The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Taxpayers Fund Absurd Government Marketing

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


According to Gallup, Americans’ trust in government rests near an all-time low.  Gallup’s 2015 survey found that, “Fewer than three-in-ten Americans have expressed trust in the federal government in every major national poll conducted since July 2007 – the longest period of low trust in government in more than 50 years.”  There are copious reasons for this valid opinion. 

Waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement are indeed rampant in Washington and there are ever more avenues to expose the frequent instances of government failure.  In an effort to help put a better face on the lackluster quality of government work, many federal departments and agencies have opted to spend taxpayer money on public relations.  A December 14, 2015 Forbes article dubbed the federal government, “The 2nd Largest PR Firm in the World.” 

A September 30, 2016, Government Accountability Office report found that federal departments spent an average of $1 billion per year on advertising and PR activities since fiscal year (FY) 2006.  The report was requested by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), who said, “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.”

PR spending peaked in 2009 at $1.81 billion, President Barack Obama’s first year in office.  However, after dropping to $702 million in FY 2012, spending on PR increased from FY 2013 to FY 2015, when it reached $798 million.  Those taxpayer dollars were spent on various advertising campaigns and used to pay 5,086 PR staffers, whose salaries averaged $90,000 per year.  In FY 2015, the Department of Defense spent the most, $591 million, followed by the Department of Health and Human Services, which spent $114 million. 

Aside from the question about whether this money should even be spent, the manner in which the funds are spent is should also alarm taxpayers.  The rules and regulations that define the difference between advertising and lobbying are vague, and agencies often blur or cross that line.  For example, the State Department spent $630,000 to entice Facebook users to “like” its page, while NASA spent $390,000 on a campaign featuring the Green Ninja, a superhero created by the agency to educate children about climate change and tell Americans not to eat certain foods like steak, because it is allegedly harmful to the environment.  From 2009-2013, the U.S. Army spent $23.6 million on PR efforts in Afghanistan, at the same time the United States was withdrawing forces.  The Department of Labor spent an unknown amount on a six-second Vine video on National Hot Dog Day that featured someone writing #RaiseTheWage in mustard on the hot dog.    

PR expenditures have caught the attention of members of Congress.  H.R. 310, the Taxpayer Transparency Act, was introduced by Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) on January 13, 2015, and is currently being considered by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  The bill would require any communication using taxpayer dollars from a federal department to state or prominently display that, “the communication is printed or published at taxpayer expense.”  While this bill will not solve the proliferation of potentially wasteful PR spending, it would help shed some much needed public sunlight on messages directed to and paid for by taxpayers and perhaps lead to a reduction in such payments.

Certainly not all of this spending is wasteful, but when the federal government spends an average of $1 billion per year on outside PR while departments and agencies also employ in-house communications staff, it should be a red flag for taxpayers and watchdog groups alike that waste is lurking.    

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