NASA tweeting that Congress should give it more money so our astronauts won’t have to ride on Russian rockets. Recovery.gov reporting overly optimistic statistics on jobs saved and created by stimulus funds. The Department of Health and Human Service Web site encouraging the public to “state your support for health care reform” during the congressional debate over Obamacare.
These are just some recent examples of the executive branch using our tax dollars to shape our opinions. Unlike the National Security Agency’s personal data collection or the overuse of “secret” stamps to withhold information, this government-produced propaganda receives almost no attention. But that doesn’t mean this “third dimension” of government information is not a problem. America becomes less democratic when the $3 trillion executive branch uses its resources to tilt the debate in its favor.
Of course, a democratic government has an obligation to inform and be transparent. Citizens need to know the government’s policies and plans. We have a right to know which companies receive government contracts, how to collect insurance benefits and social security payments and what public school educational reform will look like. But too often, the government uses its information machinery to do more than simply inform us about a policy. Sometimes, it tries to persuade us to adopt a particular position, regardless of its efficacy.
Consider, for example, the Department of Labor’s campaign to raise the minimum wage, a topic on which there is considerable debate. Raising the minimum wage, the Congressional Budget Office points out, will eliminate some jobs. Still, the government devotes a Web page to the topic that proclaims, “See how raising the national minimum wage will benefit America’s workers.” Americans are invited to tell the Labor Department why they “support raising the federal minimum wage.” Twitter users can see a video of a squiggle of mustard spelling out “#RaiseTheWage” on a hot dog, a reference to the recent interest group advocacy to pay fast-food employers more money. The Labor Department’s Web page treats raising the minimum wage as an unalloyed good and labels possible job losses a “myth.”
Such aggressive communications are neither novel nor exceptional. Government agencies historically have made a habit of crossing the blurry line between informing the public and propagandizing.
Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s 1791 report on manufacturing promoted policies to grow the nation into a commercial republic. President Woodrow Wilson’s Committee on Public Information recruited 75,000 members of the public to give speeches in favor of such World War I measures as Liberty Bonds and the draft, blanketed the nation with pamphlets and posters, and generally set in motion the modern publicity apparatus that exists today
A decade ago, the Government Accountability Office faulted the second Bush administration’s Department of Health and Human Services for overselling the benefits of the new Medicare law. Several years before, in 1997, the GAO caught the State Department paying a consultant to write op-ed pieces in support of the Clinton administration’s policy on Central America.
As these revelations dribble out, they sometimes become fodder for vitriolic partisan political battles, and occasionally prompt congressional hearings. Just three years ago, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Republicans issued a report detailing various propagandizing efforts by the Obama administration. Democrat Rep. Henry A. Waxman leveled similar accusations during the second Bush administration. But the issue then gets forgotten until the next propaganda scandal erupts.
This cycle has been occurring for at least a century, and it repeats itself because no corrective mechanisms are in place. There is no systematic monitoring of government information. Inspectors general and the GAO do not regularly report on agency communications. No congressional committee has jurisdiction over government information.
The scope of the third dimension is difficult to assess. In 2014, the government spent $760 million to hire private advertising firms, according to USASpending.gov. The contracts purchased advertising space on all forms of media, marketing research and opinion polling, message-crafting assistance and more.
That figure does not include the salaries of the innumerable federal employees who promote their agencies’ work in print, on air and online. It does not include the anti-drug media campaigns, or the cost of printing and publishing reports and government journals, such as the Federal Highway Administration’s Public Roads magazine. Speaking of publishing, the Government Publishing Office, which costs $110 million to operate, has more than a million publications online.
The Internet has only exacerbated this problem by making it so easy to communicate with the public. Not long after President Obama arrived in office, his administration carried out an audit of federal government Web sites. They found 24,000 of them.
The Obama administration has made heavy use of social media, which was so successful during his run for president. The Department of Commerce has a YouTube channel. The Environmental Protection Agency — to name just one of the 120 government agencies — has about two dozen Twitter accounts. It uses a social media tool called Thunderclap, which spreads messages so widely that an agency communications official calls it a “virtual flash mob.”
EPA communications to the public include both factual updates on the agency’s response to the Gold King Mine spill and aggressive advocacy in favor of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Presidential appointees spinning for an administration is unobjectionable. But using agencies as presidential messaging machines sullies the civil service, which is supposed to be nonpartisan.
Congress has tried to curb this behavior. In 1913 it passed legislation forbidding, without its expressed approval, the expenditure of appropriated funds on “publicity experts.” Several years later, it enacted its grass-roots lobbying ban, which forbids the executive branch from using tax dollars to whip up public pressure to influence law-making.
Each year appropriations bills forbid agencies from spending funds for “publicity or propaganda purposes.” But this has done little good. As noted by Mordecai Lee, one of the few scholars to pay any attention to this issue, agencies have given their communications staff different titles, such as “public affairs specialist,” and renamed their communications “outreach” and “public education.”
The GAO defines “propaganda” very narrowly as government information that is not labeled as such. Unfortunately, it otherwise has proven all but impossible to write a law that absolutely differentiates information from advocacy.
Congress again is trying to do something about government information in a modest way. The Taxpayer Transparency Act of 2015 would force agencies to label their ads and media as government-produced, which agencies do not always do.
But this reform would be even more helpful if it required agencies to cite and share the sources for their “facts.” Where, for example, are the Department of Labor data that prove hot dog venders earn less than $9 an hour?
Congress should direct agencies to annually inventory the number of public communications they produce, the number of staff who assist in communications, and the approximate cost. These reports should additionally reference whatever laws authorize agencies to communicate with the public and for what purposes.
All these data should be submitted to the Government Accountability Office, which can audit the data, and then publish publicly an overall inventory of government public communications.
This is only a start, of course. But it would be a big step ahead of where we are now. Just as setting the federal minimum wage is a ripe subject for energetic political debate and decision-making, so too is the third dimension.