Public information officers provide a valuable service to taxpayers — as long as they serve the public interest and not the interests of government itself.
On Monday, the Review-Journal examined the sizable communications spending of Southern Nevada’s local governments. Together, Clark County, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Henderson spend more than $8 million per year on public communications, media relations, website and social media management, and television production.
Millions more tax dollars are spent on public communications by the Clark County School District, McCarran International Airport, police and fire departments, the courts, colleges and universities, and state and federal offices. Some of these offices are fairly tight ships. Some of them have become empires.
For example, the city of Las Vegas has a $3.3 million annual budget for its communications team, including $1.9 million for its TV station. The city of Henderson spends $3.5 million, although its office includes aides to council members. Meanwhile, Clark County’s public information office spends less than $1.3 million per year despite having more constituents than both cities combined. And North Las Vegas spends $378,000 per year on communications.
Could all governments spend a whole lot less on public relations? Without question. But providing the press and the public with a contact point for questions and access to information is vital to open government. If the public’s business isn’t made public, the little trust in government that remains would evaporate.
Unfortunately, public information officers sometimes serve as gatekeepers instead of facilitators. They withhold or delay the release of information that could embarrass their appointed bosses, who answer to elected bosses. They serve as call screeners to spare elected officials from questions they don’t want to answer or are unprepared to answer. It’s one thing to serve as a spokesman or spokeswoman for government. But public information officers are not campaign staffers. They are paid by the public, not a candidate for office. Elected officers, who are directly accountable to voters, must be available to the public and must speak for themselves — especially if they are being questioned about personal matters.
Taxpayers have no interest in providing salaries to spin doctors and political operatives. When public information offices become extensions of unresponsive, inefficient governments — when they routinely fail to return calls and say “no comment” otherwise — there’s no reason for them to exist.