Ottawa wants to outsource more of its communications work, raising questions of oversight as public servants play a shrinking role in the growing federal budget for self-promotion.
Public Works documents show Ottawa is looking to hire private contractors for a bigger share of its communications work, including the use of public-relations firms in the creation and promotion of government programs.
After six years in power, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have transformed the look – and sometimes even the name – of the Government of Canada through an aggressive focus on branding.
Government ads and websites feature heavy splashes of blue – the colour of the Conservative Party – and press releases promote the accomplishments of the “Harper government.” At times, these changes have riled the bureaucracy.
Millions were spent to promote the government’s stimulus plan under a branding scheme that will continue this year as “Economic Action Plan 2012” – even though stimulus spending is over.
Now, amid a push for smaller government, public servants will play a smaller part in this communications machine.
The Department of Public Works, in an effort to save money over the long term, is asking private-sector firms to comment on a proposal for a new national procurement strategy that would govern all communications contracts.
But the proposed plan is silent on the subject of oversight, an area some say is sorely lacking in the federal system as the Conservative government spends increasing amounts of tax dollars on self-promotion.
There have been calls for Ottawa to follow the lead of Ontario, where ad campaigns must be approved by an independent Advertising Review Board of the Auditor-General to ensure ads aren’t directly or indirectly promoting the political party in power.
“The [federal]government is putting this amazing emphasis on communications – and that might be appropriate – but there’s no one overseeing the boundary of whether the government is spending taxpayers’ money on essentially partisan policies,” said Jonathan Rose, a member of the Advertising Review Board of Ontario and a political-science professor at Queen’s University. “The Economic Action Plan was clearly a partisan policy, but taxpayers foot the bill for it.”
The proposed overhaul of Public Works communications contracting will cover the $181-million a year the government spends on advertising, public relations and marketing; public-opinion research, exposition and exhibit work; and events management and audiovisual production.
Government-wide spending on advertising more than tripled since the Conservatives first won office, growing to $136.3-million in 2009-10 from $41.3-million in 2005-06. Much of the increase was driven by the $53.8-million spent in 2009-2010 promoting the Economic Action Plan.
The review could mean further outsourcing of entry-level public-service work such as media-monitoring services, which could be obtained more cheaply by private-sector firms. But it also appears to cover work that would traditionally be handled by senior public servants.
The details are outlined in a 49-page Public Works report called Proposed National Procurement Strategy: Communications Services.
“It should be noted that the federal government is moving away from conducting communication services internally and in turn relying more on industry to meet its needs for communication services,” the report says.
As for using PR firms to save money, the report says there are already cases in which “PR consultants are involved in the whole life cycle of a public program, including idea conception, creation and development, communications planning and implementation, auditing and evaluation.”
Public Works and all other departments are under pressure to cut costs by at least 5 per cent, and possibly more than 10 per cent, as part of the Conservative government’s efforts to erase the deficit. That’s in addition to the $172-million in cuts Public Works announced in 2011, affecting 687 jobs.
A Public Works spokesman said the aim of the review of communications services is to find ways to deliver them “smarter, faster and at a reduced cost for Canadians.”
There are no details as to what more outsourcing would mean for the hundreds of communications employees who work inside the public service.
A recent analysis of the government employee directory by the Hill Times newspaper found about 1,500 communications staffers working in federal offices across Canada, including 87 combined in the Prime Minister’s Office and Privy Council Office.
The review of contract rules, including those for advertising, comes as some in the industry say it is time to loosen the strict regime built up in the wake of the Liberal sponsorship scandal.
Federal ad contract rules were tightened in 2003 after it was revealed that government money was being directed to Liberal-connected firms, a scandal that led to the launch in 2004 of an explosive public inquiry led by Mr. Justice John Gomery.
Even though the government is looking to save money, some in the industry say the rules are currently weighted too heavily toward cost, rather than creativity.
“There is a balance there and I think post-Gomery, the pendulum swayed a little bit more to the financials so they could ensure that there was absolutely no subjective aspects in there and I think time has passed,” said Jani Yates, president of the Institute of Communications Agencies, an industry association representing communications and ad firms.