Communications staff in core public service up 50 percent since Labour came into government - National

By Giles Dexter of RNZ

The number of communications staff working in the core public service has tipped over the 500 mark, an increase of more than 50 percent since Labour took office.

The data, collated by National, and verified by RNZ, showed there were 532.4 fulltime equivalent staff and contractors working in 32 different departments within the core public service (the data does not include Crown entities such as Te Whatu Ora or Waka Kotahi, or departments in the executive branch like the Defence Force or police).

The figures come from responses submitted by the different departments to select committee questions over their 2021-22 Annual Reviews. While the reviews covered the year ended 30 June, the responses were given in February and March of this year.

The 7.5 percent increase between 2020-21 and 2021-22 happened despite new guidance from the Public Service Commission over how to record communications staff.

National's public service spokesperson Simeon Brown accused the government of trying to reduce the numbers through changing the definition, but still overseeing a "bloated bureaucracy."

"The numbers have gone up, because this government has not got control of its public service. In terms of the number of staff, it just continues to blow out of control."

In September 2022, the Public Service Commission established a new "commonly understood" definition of the function of a communications professional, which they hoped would be more consistent and transparent.

"Communications professionals engage in a broad range of functions primarily focused on public-facing communications channels such as media, social media, and publications," the guidance said.

Qualifying roles include media advisers, comms advisers, corporate comms, internal comms, social media, and press secretaries.

The updated definition meant marketing specialists (including content creators and videographers) and liaison staff (such as event management and stakeholder engagement) were taken out.

In their responses, nine departments explicitly referred to applying the advice when tallying the number of communications staff.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), Land Information New Zealand (LINZ), the Public Service Commission, and the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) all applied the guidance, and reported large decreases in their communications staff numbers compared to the previous year.

MFAT's decreased from 28.3 to 16.2, LINZ's from 21 to 10, the Public Service Commission's from 16 to 6.5, and IRD's from 34.3 to 18.9.

MFAT's report showed it would have had 26.2 FTE staff, if it hadn't applied the guidance.

In its own report, the Public Service Commission noted that because its numbers were reported under the new definition, they were "not comparable to previous years".

"Prior reporting included staff who were members of 'communications teams' but who did not undertake public relations or communications work", the report said.

The Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Social Development (MSD), the Department of Corrections, and the Ministry of Health, on the other hand, applied the guidance and found their numbers had increased.

Justice's staff increased from 9 to 21, Education from 14.8 to 27.8, MSD from 23 to 33.7, Corrections from 20.7 to 21.1, and the Ministry of Health from 14 to 30.

The report from the Ministry of Justice said "more roles were captured" by the commission's guidelines.

"Ministry numbers now also include staff from our External Communications & Engagement, Covid-19 Communications and Communication Channels & Insights teams," the Ministry of Health's report said.

National has repeatedly attacked Labour for overseeing a rise in communications staff and contractors, and Brown said it was something the party plans to address.

"We will be putting a plan together around how we want to address the bloat that we're seeing across the public service. The bloat in communication staff is only one part of that.

"But what we need to see is less resources going into back office public servants, and more resource going into frontline delivery."

'Important role' in providing information

The Public Service Commission's own updated calculations, sent to RNZ on Friday, found there were 506 communications staff across the core public service. They said this was against 60,381 in the total workforce, which is 0.8 percent.

A spokesperson for the commission explained the growth had not been in media advisers.

"Most agencies have between one and six dedicated media personnel and those numbers have not increased over the past five years. Very few 'comms staff' handle queries from journalists.

"For example, excluding the 37 press secretaries (which would likely have been included in DIA's numbers previously), there were 96 dedicated media advisers across the Public Service workforce," they said.

The spokesperson said the public expected unlimited and immediate access to information on their devices.

"Communications teams today provide public information to clients and customers about products and services via social media (e.g. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube).

"These are the channels where New Zealanders expect to get their information. Many of these jobs did not exist before," they said.

"As the new guidance says, communications staff have an important role providing the public and media with information which can involve complex issues, new policies and the availability of services or assistance.

"This includes explaining and publicising laws and regulations and providing helpful advice/guidance on a range of issues from health, to road safety, to biosecurity," they said.

The Government Communications Security Bureau and the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service do not publish Annual Review data, and as such, a number for 2021-22 was assumed based on prior year's figures obtained through Parliamentary written questions.

The closure of the Pike River Recovery Agency meant its data was not in the 2021-22 figures.

The headline on this story was changed because RNZ initially reported the number of stuff had doubled, when the increase is actually 50 percent.