Austrian Court of Audit (ACA) criticizes incomprehensible decisions regarding media work of ministries

09 February 2024 – Placement plans also changed in favor of partisan media

The ACA audited the media work of the Federal Chancellery, the Federal Ministry of Finance and the Former Federal Ministry of Transport – now Federal Ministry for Climate Action – with regards to cost transparency. From 2019 to 2021, the three ministries spent a total of EUR 108.02 million on media work. Despite this high use of resources, the principles of sound financial management prescribed by the constitution – efficiency, effectiveness and economy – were not sufficiently safeguarded. This is what the ACA observed in its report "Cost transparency in media work – Federal Chancellery, Ministry of Finance, Ministry for Climate Action" ("Kostentransparenz bei der Medienarbeit – Bundeskanzleramt, Finanzministerium, Klimaschutzministerium") published today, which examines selected campaigns and media cooperations.

The auditors found that the Federal Chancellery and the Ministry of Finance changed established media placement plans, also in favour of partisan media. The Ministry of Finance directly awarded contracts to agencies without obtaining alternative offers. The Ministry for Climate Action did not have a consolidated overview on its main expenses for media work and commissioned agencies with consulting services on the KlimaTicket and the Assembly for Climate Action. Moreover, none of the three ministries had defined a communication strategy. However, such strategy including an identification of needs would increase transparency in resource allocation. The ACA furthermore notes that media campaigns and placements must not be used as instruments for media funding or political advertising. The audit covered the period from 2019 to 2021.

Sevenfold budget increase for media placements

Specialized ad placement agencies were tasked with planning and placing advertisements. In general, they were commissioned using framework agreements with the Federal Procurement Agency. One of the framework agreements for media placements was worth EUR 180 million for the period from 2021 to 2025. Although this meant a more than sevenfold increase compared to the previous framework agreement worth EUR 25 million, a comprehensible basis for this order volume did not exist.

Subsequent booking, changes of placement plans

Establishing placement plans that specify the extend, duration and timing of an advertising campaign and the media where ads will be placed is among the key tasks of placement agencies. On several occasions, the Federal Chancellery (with the involvement of the Staff Unit Media) changed the placement plans suggested by agencies without giving reasons, also in favour of partisan media. The ACA assessed the documentation of the Staff Unit Media as inadequately documented. For example, this concerned a brochure with health information on COVID-19 created in July 2021. According to the Federal Chancellery, the email account of the Staff Unit Media dissolved at the end of 2021 had been deleted.

The Ministry of Finance also extended several placement plans proposed by a placement agency. It also commissioned additional advertisement bookings for which no budget had been originally foreseen, including adverts in partisan media. The Ministry of Finance did not document the grounds for this decision.

Ministry for Climate Action: Lack of oversight on expenses

The Ministry for Climate Action did not have a consolidated documentation of its essential media expenses. This was mainly due to the fact that the responsibility for the ministry’s operative media work was shared between different organizational units. Furthermore, there was no consolidated overview on the expenses for the 71 websites managed by the ministry in early 2023. 36 external service providers were commissioned with developing, maintaining, operating and editing these websites.

Missing media strategy in all three ministries

Clear strategic guidelines for media work were lacking in all three ministries. Communication goals, contents, target groups and communication channels had not been specified and the success of campaigns was only measured occasionally. Media partnership agreements were directly awarded, including in cases where the order value exceeded EUR 100,000. There was no continuous documentation of requirements and the reasons for selecting the respective cooperation partners. In the ACA’s opinion, the ministries should not only draw up a communication strategy. They should also define procedures to determine the necessity for a media campaign or partnership agreement, and the concrete information needs to be satisfied. Communication goals, target groups and workflows for success measurement should be defined to increase transparency in resource allocation.

Increase transparency in resource allocation

Legal entities subject to the supervision of the ACA are obliged to disclose the periodical media where adverts were placed, as well as the total amount of fees paid in the respective quarter, to the Austrian Communications Authority (KommAustria). However, placements below EUR 5,000 per quarter and placements in non-periodic media were excluded from the disclosure obligation. In total, between eight and eleven percent of the fees paid to media between 2019 and 2021 were not disclosed by the audited ministries. This was due to exceptions from the disclosure obligation as well as due to incorrect reports. The amendment of the Media Transparency Act in April 2023, by which the exceptions for placements below EUR 5,000 and non-periodic media have been removed, can contribute to further increasing transparency in this area.

Media campaigns must not be used as instruments for political advertising

While subsidies for the press were not subject of the audit, the ACA points out that the media play a key role in democratic societies. By informing the public about the political process, they contribute to an argument-based public discourse on current societal issues. At the same time, the media create transparency and traceability of governance, acting as a public watchdog and fourth estate. For these reasons, press subsidies must focus on media that provide quality reporting and observe journalistic due diligence, enabling a plurality of opinions and a constructive political discourse. Media campaigns and placements must not be used as instruments for media funding or political advertising. The public sector must only run media campaigns and place advertising where necessary, and the content, scope and selection of media must solely be determined according to the needs of the respective target group.

The ACA also examines the media work of the City of Vienna and is planning to publish a dedicated report on the City of Vienna’s Press and Information Services.

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Report: Cost transparency in media work – Federal Chancellery, Ministry of Finance, Ministry for Climate Action (in German)

Report: Cost transparency in media work – Federal Chancellery, Ministry of Finance, Ministry for Climate Action (in German) Download