Part 1: Introduction

Government and parliamentary publicity and advertising.

What is this report about?

This report is about how public funds are managed in relation to government and parliamentary publicity and advertising.

Publicity and advertising are legitimate, but inherently sensitive, areas of government and parliamentary spending. Advertising involves bringing matters of parliamentary or government business to the attention of the public – an action that, in turn, may raise the political profile of the Ministers, Members of Parliament (MPs), or parliamentary parties1 involved.

The nature and purpose of any spending on publicity or advertising at public expense may be questioned, in Parliament or by the community. The likelihood of scrutiny increases in the lead-up to elections.

This makes it important to have clearly understood standards of conduct, underpinned by sound administrative practices, and a means of ensuring accountability.

This report examines the existing administrative framework and practices, and identifies where, in our view, changes are needed.

Who, and what, is involved?

Those who use public resources for publicity and advertising can be divided into 3 groups. They are:

  • Ministers of the Crown, and their staff;
  • government departments, Crown entities, and other central government entities; and
  • parliamentary party leaders, their staff, and other MPs.

The current administrative framework for these 3 groups is complex. It includes:

  • 2 sets of guidelines:
    • The Cabinet Manual 20012 – Appendix 2: Guidelines for Government Advertising. These guidelines apply to Ministers and government departments, and, indirectly, to Crown entities. We refer to this set of guidelines as the Government Advertising Guidelines. They are reproduced in Appendix 1 of this report.
    • The Members’ Handbook of Services. Section 1.3 of these guidelines applies to MPs and parliamentary parties. We refer to this set of guidelines as the Members’ Handbook Guidelines. They are reproduced in Appendix 2 of this report.
  • 3 different sources of funding – ministerial, government department, and parliamentary – and different Ministers responsible for the funding; and
  • different agencies with different management roles and responsibilities:
    • the Department of Internal Affairs provides services to Ministers through its Ministerial Services business unit;
    • individual government departments, Crown entities, and other central government entities provide services to the public, and are responsible for making the public aware of those services through publicity and advertising; and
    • the Parliamentary Service provides support services to MPs and parliamentary parties.

Figure 1
The current administrative framework

Figure 1.

Definitions of publicity and advertising

We use the terms “publicity” and “advertising” as having separate meanings, depending on the manner in which the material is published or disseminated. Our definitions reflect how the terms are used under the current administrative framework.

We use the term publicity in a wide sense, to encompass all forms of communication that are designed to convey information in a promotional manner to an audience of more than one person. Publicity includes:

  • posters, pamphlets, brochures, advertisements, and newsletters;
  • stationery, business cards, and other material designed to promote an individual, entity, or brand;
  • information designed for use by the media, including releases, statements, background material; and
  • websites and other forms of electronic communication.

Advertising, in its ordinary sense, is how publicity material is published or otherwise made available to the public (or a section of the public). Advertising is usually disseminated on an indiscriminate basis. Advertising may, for example, be undertaken by:

  • purchasing space in a newspaper or on a billboard, or time on radio or television;
  • distributing material on an unsolicited basis, through mail-outs or other forms of direct marketing; or
  • offering information to the public, either on a website or by other means.

A newsletter, for example, that is sent only to a specified group of recipients, or a promotional brochure that is distributed only to people who have indicated an interest in a particular area of government or parliamentary business, may be “publicity” but is not “advertising”.

We exclude from the definition of “publicity” any information or document that a public entity must produce for formal accountability purposes (for example, an annual report).

Why are we interested in government and parliamentary publicity and advertising?

Over the years, we have regularly been called on – by Ministers, and by government department chief executives – to give independent assurance on whether proposed advertising complies with existing guidelines. We also investigate complaints about improper spending on government publicity and advertising.

We have not sought this role. Rather, the situation has arisen because there is no centralised oversight of government publicity and advertising.

The volume and sophistication of government and parliamentary publicity and advertising has noticeably increased over the past decade. The introduction of the mixed member proportional (MMP) electoral system (see paragraphs 2.23-2.27) has been one of several factors contributing to this increase.

During 2004, we received a number of requests for assurance about proposed government advertising campaigns, including a ministerial promotion of government drug policies, and a campaign to advertise the new entitlements available through the Working for Families programme. For the first time, we received a number of complaints related to publicity undertaken by a parliamentary party. In another first, we also had a parliamentary party come to us seeking assurance that its proposed advertisement complied with the applicable guidelines.

Our review of these matters has confirmed the extent of disparity and confusion that exists about the various guidelines applied to government and parliamentary publicity and advertising, and the way the guidelines are administered. Our review has also heightened our concern about the lack of transparency and accountability for this area of spending.

The problems with the existing framework are:

  • the 2 sets of guidelines are not complementary, and are confusing to those who must apply them;
  • much of the spending of public funds on publicity and advertising is not transparent. This makes it difficult to quantify the overall cost to the public purse; and
  • administrative structures and oversight mechanisms are complex, and diffuse.

These systemic problems, and the associated changes that we have observed, led us to question whether the existing administrative framework is still able to manage publicly funded publicity and advertising.

We decided that it would be timely to report comprehensively to Parliament about the situation, to provide an informed basis for further discussion.

What our report does not cover

Our report does not cover the administration of advertising that is generated by political parties using their own private funds, nor the publicly funded broadcasting by political parties during an election campaign.

Our report does not attempt to provide a comprehensive analysis of issues about publicity and advertising undertaken by Crown entities and State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). Many of the concerns we raise may be relevant to those entities. However, this will depend on what they are doing, and their degree of independence and autonomy.

How we prepared this report

We prepared an issues paper to discuss with parliamentary party leaders. Most leaders accepted our invitation to meet with them to discuss the issues. We also met with the then Speaker of the House, and 3 former senior MPs.

We held separate discussions with the Cabinet Office, the State Services Commission, the Department of Internal Affairs, the Parliamentary Service, and the Electoral Commission.

We studied the government and parliamentary publicity and advertising practices used in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. We then travelled to Australia, to obtain first-hand accounts of the practices at the Federal Government level, and at State Government level in New South Wales.

Finally, we circulated this report in draft to a number of government departments and agencies, and to the leaders of all parliamentary parties. All the parties that responded agreed that the report is an accurate and fair description of past and current practice. There was also broad agreement that Part 5 of the report offers a starting point for further work on this difficult topic. However, some leaders were concerned about aspects of our proposals – particular about how any new rules on Ministerial and parliamentary party publicity would be enforced. We have recorded those concerns in more detail in Part 5.

A number of other helpful comments were received, which we have reflected in the report.

We are grateful to all who took part, for the helpful way in which they addressed the topic, and for the wide range of useful suggestions that we received. We hope that our report will stimulate further consideration of the issues by the House, and the agencies that are responsible for these matters.

1: The term “parliamentary party” refers to a party of sitting Members of Parliament. The term “political party” refers to a registered political party organisation.

2: Cabinet Manual 2001, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Wellington.

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