State Department spent $36.5 million polling foreigners’ opinions

Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to media at the State Department in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015, during a news conference with Bahrain's Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Photo by: Carolyn Kaster

Would you spend money to find out what people in Spain think about their medical insurance or what people in Austria think about their government? That’s exactly what the federal government has been doing, using millions of Americans’ tax dollars.

Since 2007 the U.S. State Department has spent over $36.5 million to survey citizens in foreign countries on a wide range of topics, including general public opinion polling on how their own governments — many of them U.S. allies — are performing. And the biggest spike in that spending occurred on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s watch as secretary of state.

The polls included such topics as a “survey of medical insurance in Spain” costing $24,727, an “Elite Survey in Russia” that cost $117,000 and a “Public Opinion Poll Survey to Address Public Attitudes Toward Domestic and International Affairs in Austria,” costing $50,728.

The examples were compiled by federal spending watchdog OpenTheBooks.com in a larger oversight report on federal public opinion polling to be published after Thanksgiving.

Spending watchdogs say these polls, while informative, should be conducted and funded by private research organizations, not the U.S. taxpayer.

“As interesting and as important as foreign attitudes may be, U.S. taxpayers don’t need to subsidize polling operations that should be done by other countries or private organizations,” said Adam Andrzejewski, founder of OpenTheBooks.com and the author of the upcoming oversight report.

“What is the public purpose to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on surveys of the citizens of our allies like Japan, Germany, Poland, Italy, Spain and England?” Mr. Andrzejewski added.

Richard Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government, argued that the U.S.-funded polls could strain relations with foreign governments.

“While the State Department has an obvious interest in having their fingers on the pulse of attitudes around the world, I can’t help but wonder how our government would feel if Putin conducted a series of polls here in America to test American support for the Obama regime and used it as part of his foreign policy decision-making?” Mr. Manning said.

For spending tens of millions of dollars to poll citizens in foreign countries at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer, the State Department wins this week’s Golden Hammer, a weekly distinction awarded by The Washington Times highlighting the most egregious examples of questionable federal spending.

“Polling is big business, and it seems to be a particularly lucrative one when you can get the U.S. taxpayer to foot the bill. While there is an obvious justification for the State Department to be aware of public attitudes around the world, the subjects and breadth of the polling conducted around the world out of Foggy Bottom has the stench of political spoils,” Mr. Manning said.

The vast majority of the vendors being paid to conduct international polls are billed as “miscellaneous foreign contractors.” Of the over $36.5 million that has been spent through FY2014 on polling, over $34 million was paid to unnamed contractors according to the contracts compiled from USASpending.gov.

According to the data, the department spent significantly more on international polling during the years that Mrs. Clinton served as secretary of state. In 2007 the State Department spent just under $2 million on foreign surveys. That number nearly doubled in 2008 to over $3.8 million. The spending continued to increase in 2009, Mrs. Clinton’s first year as secretary, to over $5 million. In FY2012 alone — the height of Mrs. Clinton’s term as secretary and the year of President Obama’s re-election — the State Department spent over $7.5 million on international polls.

And during Mrs. Clinton’s tenure as secretary, the polling contracts became less transparent. Many of the projects were simply described with one word, “survey,” and were billed to “miscellaneous” foreign contractors.

But in 2014, after Mrs. Clinton left the department, international survey spending fell to $2.7 million.

“With the obvious ratcheting up of polling expenditures by the State Department leading up to the 2012 election with immediate, precipitous falloff afterward, it is reasonable to ask whether there was some political motivation behind the spending,” Mr. Manning said.

In an email to The Times, a State Department spokeswoman said many of the vendors were not identified because there is no federal requirement for foreign companies performing overseas to have Dun & Bradstreet (DUNS) number, a nine-digit identification required for U.S. companies bidding on federal contracts.

One of the vendors that was identified was a news agency, The Associated Press.
The State Department disclosed that it paid the AP $36,168 in FY2011 to conduct a survey in Washington, D.C. It was not clear what kind of poll the newspaper company conducted or who was surveyed.

A spokesman for the AP denied that the news agency provides survey services to the federal government, but said the State Department, like many other federal agencies, does subscribe to AP wire services for national and international news.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment to clarify the nature of the contract.

“That [the] State Department disclosed polling transaction with The Associated Press is either a major conflict of interest funded by the American taxpayer or, if [a mistake], shows a lack of agency accounting controls,” Mr. Andrzejewski said.

Pete Sepp, president of the National Taxpayers Union, said that the information gleaned from such international polls could be useful to diplomats trying to get a read on political attitudes toward the U.S., “but how can factors like medical insurance abroad matter to their mission? How can the cost be justified by any benefit?”

“Furthermore, private foundations and polling companies have become more widespread around the world in conducting country-specific surveys. In many cases the data they’ve already gathered might be sufficient for states’ needs — or, equally important, might be instructive in showing the limitations of polling in a given area of the world,” Mr. Sepp said.

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