Part 2: A complex and changing environment

Government and parliamentary publicity and advertising.

In this Part, we discuss the environment in which government and parliamentary publicity and advertising occurs. We discuss:

We conclude that this area of public expenditure needs to be reviewed.

Our starting premise – 3 guiding principles

At the start of this project, we identified 3 principles that inform existing policy and practice. Most of the people we talked to when preparing this report accepted the principles. The principles are also widely accepted in other jurisdictions. We describe them as:

  • democratic interaction;
  • public accessibility; and
  • proper purpose.
Democratic interaction
Dialogue between elected representatives and the public is a valid and fundamental aspect of a democracy. MPs are expected to inform the public of their activities in Parliament, and to seek the public’s involvement in parliamentary processes.
Publicity and advertising are, therefore, an integral part of representative democracy and accountability.
MPs and parliamentary parties may legitimately use public funds for publicity and advertising, to help them to meet these expectations. Similar dialogue is expected between Ministers and those who have an interest in their portfolio responsibilities.
Public accessibility
All members of the public can expect access to comprehensive information about current and proposed government policies, programmes, and services that affect their obligations, rights, entitlements, and interests.
In meeting this expectation, governments may legitimately use public funds for information programmes or education campaigns to explain government policies, programmes and services, and to inform members of the public of their obligations, rights, and entitlements.
This principle is an extension of the principles of open government which are articulated in the opening provisions of the Official Information Act 1982.
Proper purpose
Parliamentary and ministerial communications take place in a political environment. But taxpayers do not pay for political parties’ publicity, except to the extent that it derives indirectly from the proper conduct of parliamentary or ministerial business.
This is broadly consistent with the accepted position in New Zealand that the State does not fund political parties.3

Balancing competing interests in a complex environment

Our 3 guiding principles, when taken together, reflect a convention about the relationship between the systems of executive and parliamentary government, and the political process.

As with many conventions, the interests compete and sometimes conflict. Much depends, in particular, on how “party political” business is distinguished from “ministerial” business and “parliamentary” business.

The distinction is not always easy to make. Some “party political” publicity – for example, publicity seeking political party donations – is easy to recognise. But there are large grey areas.

Three other points can be made. The first is that the environment in which much publicly funded publicity and advertising takes place is inherently “political”. The players include both politicians and administrators. It is important that each understands the needs and requirements of the other.

Secondly, what is acceptable in publicly funded publicity or advertising may depend on the context. For example, there may be no objection to a government MP including political comment about a new government policy in a newsletter that is posted on the MP’s parliamentary website. But it is important that the official government advertising of the policy be free of any party or other political references.

Thirdly, it is inevitable that people will have different views about what constitutes an unacceptable party political advantage from publicly funded publicity and advertising, even in a given context.

This is not, therefore, an easy or straightforward area of public management – as acknowledged in other jurisdictions. For example, in the United Kingdom, it is recognised that the effectiveness with which the Government communicates its policies and presents information about them to the public carries political benefits. The United Kingdom’s Cabinet Office publication Guidance on the work of the Government Information Service4 states – It is possible that a well-founded publicity campaign can create political credit for the Party in Government. But this must not be the primary or a significant purpose of Government information or publicity activities paid for from public funds.

The reality is that governing parties – and those in Parliament – have advantages over others. However, those advantages should not be taken for granted. There are strong influences and incentives at work in this area of public expenditure. A common message that we heard in our discussions with party leaders was that “boundary pushing” is not only inevitable, but also largely irreversible after it happens.

In our view, it is essential, in such an environment, to have rules and standards that are not only relevant and applicable to all types of publicity, but also widely understood, and accepted by, those to whom they apply. Their benefit is to provide a framework for commonsense decisions, based on the exercise of good judgement. Without clear guidance, judgements will continue to be surrounded by political controversy.

Changing practices and patterns of behaviour

Government advertising practices were last reviewed in this country in 1989. However, much has changed since then. In particular:

  • publicity and advertising practice has evolved;
  • advertising by parliamentary parties has increased; and
  • the influence of the MMP electoral system has emerged.

Evolution of publicity and advertising practice

The theory and practice of communications and marketing, which includes publicity and advertising, have become increasingly multi-dimensional, as technology and audience expectations become more sophisticated. The existing administrative framework was designed largely for paid advertising, and is increasingly out of date in other ways.

An effective publicity campaign nowadays is strategic and multi-faceted:

  • Mass advertising of government policies by pamphlet, poster, and through the mainstream media is now routinely supported, or supplemented, by websites and a range of other information.
  • Ministers and MPs routinely communicate – sometimes interactively – through the Internet with the public and constituents.
  • Readily available computer software enables attractive, professional looking material – from newsletters and booklets to fridge magnets and desk calendars – to be produced at low cost, for quick and easy distribution.

The exponential growth in publicity and advertising has been matched by increases in the resources available to governments for such purposes. Ministerial support funding provides substantial budgets for communications services – including websites and printing – for individual Ministers’ offices (including the Office of the Prime Minister).

In our view, these changes create powerful, but understandable, incentives for governments to introduce party-oriented perspectives to publicly funded publicity and advertising. This can place considerable pressure on public servants who serve Ministers.

For example, an advertising campaign by a government department is largely the responsibility of the Chief Executive, subject to financial expenditure limits (see paragraph 3.22). It is increasingly likely that such a campaign will form a single component of an integrated government publicity strategy co-ordinated at Ministerial level – the overall goal of which is to present the Government’s policies in the best political light for the party or parties that make up the Government at the time. Public servants would have little, if any, involvement in or ability to influence that wider strategy.

A number of Crown entities (for example, the Accident Compensation Corporation, and Land Transport New Zealand) also engage in extensive advertising using Crown funding. The Government Advertising Guidelines implicitly apply to that activity, which is otherwise subject to the same forms of oversight and accountability as apply to Crown entities in general.

The growth of parliamentary party advertising

In the time since government advertising practices were last reviewed, significant public resources have become available to all parliamentary parties to support their parliamentary activities.

For governing parties, these resources provide an additional source of public funds to supplement those available through Ministerial support funding. (In practice, the same Ministerial staff usually administer both budgets.) For opposition and other parties, the public funds can be used to provide resources and facilities to publicise policies and activities in the parliamentary context.

Again, there are strong incentives to promote the parliamentary party in these activities. The most spectacular manifestation of this has been the use by some parliamentary parties of full-page newspaper advertisements and outdoor billboards to promote particular policy initiatives.

Figure 2
Examples of publicly funded parliamentary party advertising

Newspaper advertisements
Several parliamentary parties have used full-page newspaper advertisements to highlight issues or provide information; for example:
  • The National parliamentary party, to raise its concerns about the Government’s approach to the Foreshore and Seabed Bill.
  • The United Future parliamentary party, to outline its services and activities in Parliament.
Billboard publicity
Several parliamentary parties have used billboards to raise the profile of issues being discussed in Parliament, or to state their positions on specific business before the House. For example:
  • the United Future parliamentary party advertised its position on applying GST to rates;
  • the National parliamentary party advertised its position on the Foreshore and Seabed Bill; and
  • the New Zealand First parliamentary party advertised its views on crime, immigration, and the Treaty of Waitangi.

The influence of the mixed member proportional electoral system

The growth in parliamentary party and ministerial support funding is a direct consequence of the MMP form of representation that took effect at the 1996 general election. It is also helpful to understand that changing patterns of behaviour in relation to ministerial and parliamentary party publicity – and its increasing emphasis on raising the profile of political parties – are MMP-driven.

MMP is fundamentally a party-based electoral system. It has changed not only the way in which MPs are elected, but also the way in which governments are formed and managed. Over time, MMP has also driven fundamental changes in governments’ behaviour. This can be seen most clearly in the formulating of government policy, and the preparation of proposals for legislation.

Under the previous (first-past-the-post) system, coalitions of interest on policy issues were usually formed within the major political parties, and translated into action by majority, single-party governments. Now, in an era of coalition and/or minority governments, they are more often formed between several different parties.

Inevitably, these changes have increased the influence of political parties. In the parliamentary context, this has led to an increase in the sophistication of parliamentary party support infrastructure. A related effect in government has been the need to more actively manage inter-party relationships – with a matching increase in staffing.

The nature of MMP politics also makes it essential for parties to differentiate themselves from each other, both in Parliament and when in government, and visibly to take ownership of particular policies and initiatives. Party poll ratings have become important throughout the electoral cycle, because they help to determine a party’s voter support base going into an election. Continuous visibility of the party to the electorate is, obviously, critical to poll success.

The consequences of changing patterns of behaviour

In our view, these changing practices and patterns of behaviour are irresistible trends that have 3 significant consequences for the integrity of public funds spent on publicity and advertising. The consequences are that:

  • it is increasingly difficult for publicity and advertising by government departments to be kept free of party political benefit (perceived or actual);
  • there is increased potential for Ministers and parliamentary parties to gain party political advantage; and
  • the administrative framework for publicity and advertising now has insufficient transparency and accountability.

Increased difficulties for government department publicity and advertising

The first consequence affects government departments that are directed to undertake publicity and advertising to inform the public of policies, entitlements, and such. Advertising prepared by a department may meet all the requirements of legitimacy and political neutrality. However, other ministerial and parliamentary publicity activities could mean that there is a greater risk that the publicity and advertising will be used to achieve indirect political benefits for a governing party. This makes it more difficult for public servants to exercise the type of judgement that is necessary in complying with their obligations.

For example, it may suit a government department’s communications objective to establish an easily recognisable brand for a set of entitlements. An example is the Working for Families brand, currently used to tell the public about new financial entitlements. A brand may be free of any explicit party political references. However, if the advertising campaign is part of a wider, more politically driven, publicity strategy, there is a greater risk that the brand will have value to the Government as a political tool. This in turn would open the department to the risk of having the non-political objective of its own campaign undermined. It would also make it harder for the public servants involved to preserve political neutrality, as is required by the Public Service Code of Conduct.

This makes it important for Ministers and chief executives of government departments to clarify their respective roles, and responsibilities, in relation to publicity and advertising.

Increased potential for Ministers and parliamentary parties to gain party political advantage

The second consequence of the changing patterns of behaviour is that they raise a question about what manner of party political advantage is acceptable from publicly funded publicity and advertising – in particular, in material that comes from Ministers’ and parliamentary party leaders’ offices.

We have observed that publicity focusing on governing parties’ achievements in government has grown in both volume and sophistication during the past 5 years. Explicit references to governing parties, and statements differentiating them from previous administrations, had already become apparent in some ministerial publicity in the second half of the 1990s. Such references are now commonplace.

More recently still, we have observed in ministerial publicity the use of branding techniques – in the form of unofficial logos, colour schemes, and slogans – which do not name the governing parties but, nevertheless, appear designed to present them in a favourable light.

We have also observed that much parliamentary party publicity and advertising is of a highly political nature – both in the manner of its presentation and in the language used. Even if the publicity and advertising is for clear parliamentary purposes, there is undoubtedly significant potential for collateral “party political” benefit.

However, it does not necessarily follow that ministerial or parliamentary material should be subject to the same constraints that apply to publicity and advertising generated by government departments. Parliament has allocated public funds to the offices of Ministers and parliamentary party leaders, which they can legitimately spend on publicity and advertising. That material is prepared in a “political” context, which is likely to be reflected in its content, and manner of presentation.

Lack of transparency and accountability

The third consequence is a lack of transparency and accountability. It is difficult for an observer of the current administrative framework to understand how publicity and advertising is funded, commissioned, and conducted. It is also difficult to establish how compliance with relevant standards is monitored. The preceding discussion helps to explain why different standards have evolved for different forms of publicity and advertising. However, the rationale for the differences is not clear – to the public, to those who administer the current guidelines, or to those who incur the expenditure.

The lack of transparency is also a problem in the area of publicly funded websites. The usefulness of many websites is enhanced by their links to other related sites, providing more comprehensive information on matters of interest to the website visitor. However, it is becoming difficult to differentiate websites that are publicly funded, endorsed by government departments, and which provide government information, from those that are associated with political bodies and disseminate political information.

We are firmly of the view that the funding arrangements and accountability for government and parliamentary publicity and advertising need to be clarified. A better framework for publicity and advertising is needed, to ensure that the necessary guidance is in place, and to promote good practice in the creation of advertising campaigns, the presentation of website material, and the procurement of contractors and advertising space.

Public confidence in the integrity of publicly funded publicity and advertising depends as much on the integrity of the underlying administrative framework as it does on the adequacy of the guidance available.

Our conclusion

We consider that it is time to review the area of publicly funded publicity and advertising. Such a review should address:

  • the provision of a framework of rules and guidance surrounding all types of publicly funded publicity and advertising, with a clearly understood set of principles, standards, and expectations that can be consistently applied;
  • the funding arrangements for government department, ministerial, and parliamentary party publicity and advertising; and
  • the administrative and oversight arrangements.

3: This position is clearly set out in the Government response to the Report of the Electoral Law Committee on the Inquiry into the Report of the Royal Commission on the Electoral System, I.20, 1989. Broadcasting time allocated during a general election campaign is the only form of State funding available to political – as opposed to parliamentary – parties.

4: Published in July 1997. Available on the website

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