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MEDIA -
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Cadre grows to rein in message

Posted in the database on Monday, February 28th, 2005 @ 23:10:07 MST (2619 views)
by Tom Brune    Newsday.com  

Untitled Document WASHINGTON -- The ranks of federal public affairs officials swelled during the Bush administration's first term, but that hasn't meant that government information is easier to get.

The staffs that handle public relations for government agencies grew even faster than the federal work force, personnel records show, yet at the same time the White House tightened its control over messages to the news media and restricted access to public information.

"The role of public affairs officers is not to make information available to the public, as one would naively assume," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the nonpartisan Federation of American Scientists.

"Rather," he said, "it is to regulate public access to information, which is something quite different."

The White House declined to comment on the trend. Staffing changes are up to the agencies, not the White House, spokeswoman Erin Healy said.

According to one expert, however, the White House appoints the departments' communications directors and talks with them daily. And records indicate that agencies with the biggest growth in PR staff also deal with urgent or controversial issues, such as war or the environment.

Between September 2000 and September 2004, the number of public affairs officials rose 9 percent, from 4,327 to 4,703, in executive-branch agencies, according to U.S. Office of Personnel Management statistics. Meanwhile, the federal work force grew 6 percent.

The cost of public affairs staffing has grown by more than $50 million, records show, from $279 million in 2000 to $332 million in 2003, the last year for which figures are available.

The increase did not occur evenly across agencies. The agencies adding staff include Defense, State, Agriculture, Interior and the Social Security Administration, while Health and Human Services and Labor shed PR officers, the figures show.

The Pentagon, fighting two wars and mired in a prolonged occupation, added the greatest number of PR officials, 173 for a total of 1,812. But it still accounted for less than half the total.

The new Department of Homeland Security added only a few members to its 139 public affairs specialists since most transferred from other departments.

Representatives for the agencies offered a variety of reasons for the changes in their PR staffs, from routine promotions to handling a surge of interest in the plight of Florida's manatees.

And in the case of the Social Security Administration - where PR staffing jumped a third, up 45 to a total of 173 - the increase resulted from a plan created by the Clinton administration.

Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University professor who talked to top Bush aides about administration-news media relations, said the White House may not dictate staff size, but it has exerted control by selecting each agency's communications director and by holding daily telephone conferences with them.

"With the interest the administration has shown in the departments and in coordinating what they say, it is not surprising to see such a growth in public affairs officers," Kumar said. "They operate as an echo to what the president has said."

But the control over information goes beyond its dealings with the news media.

Citing terrorism concerns, the administration also has removed reports from federal Web sites and public libraries, classified more documents as secret and made it more difficult than before to get material under the Freedom of Information Act, advocates and experts say.

Most recently, both sides in Congress and even the president condemned the departments of Education and Health and Human Services for covertly contracting with columnists Armstrong Williams and Maggie Daly to promote Bush policies on schools and marriage.

Federal public affairs officials defend their activities. "We're not focused on just being the mouthpiece of the organization for information that is good," said George Lennon, an 18-year veteran and communications director of the Forest Service.

He said they serve as the public's advocates with government officials and handle a variety of tasks, including speech and technical writing, event logistics and working with advisory panels.

He requires his staff to be responsive to the news media but tells them to first serve the public. "I remind them the press is a tool," he said.

Nearly half the jump at Agriculture came at its Forest Service, which oversees the vast tracts of national forests and now has 306 public affairs staff.

Lennon said his staff grew, in part, because of a growing number of advisory panels required by Congress and a controversial program that opens some forests to logging over environmentalists objections.

Lennon said he also believes more information is available now than before but concedes changes have occurred under Bush. President Bill Clinton's staff did little to track contacts with the news media, he said. But now, he said, after talking with Newsday for this story, he would have to call his boss to report the interview.

Mixed message

Increases in the number of federal public affairs officers have not necessarily made it easier to get information out of the government. Below are agencies that have gained and lost public affairs officers in the first four years of the Bush administration.

Up . . .

These departments gained public affairs personnel from September 2000 to September 2004.

Employees Sept. 2000, Sept. 2004

State 102, 140

Social Security 128, 173

Interior 216, 266

Agriculture 536, 619

Defense 1,639, 1,812

Percent gain (rounded)

State 37.3%

Social Security 35.2

Interior 23.1

Agriculture 15.5

Defense 10.6

. . . And down

These departments lost public affairs personnel from September 2000 to September 2004.

Employees Sept. 2000, Sept. 2004

Labor 49, 28

Health and Human Services 356, 231

Justice* 152, 116

Energy 106, 96

Commerce 113, 103

Percent loss (rounded)

Labor -42.8%

Health/Human Services -35.1

Justice* -23.1

Energy -9.4

Commerce -8.8

Rate of growth

The rate of increase in public affairs employment has been greater than the rate of increase of total federal employment in the period in question.

Employment September 2000, 2004

All officials 1,752,357, 1,853,744

Public affairs 4,327, 4,703

Officials Percent change

All officials 5.8%

Public affairs officials 8.7

NOTE: Data include only comparable agencies with the exception of the Department of Homeland Security,

whose 139 public affairs officers include 128 transfers in from other agencies.

* Transferred staff to new Department of Homeland Security

SOURCE: OFFICE OF PERSONNEL MANAGEMENT



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