not going away”).

Canada has invested $14 million into (and leads) an initiative called the G-7 Rapid Response Mechanism, focused mainly on protecting electoral integrity from state actor disinformation – though the name suggests the effort is about faster responses to wrong information in the media. The April 2022 budget indicated this contribution would continue, though knowledgeable commentators assess that “the efforts are shrouded in mystery” and are “a bit of a black hole of information.” The April 2022 budget also announced a $10 million investment over five years for the Privy Council Office to fund as yet unknown initiatives to “coordinate, develop and implement government-wide measures to combat disinformation and protect democracy.” Multiple departments have also joined forces in notable efforts to protect federal elections (through a task force) and recently, to combat Russian disinformation about the invasion of Ukraine.

While laudable, this is entirely insufficient to need. In the inform-influence-persuade-coerce informational space (excluding cyber) we lack a national strategy to counter mis- and disinformation. We don’t have a ministerial and a public service champion, or the mechanisms needed to organize an integrated cross-government effort to define the problem, let alone to assign capability and build capacity to decisively tackle it. The federal lead for the effort such as it exists is Intergovernmental Affairs, Infrastructure and Communities Minister Dominic Leblanc – a holdover from his time in the now-defunct Democratic Institutions ministry – rather than with an agency or entity with a specific focus on combating disinformation.

The limited focus of effort on two discrete aspects (the federal electoral process and Ukraine), the pittance invested, the (dis)organization of effort and lack of public communication show the paucity of vision and strategy. This unfortunate situation replicated across the communications function at federal, provincial and municipal levels leaves many gaps and seams. These spaces are real breeding grounds for mis- and disinformation, to the direct detriment of governance and public trust in institutions. This is not likely to change soon, since the mindset, processes and capabilities that inform how government communicates are designed for a pre-internet era.

DND offers one informative example of the current communications model.4 Given the self-described existential crisis and wide range of challenges facing Defence, institutional communications need to be an integral part of the fight to restore its credibility and reputation. To do that well requires leader commitment to public and internal communications, augmented by real capability and capacity. The foundation of success, though, begins with the less exciting elements – communications policy, process, governance, oversight, training, education and force generation of practitioners.

In this regard, DND is a laggard. Six of the nine defence administrative orders and directives (DAODs) setting out how the Public Affairs function operates are the originals from 1998, including “planning and program delivery” and “internet publishing.” The Queen’s Regulations and Orders (QR&Os) have the force of law in the military: those related to public communication are from the year 2000, but read like the 1950s (one example: “No CAF member without permission can deliver publicly, or record for public delivery, either directly or through the medium of radio or television, a lecture, discourse or answers to questions relating to a military subject.”). The last Information Operations doctrine was published in 1998.

The main strategic communications governance mechanism (a management board that at best meets quarterly) is weak and insufficient to need. The public affairs function staggers under the weight of an incessant operational tempo with its unending demands and the damage of the military strategic communications initiative, shuttered by former CDS Gen. Jonathan Vance in November 2020. There is no StratCom policy, nor doctrine, nor initiating directive to shape the change needed – seven years after the CAF began work to do just that.

The relevant policies at Defence are seriously outdated, authorities and responsibilities are scattered, there are few mechanisms to provide leadership guidance for information-related functions and the organization remains allergic to external advice and oversight (a key finding of the recent Arbour report). The good news is that with nearly 1,000 public affairs-related positions at DND, much output of quality content is possible and so improving outcomes is in large measure a structure, management, governance and resource distribution issue, not an amount of resources problem; at least, in public affairs.

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What to Do?

It’s time now to do more than just admire the problem. As the adage goes, “we can’t wring our hands and roll up our sleeves at the same time.” Fighting mis- and disinformation shares many of the attributes of how to fight a resilient and persistent virus or new pathogen. While COVID-19 and its derivatives can’t be eliminated, we can get better at learning to live with them and to take definitive steps to protect ourselves. In large measure, we have learned to mask, educate, test, wear protective equipment, wash hands frequently, avoid large crowds or tight social spaces and conduct active leader-driven communications. These actions do not end the threat, but they help reduce exposure, the rate of transmission and impact.

So too with the informational space. Individuals can do small but important things to help protect friends, family and society more broadly. This includes adjusting our online behaviour, paying for news (and thereby improving journalism), making good choices about what online spaces to visit, doing more information validation of our own and being more careful about the information we share. These are helpful, but they are small steps with modest impact. The vocal minority who fervently believe in QAnon-grade conspiracies, hold immutable convictions about issues like climate change, abortion and gun control, and rage against the “deep state” and the World Economic Forum’s “world government” will believe what they want. No amount of facts or incentive will convince true believers otherwise. We should hold moderate expectations of what is reasonably possible in the short term. Obvious progress will be slow and take many years. If we agree that the informational space is a complex problem with a nexus to national security, we should organize the effort accordingly. We risk liberal democracy if we don’t try harder, faster.

More regulation of the social media space is necessary so the online world is less of a free-for-all, but regulation, coercion or sanction have real limitations. It is also an urgent imperative and will be a tremendous undertaking to establish acceptable practices to enable better open source/social media scrutiny by police and intelligence agencies while still protecting privacy.

Building greater societal resilience to mis- and disinformation offers a vaccine with real efficacy. Doing better will require a concerted, whole-of-government effort with federal government leadership; major improvements in capability, capacity and the quality of government and institutional communications; and a mindset change in the communications model in force now. This does not mean more, punchier news releases and a larger Twitter following: great communications for bad or insufficient policy or poor operational execution just gets you to a worse place faster. But we should want to give careful consideration of how to enable a seriously better capability and capacity to explain what government is doing or not doing, and why, about the big challenges we face. The following are five recommendations for more effective communications within the national security space:

  1. The auditor general should conduct a performance audit on the federal government’s communications function to determine if the capability is fit-for-purpose for today’s information environment and our future needs. Assuming not, why not; how to obtain better value from the investments being made; and to identify what institutions and jurisdictions do particularly well in this space and why. These are key to understanding the current baseline, to begin to chart a way ahead and to benchmark progress.
  2. The Strong, Secure, Engaged defence policy refresh should formally acknowledge information as a specific domain (alongside land, sea, air, space and cyber), setting out specific initiatives to translate that declaration into actual effect. This includes accelerating change to relevant legislation, policy, governance mechanisms and force development plans related to inform-influence-persuade-coerce information capabilities.
  3. Build a serious cross-government initiative to develop, enable and grow new capacity and sustainable capability in civil society, not-for-profit organizations, universities, media and think tanks to be more informed about the informational space. This investment should be on the order of $100 million a year for 12 years (rather than the proposed $10 million over five years in the last budget) – or what DND lapsed in approved funds last year alone.
  4. The force generation model for the military’s information-related capabilities, a construct built for the pre-internet Cold War, needs to change. This means re-profiling information operations and psychological operations and making a more robust operational communications capability that is joint (not just one service), integrated (military and civilian) and based on the regular force, augmented by reservists.
  5. The government communications function needs to be re-imagined. Over time, that model has morphed from “maximum disclosure with minimum delay” and “all information is unclassified unless proven otherwise,” to a situation closer to “minimum disclosure with maximum delay” and “all information is secret unless proven otherwise.” Additional context, perspective and active public engagement in policy development will help create more awareness and better understanding of issues and challenges, building trust that government and institutions are at least making a good-faith effort.

Countering the pan-domain threat of mis- and disinformation requires a new emphasis on the triad of right policy, good operational execution and effective strategic communications – with communications being baked into operational planning and execution from the start, not sprinkled on at the end. How the SSE policy refresh unfolds will be one telling indicator of the extent to which – or whether – Defence and the government are attuned to the needs and new demands of today's information space. There are two notable communication-related risks. First is that the revision includes just a passing reference about the information environment being "challenging" without specifying discrete initiatives to do better. Second is that those responsible for the refresh will stick to the old, easy and comfortable communications model of "trust us, insiders know what the right answer is", and roll out a finished product in the Fall without having sought to actively engage stakeholders or influencers along the way. If that's the case, a golden opportunity to more broadly inform public understanding and awareness, and to directly tackle mis- and disinformation in the security space will have been missed.

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End Notes

1 Department of National Defence, Strong Secure Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy, June 2017, initiatives 65, 70, 75 and 76.

2 Department of National Defence, “CDS/DM Directive – Response to Reviews of Information Operations and Influence Activities, June 9, 2021, 7. The subject is explored more fully in Brett Boudreau, “The Rise and Fall of Military Strategic Communications at National Defence 2015-2021: A Cautionary Tale for Canada and NATO, and a Roadmap for Reform,” Canadian Global Affairs Institute, May 2022.

3 There is a considerable and growing literature about this in the Canadian context, including the annual reports of the Edelman Trust Barometer; Government of Canada/National Security Transparency Advisory Group, “How National Security and Intelligence Institutions Engage with Racialized Communities,” (May 2022); Proof Strategies CanTrust Index (June 2022); Canadian Security Intelligence Service, “Foreign Interference: Threats to Canada’s Democratic Process,” (July 2021); and the significant findings produced by Frank Graves of EKOS Research (Twitter: @VoiceOfFranky), among many others.

4 The Mass Casualty Commission leading the inquiry into the April 2020 Portapique, Nova Scotia tragedy is identifying shortcomings in the communications model at the operational level in the RCMP, another venerable national institution under considerable stress.

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About the Author

Brett Boudreau served in the Canadian Armed Forces for nearly 30 years including 22 years as a Public Affairs officer, with four assignments as a colonel at National Defence HQ, NATO HQ Brussels, the Privy Council Office (Afghanistan Task Force) and most recently, in the army reserve with the chief of the defence staff’s office.

He has worked at NATO HQs in Mons, Brussels and Kabul, is a graduate of the NATO Defence College senior course and holds an Honours BA in political science (Western), and a master of arts degree in public administration (Carleton).

In 2016, the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence published his book, We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us, tracing the evolution of StratCom through the lens of the NATO International Security Assistance Force. In 2022, his chapter, “NATO Information Campaigns in Afghanistan 2003-2021,” focused on the Resolute Support Mission, was published in the book, Information Operations From World War 1 to the Twitter Era.

Boudreau has been principal consultant at Veritas Strategic Communications for 12 years and is a Fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

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Canadian Global Affairs Institute

The Canadian Global Affairs Institute focuses on the entire range of Canada’s international relations in all its forms including (in partnership with the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy), trade investment and international capacity building. Successor to the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI, which was established in 2001), the Institute works to inform Canadians about the importance of having a respected and influential voice in those parts of the globe where Canada has significant interests due to trade and investment, origins of Canada’s population, geographic security (and especially security of North America in conjunction with the United States), social development, or the peace and freedom of allied nations. The Institute aims to demonstrate to Canadians the importance of comprehensive foreign, defence and trade policies which both express our values and represent our interests.

The Institute was created to bridge the gap between what Canadians need to know about Canadian international activities and what they do know. Historically Canadians have tended to look abroad out of a search for markets because Canada depends heavily on foreign trade. In the modern post-Cold War world, however, global security and stability have become the bedrocks of global commerce and the free movement of people, goods and ideas across international boundaries. Canada has striven to open the world since the 1930s and was a driving factor behind the adoption of the main structures which underpin globalization such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and emerging free trade networks connecting dozens of international economies. The Canadian Global Affairs Institute recognizes Canada’s contribution to a globalized world and aims to inform Canadians about Canada’s role in that process and the connection between globalization and security.

In all its activities the Institute is a charitable, non-partisan, non-advocacy organization that provides a platform for a variety of viewpoints. It is supported financially by the contributions of individuals, foundations, and corporations. Conclusions or opinions expressed in Institute publications and programs are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Institute staff, fellows, directors, advisors or any individuals or organizations that provide financial support to, or collaborate with, the Institute.

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