By Megan R. Wilson - 12/08/15 06:00 AM EST
The federal government has spent almost $4 billion on public relations services since 2007, according to a watchdog group, with more than half of the money going to the world’s largest firms.
A review conducted by Open the Books found that there are now 3,092 public affairs professionals working in the government, an increase of 15 percent — or about 400 people — over the past seven years.
During that time, 139 federal agencies inked $2.02 billion in outside contracts with firms that perform public relations, polling, research and marketing consulting.
"We always applaud agencies who make information available," Open the Books said in its report. "But ... agencies are not charged with making that information interesting or newsworthy. Agencies certainly aren’t charged with using taxpayer funds to engage in thinly-veiled propaganda campaigns that are primarily designed to protect their budgets and hype outcomes."
The $2 billion tally calculated by the watchdog group includes millions of dollars on international polling for the State Department and $57.7 million in marketing and advertising contracts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to promote the National Flood Insurance Program.
The Department of Veterans Affairs, which has come under fire for long patient wait times, awarded $5.3 million in contracts to survey "veteran enrollees health and reliance on VA" between 2011 and 2014, the report found. The VA also awarded Gallup $1.7 million in contracts to measure the engagement and satisfaction of agency employees.
A VA spokeswoman said that it is obligated by law to inform veterans and their families about the benefits and services for which they are entitled.
"We are committed to improving both the veteran and customer experience through real and meaningful change," the agency spokeswoman said in an email.
To calculate the number of federal employees working in public affairs, Open the Books counted anyone on the executive branch payroll with a title "public affairs officer," excluding press secretaries and communications directors.
The earnings of public affairs officers cost taxpayers $2.34 billion between fiscal 2007 and fiscal 2014, according to the report. In 2014, about 60 percent of these officials had base salaries of more than $100,000, and nearly 19 percent earned more than $125,000 before bonuses.
Public affairs officers can earn several different types of additional compensation. Performance bonuses are the only ones made public, and totaled $10.9 million from 2007 to 2014.
A board member of the National Association of Government Communicators defended the public relations officers, saying they carry out crucial duties under difficult circumstances.
"The vast majority of communication shops within government are understaffed and under-resourced for the volume and type of work asked of the government communication professionals working within, particularly when contrasted to corporate communication offices or public relations firms," said Chris O’Neil, an official at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Public Affairs.
"The responsibility for transparency and accountability is paramount. That responsibility is met through timely, accurate and effective communication, executed by government communicators on behalf of their agencies," he added.
Although the report cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics putting the average annual "public relations specialist" salary at $55,680, some experts say that federal salaries need to be higher in order to attract top talent.
"That is not the average salary in a place like Washington and New York," said Ivan Adler, a principal at The McCormick Group, an executive search firm. "A fair comparison would be to organizations of similar size and, more accurately, of like complexity of issues."
Adler said that someone with a government employee’s knowledge of the intricate issues handled by federal regulators could triple their salary by going to the private sector. Illustrating the point: Six out of the 10 top-paid public affairs officers in the government work at financial services agencies.
Despite thousands working to shape government public relations efforts, shops in the private sector — including FleishmanHillard, Ogilvy Public Relations and Young & Rubicam — reap billions from federal contracts.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was the largest spender on such contracts, obligating more than $412.7 million. The next highest spender, the Department of the Army, obligated $255 million.
Many of the CDC’s contracts deal with promotional campaigns such as flu shots, safe teen driving, early detection cervical cancer screenings and AIDS testing. The agency spent roughly $14.3 million on an "evaluation of the CDC’s national tobacco education campaign."
The CDC says that the way contract data is reported mischaracterizes the work as public affairs when it is generally "health campaigns with life-saving information."
"In order to achieve CDC’s mission of saving lives and protecting Americans, it is important that we conduct research to determine the best ways to communicate health information to doctors, nurses, and the public so people can make decisions to protect their health and the health of their patients," a CDC spokeswoman said in an email.
The top 10 federal spenders on outside PR services each spent more than $50 million from fiscal year 2007 to fiscal year 2014, representing about 68 percent of the outside PR spending during that period.
Top spenders include FEMA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of the Navy and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
The State Department, which ranked sixth in its outside PR spending, spent $36.5 million worth for surveys in Britain, Poland, the Palestinian territories, Fiji, Sri Lanka, Kuwait, Lebanon, Korea, Italy, Greece and Hungary, among many other countries.
Those assessments included a $25,000 survey of the medical insurance in Spain, a $51,000 look at the "public attitudes towards domestic and international affairs in Austria," and a $75,000 "face-to-face survey among a representative sample of 500 Muslims living in Germany."
Overall, the State Department spent nearly $80 million on public affairs contracts between 2007 and 2014.
"The Department of State endeavors to be good stewards of taxpayer money. We look for efficiencies in our programs and review expenses, always aware of the fiscal restraints in which all government institutions must operate," a State official told The Hill in an email. "U.S. embassies conduct a broad range of surveys that help inform how to most effectively engage with foreign publics and explain American foreign policy abroad."
The outside PR firms billed the government up to hundreds of dollars per hour, according to the labor rates compiled by Open the Books.
The top three — IQ Solutions, Westat and the American Institutes for Research (AIR) — banked more than $287 million in public affairs contracts during the seven-year period.
AIR counts the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, the Education Department, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Agency for International Development among its clients.
From 2007 to 2014, AIR earned $95 million in contracts, according to the report. It charges the government anywhere between $70 and $269 per hour per employee for its work, depending on the job title.
A "toolkit," defined as a "collection of materials sometimes including print, booklets, audio, video (CD, DVD), and other products for educational use" costs $151,922.78 to compile, according to a pricing schedule. A focus group runs the government $33,628.21.
Many other firms report similar or steeper pricing structures, according to figures in the report and other General Service Administration documents reviewed by The Hill.