The $1.5 billion a year that agencies spend on public relations mostly focuses on educating the public about their programs and compliance with the laws they enforce, although agencies find it difficult to measure the impact, GAO has said.
GAO examined spending on in-house staff and under contracts at four agencies–the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, FEMA, NASA, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services–on the related activities of advertising, public affairs and public relations. It added that under appropriations laws, agencies are barred from activities that could be considered self-aggrandizing, covert propaganda, partisan advocacy, or lobbying.
CFPB used contracts to raise awareness of its tools to educate and empower consumers to make better financial decisions; FEMA’s contracts and public affairs staff focused on promoting emergency preparedness; NASA used contracts to support the agency’s education and outreach programs; and the largest contracts at USCIS involved outreach on immigration-related eligibility verification systems for employment and benefits.
“Officials told us that the decision to contract a service instead of using public affairs staff, or the level of involvement of public affairs staff, depends on the type of work and who is able to provide the service more efficiently,” GAO said.
It added: “The agencies measured performance of their activities using web-based and other indicators, such as the number of website visits and length of time spent on a page, and reported using this information to inform decision making. However, agency officials identified challenges in measuring the performance of these activities, including a lack of qualitative data on whether and how information is being used. Selected agencies have taken some steps to address these challenges by, for example, administering surveys to obtain additional feedback.”