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GAO's Confusing Conclusions About Federal Communications

This report just came out ( Here is some information provided that concerns me, because it is confusing at best and misleading at worst.
  • The GAO refers to “public affairs” series staff (GS-1035) as “public relations” staff. Employees who are employed as communicators, but not within this series, are not counted in the report. So by default all federal communicators are now PR folks. Which is not “bad” but is not what the public is expecting taxpayer money to be spent on either, because this sounds very close to “spin,” or propaganda.
  • The authors admit that they haven’t defined their terms. They use: “advertising” defined as either “community relations,” “image,” “messages intended to persuade”; public relations as “an effort to develop and disseminate information to explain the activities of and the issues facing an organization”; and “public communications” as “agency communications that are directed to the public.” (p. 4). 
  • There is no distinction made in the report between what federal employees do and what contractors do (e.g. information vs. advertising; education vs. persuasion). 
  • Most examples of “federal advertising and public relations activities” will be recognizable to federal communication experts as politically neutral and neutral in terms of providing information as versus persuasion, but the report never clarifies how it is that individuals who are supposedly employed to persuade are more likely to be disseminators of information. (p. 3)
  • The report’s authors concede that they’re not sure if they got the numbers on contract spending right (they only selected certain categories in the Federal Procurement Data System). The total is almost $1 billion in FY2015 alone (pp. 11-12), but given the methodology it is probably under-counted. It is not difficult to see that if you have very few empowered federal communicators, and you don’t coordinate communication across agencies or even departments, you’ll need to spend a lot of money to get the word out.
  • There are very few federal communicators, at least in the GS-1035 series. With ~5,000 employees across the federal government, GS-1035s only make up ~.3% of the total federal civilian workforce. However, the amount of spending on their salaries per year (~$500 million). That is a very click-worthy amount, but it’s also misleading.
  • The Department of Defense spends by far the most money on staff (2,123 in FY2014 and $160 million per year in salary on average), as well as contract obligations ($590,800 in FY2015); most of the remainder of the federal government pales in comparison. Again, it’s very easy to lump everybody in together, but the conclusion is inappropriate when you consider the average agency.

All opinions are my own.

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