President Obama has swelled the ranks of government PR, adding hundreds of new public relations specialists to the federal payroll during his time in office, costing taxpayers a half-billion dollars a year, the government’s chief watchdog said Wednesday.
That doesn’t include the more than $100 million the administration spends annually for help from private sector spinmeisters, nor does it account for the $800 million spent on contracts for advertising in 2015, according to the Government Accountability Office.
“Spending $1.5 billion on government PR activities is a huge waste of money. That sort of spending should be drastically scaled back,” said Chris Edwards, a federal budget scholar at the Cato Institute.
The administration added some 667 PR staffers between 2008, the last full year under his predecessor, and 2011, when public relations staffing across federal agencies peaked at 5,238 people. That’s a jump of 15 percent during those years.
The number has since slipped, but there were still nearly 5,100 PR staffers in the administration in 2014, the final year for which the GAO had figures.
The median salary for PR employees was $90,000 in 2014 — up from $77,000 in 2006, the auditors said.
But Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican and chairman of the Senate Committee on the Budget, said the study gives penny-pinchers a sense for where to look.
“With increasing pressures on limited federal resources, it is crucial to know how much is spent across the federal government on public relations activities and which federal agencies are spending the most,” said Mr. Enzi, who requested the report.
The Pentagon led the way in PR staffing, with more than 2,100 employees assigned to the massive bureaucracy as of 2014.
The other big growers were the Interior, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs departments. The VA saw its public relations staffing nearly double, from 144 people in 2006 to 286 as of 2014.
VA press officials make an average of $87,000 a year, according to the GAO report. That department also did not respond to a request for comment.
The VA has been reeling in recent years from an expanding workload. This week the department’s inspector general confirmed that veterans are still waiting too long for care — including one veteran in Phoenix who could have been saved had the VA not canceled his appointment.
Not every department has kept up with the surge in PR. The Social Security Administration, the Transportation and Labor departments and the National Science Foundation are each at their lowest public relations staffing in a decade.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was the most generous, paying an average of $127,357 to its public relations employees. HUD and the Transportation Department also averaged more than $120,000.
The Defense Department got the best deal out of its PR employees, averaging just $83,204.
GAO investigators said in their report that agencies “may have legitimate interests in communicating with the public regarding their functions, policies and activities.” The report said the National Zoo’s webcams, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s warnings about the Zika virus and the IRS’ advertising of tax credits available to taxpayers are all examples of PR activities.
But Mr. Edwards, the Cato budget scholar, said the government is also paying for “one-sided propaganda,” including touting of federal programs that are failing.
“What’s needed from the federal government is not one-sided propaganda, but a more honest assessment of the costs and benefits of each program,” he said. “Look on the website of nearly any federal agency, and you will find glowing discussions about how programs are helping people and doing wonderful things. But there is rarely any mention of the taxpayer costs and economic damage done by these programs.”
When it comes to advertising and outside PR spending, the Pentagon led the way, averaging $626 million in contracts per year. HHS is second, averaging $117 million — though at one point it spent $236 million. HHS has been trying to convince Americans to sign up for Obamacare ahead of annual enrollment deadlines.