A $5 million advertising campaign by Services NSW that was designed to help people in financial difficulty was inappropriately used to measure sentiment towards the government, the auditor general has found.
Auditor General Margaret Crawford looked at phases 2 and 3 of the Cost of Living campaign which were run prior to the 2019 NSW election.
The campaign aimed to build awareness of the help available to people struggling with the cost of living, including rebates.
The Government Advertising Act bans government advertising campaigns from being used to influence support for political parties.
But Ms Crawford found that “service NSW inappropriately used its post campaign evaluation to measure sentiment towards and confidence in the NSW Government”.
The post-campaign evaluation included whether it led people to believe the government had their ‘best interests at heart’, despite this not being an objective of the campaign, she said.
Measuring sentiment towards and confidence in the NSW Government is not an appropriate use of the post-campaign evaluation and creates a risk that the results may be used for party political purposes.Margaret Crawford
“Measuring sentiment towards and confidence in the NSW Government is not an appropriate use of the post-campaign evaluation and creates a risk that the results may be used for party political purposes,” Ms Crawford said.
“This risk is heightened as both phases 2 and 3 of the Cost of Living campaign were run immediately before the NSW state election.”
Failure to comply with procurement policy
The Cost of Living campaign involved the creation of a webpage to access more than 40 NSW government savings, rebates and initiatives. It also launched a Cost of Living service including face to face meetings and phone interviews to help people claim rebates from the government.
Phase 2 of the campaign ran from September 2018 to August 2019. Phase 3 of the campaign ran from January 2019 to July 2019.
The budgets for phases 2 and 3 were $4.127 million and $934,800 respectively.
The audit also found Service NSW wasn’t able to demonstrate the campaign was economical as it negotiated with a single supplier for creative materials, at a cost of $731,480.
This was contrary to procurement rules requiring agencies to get three quotes when the estimated cost is more than $150,000, Ms Crawford said.
“Service NSW did not comply with its own procurement policy,” she said.
She also found the campaign may have been misleading for some people who weren’t eligible for rebates, and included statements that underestimated the savings that some customers could obtain.
The NSW Government spent $83.8 million on advertising in 2018–19 and $69.8 million on advertising in 2019–20, the report shows.
The auditor recommends that the department of customer service review its guidance to ensure agencies aren’t using post campaign evaluations to measure sentiment towards the government and ensure
Services NSW CEO Damon Roes said he was pleased the audit had found the campaign largely fulfilled its objectives and complied with regulatory requirements.
However he said Services NSW would “ensure future campaigns continue to comply with … guidelines, including those on measuring sentiment”.
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