FOX 13 Investigates: Federal PR expenses cost taxpayers billions

- An Inspector General report revealed the U.S. State Department spent more than $600,000 driving up 'likes' on Facebook, drawing national attention and criticism from taxpayer watchdogs in 2013. A review of additional records by FOX 13 News revealed other federal public relations expenses that cost taxpayers billions. 

"Often, the PR expenditure is just a cover to promote the government's interest in, and not the public interest," said Adam Andrzejewski.

His watchdog group, Open the Books examined federal spending on public relations from 2007 through 2014. The organization's report revealed more than $4.3 billion in federal public relations spending, including $2-billion on outside public relations firms. The report also notes, since 2007, PR positions increased in the federal government by 15-percent, and the billable rate in work with outside PR firms can go up to $88/hour for an intern and more that $500/hour for an executive manager.

FOX 13 News showed the records to Tampa-based PR and Marketing executive Travis Horn, with S3 Media. He said he understands the value of public affairs in government, as it relates to disseminating important and critical information to the public. Based on his experience, however, the costs appear to be out of whack.

"I get it. We are in the business of outreach, and speaking to the public, and communicating when there is a natural disaster, or when there is a health crisis with human services… but some of those figures are just beyond the pale," he said.

As the national debt continues to soar, and while federal lawmakers rail on deficit spending, the Open the Books report notes $49.6 million in public relations expenses from the bureau of public debt. Andrzejewski compares it a merry-go-round.

"So the bureau of public debt spent nearly 50 million in debt so politicians can spend more to create more debt," he said. "It's taxpayers' dollars spent to spend more taxpayer dollars to promote a larger size and scope of government."

Open the Books reviewed thousands of public records to examine costs, but U.S. Senate Budget Chairman Mike Enzi said the true and full cost of federal PR spending is largely unknown. He asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office to investigate.

FOX 13 News reached out to several federal agencies that rank among top spenders for public relations. Federal managers defended their work on grounds it educates the public. 

Response from The U.S. Social Security Administration:

As one of the largest agencies in Federal government, we are proud of the work our public affairs employees perform each and every day to educate the public about Social Security's services and benefit programs. Educating the public about our programs, including our online services, is one of our critical priorities and represents just one of the ways we strive to provide a superior customer experience. my Social Security, for example, is a secure, convenient online hub for the millions of people who prefer to conduct their business with Social Security online. Current Social Security beneficiaries can manage their benefits online-change an address, adjust direct deposit, obtain a benefit verification letter, or request a replacement SSA-1099, from the comfort of their home. Account holders still in the workforce can verify their earnings history and obtain estimates of future benefits. To date, more than 23 million people have created a personal online account at www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount.

Without our public affairs efforts, many of those people may have never learned about this service. Furthermore, without our public affairs workforce, the public would not be able to obtain information about Social Security from our website and would not be knowledgeable of the many choices they now have about how to receive services from and conduct business with Social Security. Promoting our online services also means shorter wait times in our offices and each person who chooses to do business with us online saves taxpayer dollars compared to serving them in-office. Public affairs is a vital lifeline between the agency and the public we serve.

Patti Patterson
Regional Communications Director

Response from the U.S. Department of State:

Hello Craig,

Can you give us a better sense of what you mean by "public relations?" We don't really use that phrase, so it's hard to determine where to send your inquiry. We have a terrific main website, our Embassies and Consulates also have websites, we hold a Daily Press Briefing, we send out travel alerts and warnings by press release, email, text, social media, etc., we respond to media requests from journalists in the U.S. and around the world, we operate a phone line that responds to urgent travel inquiries from U.S. citizens, and so on, but all these things fall under different divisions within the State Department.  Would you want to pick one of these programs (or one of many others described on our website) and ask how they have benefited U.S. taxpayers?

Also, are you more interested in the ways we engage with the U.S. public - or with international audiences? These audiences have different needs: U.S. citizens don't need to apply for U.S. visas, and international audiences don't need to apply for U.S. passports. And there are many differences like that.

Sincerely,

Drew Bailey
Press Outreach Officer for May 6, 2016
U.S. Department of State

Response from the Department of Veterans Affairs:

The Department of Veterans Affairs is obligated under U.S.C 38, Chapter 63 to conduct outreach to inform Veterans, survivors and their family members of the benefits and services to which they are entitled. That outreach may include the coordinated and integrated use of traditional and social media, advertising and marketing programs along with direct involvement with Veterans at local events.

VA is in the midst of the largest transformation in its history with MyVA. The hallmark of that transformation is engagement with Veterans, the organizations working on their behalf and employees. We are committed to improving both the Veteran and customer experience through real and meaningful change. This is the nation's VA and we are working to make it one in which we all can be proud.

The customer service centers of VA that interact with Veterans do conduct surveys to measure customer satisfaction as well as look for ways to improve Veterans' experience. They also conduct advertising designed to make certain that Veterans are aware of the care and benefits available to them, and hire the best qualified people and medical professionals to provide Veterans the care and benefits they have earned.

VA also performs internal polls through organizations, which has an industry-leading reputation in employee engagement circles, to gauge employee satisfaction and attitudes.       

VA public affairs does not conduct polling of external audiences and stakeholders.

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