Government communications spending increases 50 per cent in four years
The Government’s communications spend has jumped more than 50 per cent in four years, and is now costing the taxpayer close to $90 million a year.
It comes as the Government was warned earlier this year about rising public sector wages blowing its budget allowances and path back to stabilised debt, leading to the wage freeze directive.
The National Party is accusing the Government of “bloated” spending on spin, while the various departments and agencies say they are responding to greater workload and public demand.
The biggest spender was the New Zealand Transport Agency/Waka Kotahi at $8.2m over 2020/21, up from $2.6m in 2016/17.
The number of staff there in communications roles has increased from 32 to 68.
NZTA, along with other agencies and departments in the public sector, says the increase correlates with a burgeoning workload, as many roles shift into the communications space such as social media, and public demand for fast information.
For some, the Covid-19 response has also meant a huge increase in demand for information and communications staff.
These views are backed by the public relations industry, which says the Government is not alone in having to keep up with growing demand.
However, National Party public service spokesman Mark Mitchell says the Government has been increasing its spending on “spinning” information, at the same time as freezing wages for the public sector.
“Rather than focusing on how to sell a message, Labour should be spending as much time and energy on actually delivering its promises.”
Since Labour came into Government in 2017, overall spending on communications in the public sector has increased from $57m in 2016/17 to $88.7m for the 2020/21 year.
Over those four years, more than $300m has been spent. The number of full-time staff increased from 564 to 845.2.
The data has been accumulated by the National Party from annual reviews provided to select committees, and includes a range of different roles such as media advisers, social media staff, public relations, internal communications advisers and contractors/consultants.
Each department and/or agency has a different make-up.
For example, the Ministry of Social Development has 29 communications staff costing it $3.3m, with only three of those devoted to handling media requests.
Inland Revenue Department has 30 communications staff costing $4.8m, with just two focused on media.
After NZTA, the biggest spenders are the Department of Internal Affairs at $7.9m (up from $6.4m in 2016/17) and police at $5.6m (up from $3.9m in 2016/17).
Others with large increases included the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, which jumped from $1.2m in the year before Covid-19 to $3.3m last year, with 34 employees.
Another big increase was at Oranga Tamariki, which went from $1.3m in 2017/18 when it was established with 19 employees, to 24 last year, costing $2.7m.
Communications spending at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade nearly doubled from 2016/17, $1.7m to $3.3m.
Minister for the Public Service Chris Hipkins said there were 547 communications professionals in the Public Service, which represented 1 per cent of the total public service workforce – up nearly 50 per cent since 2017 as a proportion.
The public service excludes government agencies and Crown entities, such as police and NZTA.
Hipkins said there had been no growth in media staff, except for the Ministry of Health because of Covid-19. The other communications increases recently were also because of Covid-19, he said.
There were 64 in MBIE’s communications team, up from 52 last year and 47 in 2016/17.MBIE needed an extra 20 staff because of Covid-19 when it took on responsibility for MIQ facilities, he said.
At NZTA, just five of the 68 were focused on media, he said.
Other staff worked on projects including reporting road closures, major roadworks projects and road safety campaigns.
At DIA, they also included working on campaigns like keeping kids safe from online harm.
Changes in technology and “almost unlimited access to information” had meant changes to how governments communicated, resulting in new and more communication roles, Hipkins said.
“The Government needs to be on these digital channels to provide public information that citizens expect. And to respond quickly. Many of these jobs did not exist before.”
Public Relations Institute (PRINZ) chief executive Elaine Koller said part of the increase could be the State Services Commission lifting its cap on public relations staff in 2018, and Covid-19.
However, as with other industries, Koller said there was an increasing demand for fast information across all channels.
“The feedback from our members, many in the public sector, is that they are incredibly busy. The numbers are high but the work is there.”
Auckland University of Technology communications senior lecturer Dr Helen Sissons said while not all staff were working with the media, they were still representing their client, the Government, and wanting to put them in the “best light possible”.
“With things like social media they are bypassing traditional media, managing the message, ensuring their message goes unmediated to the public.
“It is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when communicating important public information, but they are always going to put the Government in the most positive light possible. It is their role.”
Another concerning factor was the declining numbers of journalists in relation to communications staff. Overseas research had shown there were about six people in public relations to every journalist.
“If there are not enough to scrutinise the information, then that is a problem.”
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