BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Everything from public service announcements about the Zika virus to the dangers of distracted driving are among the messaging coming from various agencies of the federal government.
And while an argument can be made that military recruitment campaigns and information about applying for federal student aid are legitimate forms of communication, all of the government’s advertising and public relations activities come with a hefty price tag.
“It’s a real wide range of activities the government engages with to keep the public informed,” said Heather Krause, acting director of the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s strategic issues team.
She says agencies may have legitimate reasons for engaging and communicating with the public.
“They may provide information on awareness campaigns; on public safety and health issues.”
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent agency that works for Congress, examined contract and employee data related to public relations activities.
The agency found that the federal government spent about a $1 billion annually on public relations and advertising contracts, on average, during fiscal years 2006-2015.
GAO also discovered that the combined salary amounts for federal public relations employees averaged about $430 million from fiscal year 2006 through 2014, “reaching nearly $500 million in fiscal year 2014,” the report stated.
GAO found that the number of federal public relations employees topped 5,000 in fiscal year 2011.
Krause says the full scope of public relations activities isn’t necessarily known.
“There isn’t a commonly accepted definition of public relations and what that constitutes,” she said. “We focused on those that are classified as public affairs employees. You may have other employees within the agency engaging with the public.”
But is it worth over a $1 billion a year for the federal government to engage in public relations activities?
“I’ve heard $1.5 billion. I’ve heard $2 billion,” said Rep. Chris Collins R-Clarence. “Why don’t we know exactly what it is?”
Collins says people have a right to know if taxpayer dollars are being used.
“There shouldn’t be anything to hide.”
“If it’s a military commercial trying to advertise and encourage men and women to join the armed forces, there’s nothing wrong with that. [It] makes perfect sense,” Collins said. “There’s also some subtleties of taxpayer monies being used to promote an agenda that isn’t as obvious as getting young men and women to sign up for the military.”
Even before GAO released its report in October, OpenTheBooks.com, a project of American Transparency — a 501(c)3 non-profit, came out with an oversight study on the same issue about a year ago.
Adam Andrzejewski, CEO of OpentheBooks.com, says the group looked at eight years of federal expenditures from fiscal year 2007 through 2014.
“We identified $4.4 billion spent on public relations,” he said.
He posed the following questions:
“Are these expenditures done in the government interest or are they done in the public interest? Are these expenditures propaganda and spin or do they have a gainful public purpose?”
Andrzejewski says the vast size and scope of the “public relations machine” at the federal level is “fairly stunning.”
“We found advertising firms billing their interns to the federal agencies at $88 an hour. Even rank and file graphic designers were being billed to the federal agencies at $275 an hour,” he said. “I think nothing compared to the average advertising executives billing themselves out to the federal agencies for $575 an hour. And that’s just wrong.”
“Unacceptable and inexcusable,” said Rep. Brian Higgins D-Buffalo, reacting to the GAO’s report to the Senate Budget Committee.
“The fact of the matter is that the federal government is paying so much for public relations. Obviously, they’re not doing a very good job because people don’t have a high opinion of the federal government,” said Higgins.
“I think what the GAO has uncovered is very, very important and very disturbing,” he added.
The GAO report found that the government expanded its use of web-based platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.
Kevin Hardwick, a Canisius College political scientist, thinks the growth of the media — with 24 hour news cycles on television and the Internet — could be fueling the need for more public relations spending.
“Agencies want to make themselves look good not only to the public but especially to people who review their budgets — the Congress,” said Hardwick. ”If they’re out there spinning and making people think they’re doing a good job then maybe they won’t have any trouble when it comes to getting their budget allotment next time.”
Higgins points out that Congress has two primary responsibilities.
“One is to make a budget, but we also have oversight responsibility to ensure that money is being spent in accordance with the intent of Congress,” he said. “You have about 12 appropriation bills that are approved in Congress for various functions, and those bills have language in it that’s not as specific as it needs to be. It’s very nebulous, and they’re probably utilizing that money for purposes other than what Congress had intended.”
Many times the federal government’s advertising is actually a form of educating the public on certain issues.
Collins says he would like to see more transparency in terms of disclaimers put on taxpayer-funded advertising in the federal government.
“It’s not that it’s all bad,” said Collins. “I just think we should understand where it’s coming from, and if the public doesn’t like it they now know who to complain to.’”
Collins also thinks President-elect Donald Trump, who’s scheduled to take the oath of office next month, would be “fully supportive” of such a move.
“If nothing else, let’s call this an executive order to direct his agencies to make sure there’s a disclaimer on all advertising,” he added. “We don’t even need an act of Congress. But we should have an act of Congress.”