Government and parliamentary publicity and advertising.

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


Publicity and advertising are legitimate areas of government and parliamentary spending. But they are also inherently sensitive. The nature and purpose of publicity or advertising, paid for with public funds, is open to being 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.

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 Members of Parliament (MPs).

The administrative framework applying to these 3 groups is complex.

A complex and changing environment

Part 2 of the report describes the environment in which government and parliamentary publicity and advertising occurs. We first describe why public funds are spent on government and parliamentary publicity and advertising, using 3 guiding principles. We found universal acceptance of the 3 guiding principles by those we consulted when preparing the report. The principles are set out in paragraph 2.3.

In paragraphs 2.4 to 2.12, we explore the difficulty of distinguishing between “party political” business (which, as a rule, taxpayers should not fund), and “ministerial” business or “parliamentary party” business (which do involve spending public funds). In our view, there must be a framework enabling commonsense decisions on these distinctions, based on the exercise of good judgement.

But there are also wider issues to consider. Paragraphs 2.13 to 2.27 discuss 3 types of changes that have occurred since government advertising practices were last reviewed in 1989:

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

The consequences of these changes are:

  • 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
  • there is a lack of transparency and accountability in the publicity and advertising administrative framework.

We consider it is time to review 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.

The current administrative framework

Part 3 describes the current administrative framework for government and parliamentary publicity and advertising, including:

  • the separate guidelines that apply to government and parliamentary party advertising;
  • the different funding arrangements, and the different ways in which the costs of advertising and publicity can be met; and
  • who manages the guidelines and funding arrangements, and how.

The parliamentary parties we consulted agreed that the report is an accurate and fair description of past and current practice.

In Part 4, we discuss 4 concerns that we have about the framework:

  • the current guidelines are unclear, produce inconsistent results, and make it difficult to establish the legitimacy of publicity and advertising undertaken by Ministers, government departments, MPs, and parliamentary parties;
  • current arrangements do not support the evolution of best practice in the use of communication techniques, and in procurement of communications services;
  • arrangements surrounding the sources of funding, and disclosure of spending, do not assist transparency; and
  • the administrative arrangements, including those applying to the oversight of the relevant guidelines, do not support accountability.

A new publicity and advertising framework is required

Our analysis in Parts 3 and 4 leads us to the conclusion that the framework for managing publicity and advertising is weak, and needs to be reviewed. Significant improvements are needed to assure the integrity of the overall administrative framework. There is a need for new and more consistent guidelines, better centralised oversight of publicity practices, and more transparent and effective funding and administrative arrangements.

Part 5 of the report outlines a possible new framework for government and parliamentary publicity. The framework would be based on a single overarching set of principles. Complementary rules and standards would apply to the two separate branches of government (legislative and executive). Certain office holders would set the rules, while specific agencies would implement them. The appropriations under which such activities are funded would also be clarified. Our suggestions are informed by overseas practice.

Both Parliament and the Government have an interest and a role to play in establishing a new framework. We envisage that a framework could be created by officials from central agencies of the Government and the Parliamentary Service, under the oversight of relevant Ministers and the Speaker. The Parliamentary Service Commission, as an advisory body to the Speaker, would clearly need to be involved.

There was general agreement, among the parliamentary parties we consulted with, that there should be a single set of principles, with complementary rules and standards, governing the spending of public funds on publicity – whether by departments, Ministers, or parliamentary parties. Most parties also agreed that Part 5 of the report offers a starting point for further work on this difficult topic. Some party leaders were, however, concerned about aspects of our proposals – particularly about how any new rules on Ministerial and parliamentary party publicity would be enforced. It is clear that the detail of such arrangements would need further debate.

Advertising in the pre-election period

The period before a general election has particular implications for publicly funded publicity and advertising. Part 6 of the report outlines the risks that can arise at such times for the integrity of public spending on advertising and publicity, and suggests how those risks can best be managed. We summarise the general election guidance issued by the United Kingdom’s Cabinet Office in 2001, as an example of the sort of comprehensive guidance which, in our view, would be helpful.

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