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Is Federal Communication A Waste Of Money?

In my own personal capacity as a citizen and as a communication professional, I am frequently critical of the federal government's use and misuse of communication tools.

As a federal communicator -- and please note that all opinions expressed here are my own -- I have spent the better part of my career trying to make things better. Not just on my own, but also with many intrepid others. There are in fact numerous mechanisms, from meetings to listservs to free training sessions to videos, that enable us to improve.

Most recently, in 2016, a group of us culminated a year-long project and published "Advancing Federal Communications: The Case for Professional Standards of Practice" (executive summary here). The paper argues that in the absence of clear and consistent professional standards and uniform government practice, as exemplified by the UK for example, we will continue to see well-trained professionals hampered in their efforts. No matter how stellar a performer you are within a specific agency, your work needs to be set against a much larger context set forth by the government itself, one which explains to the public why your work is vitally important and not a waste of money.

Just yesterday, January 10, 2017, the Daily Caller published an article called "Taxpayers Spend Thousands On Poorly Used Gov’t Public Relations Jobs." It made reference to "Government PR," Item #14 in Sen. Jeff Flake's recently published "Wastebook," in which he excoriates the government for spending so much money on advertising and public relations contracts. The U.S. Government Accountability Office published its own report in September 2016.

In his book documenting government waste, Senator Flake asks a very valid question:
So what does it say when more than $1.4 billion is spent every year promoting federal agencies and services but trust and confidence in the government have plummeted?
In response to his own question, Flake suggests that "a good product sells itself" and recommends the following:
"Federal agencies could improve their public relations at no cost whatsoever by simply conducting themselves efficiently and effectively rather than misspending taxpayer dollars on questionable and unnecessary projects and activities that will inevitably end up in Wastebook."
Reading this, I have to shake my head and wonder at the logic of this argument. It is not a waste of money to hire federal communicators and deploy them to explain what the government is doing. Far from it: I'm on social media every single day, and I can see the public reacting to what the government says (and doesn't say).

They see, for example, that the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act was incorporated into the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, and they don't understand what it is or what it means, and it is into that vaccuum that many suspicions naturally fall.

So if you want to increase trust between the public and the government, of course you should be telling people, in clear and objective terms, what's going on. Tell them what you're required to tell them. Answer their questions. Make it easy to understand and not dense. Don't hide information. Don't complexify it. Go where the citizens are - on social media. All of that.

Most of the money is being spent on advertising and PR contracts. They are not necessary if you have a great team of government people who are empowered to do their jobs.

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Important note and disclaimer: As always, I do not represent any individual agency, group of agencies, or the government as a whole in my personal writings. Also obviously, as a federal communicator I am going to be personally biased towards the perpetuation of my own profession; from that perspective please take what I say with a grain of salt.

Law Enforcement & The Crisis Of Public Confidence

"If You See Something, Say Something" is the most memorable public safety campaign I can think of. It began as a DHS (U.S. Department of Homeland Security) initiative but quickly branched out into a nationwide initiative at the federal, state and local levels and you can see the motto everywhere, particularly at public transportation hubs.

Here's a fun fact: the motto was originally rejected. As Mike Riggs reported several years ago in Reason.com (citing an Adweek article from 2002), Korey Kay & Partners tried to get the federal government to adopt it after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Nobody was interested -- not DHS, not the Department of Justice, and not the Department of State.

But eventually DHS did adopt it, and according to Riggs, in 2008 the line "went viral." (The article offers an excellent timeline showing key moments in its adoption.) The question for students of law enforcement communication, and social media marketing, is whether the campaign has actually worked.

The consensus is that it hasn't:
  • New York magazine writer Dwyer Gunn, citing the work of NYU sociologist Harvey Molotch, points to the detrimental effect of many "leads that are likely to amount to nothing." For one thing, they make each individual lead less likely to be taken seriously. Overall, he notes, the program "hasn't yielded any terrorists."
  • The New York Times in 2008 noted that the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) claimed it got 1,944 campaign-related tips in 2006. The result? "No terrorists were arrested, but a wide spectrum of other activity was reported."
  • TechDirt.com called the campaign the creation of a "Massive Database Of Useless Info From Citizens Spying On Each Other."
These commentators may be right; perhaps encouraging people to report on suspicious activities mucks up the system, distracts the feds and the police, creates unnecessary delays, and encourages an atmosphere of suspicion.

But then again, perhaps the problem with the campaign was not the idea, but its execution. Terrorism is on the increase, not the decline, and we need all available information to fight it. In "Key Trends in the Uncertain Metrics of Terrorism," published in 2016 by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, Anthony H. Cordesman notes:

"Virtually all of the data available indicate that these threats to the United States and its allies remain critical and that the geographic scope and intensity of terrorism continues to increase. At the same time, there are critical problems and shortfalls in the data available, a near total lack of credible unclassified data on the cost and effectiveness of various counterterrorism efforts, and critical problems in the ways the United States approaches terrorism."

In short, what Cordesman is saying is that we don't know enough, we don't measure well enough, and we don't think smartly enough about how we fight the bad guys (and ladies).

The public can and should play a huge role in supporting government efforts to fight terrorism. And despite the widespread criticism it has received, a glitzy ad campaign like "If You See Something, Say Something" can help. But -- and this is a big but -- by failing to report studiously on results, law enforcement leaves the public with the impression that this is a superficial campaign.

It gets worse than that. While the public respects law enforcement, they have almost no trust in the institutions and individuals associated with politics and public service. So while Gallup found (2016), for example, that 76% of Americans have "a great deal of respect for the police," they simultaneously learned that:
"If You See Something, Say Something" is a great idea. It's a great concept. It's a great ad and a great brand.

But in order for a brand to work, its customers have to see a promise being kept.

Law enforcement should start to fulfill the promise of this campaign by focusing on its results. If they're getting too many useless leads, they should help the public deliver more fruitful ones. And they should provide regular progress reports, in a coordinated way, that show how these improvements are yielding a true return on investment for the public.

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All opinions my own. Photo by AdinaVoicu via Pixabay (Public Domain).