Service NSW ran an advertising campaign immediately before the state election and then “inappropriately” used its post-campaign evaluation to measure sentiment towards the state government, according to the NSW auditor-general’s latest report.
In 2018–19, the agency delivered phases two and three of its Cost of Living campaign, which aimed to build awareness of the help available for people under financial pressure.
Under government advertising laws, campaigns must not contain the name, voice or image of a minister, member of parliament, or a candidate nominated for election to parliament. They also can’t contain the name, logo or slogan of a political party, and must not be designed to influence support for a political party.
While Service NSW didn’t breach the prohibition on political advertising, the agency “inappropriately” used its post-campaign evaluation to measure sentiment towards and confidence in the state government, the audit found.
“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,” the report said.
“This risk is heightened as both phases two and three of the Cost of Living campaign were run immediately before the NSW state election.”
The audit office noted that it has made this same finding in a previous report, after the State Insurance Regulatory Authority used a post-campaign evaluation to ask the public whether they thought the government was helping to reduce the cost of living by making reforms in a number of areas, including some that were not related to the campaign in question.
Service NSW had measured levels of confidence with the statement “the NSW government has your best interests at heart”, despite this not being a stated objective of the campaign. The post-campaign evaluation for phase three found that “exposure to the campaign improved sentiment towards the government amongst those who did not have confidence in the NSW government”, the report noted.
“Service NSW advised that it was important to measure the sentiment of the advertising including the wording ‘best interests’ as it did not want the whole-of-government brand to be detrimental to customer engagement with applying for the rebates,” it said.
Following phase two, the agency conducted analysis of media sentiment using the key words ‘cost of living’ and the names of Premier Gladys Berejiklian, Treasurer Dominic Perrottet, and customer service minister Victor Dominello.
The analysis presented the level of positive, negative and neutral media sentiment, and its inclusion “creates a risk that the results may be used for party political purposes”.
The audit also found that the advertising campaign met most of its objectives, but it may have been misleading for some people who were not eligible for rebates, and included statements that underestimated the savings that some customers could obtain.
Other findings included:
- The timing of campaign phases meant it was difficult for Service NSW to evaluate each distinct campaign phase and reduced opportunities to incorporate learnings from previous phases,
- Service NSW negotiated with just one creative agency in phase two, making it difficult to demonstrate value for money,
- The cluster secretary signed the compliance certificate instead of the head of Service NSW, which was a “minor non-compliance”.
The audit office made two recommendations to the Department of Customer Service. By June 30 2021, the department should update its guidance to ensure that post-campaign evaluations are not used to measure sentiment towards the government; and review its guidance and the new process for campaign review to ensure they support agencies to comply with all requirements set out in the advertising laws, regulations and guidelines.