Maine wastes taxpayer money on inept web campaigns

Let’s see if that title earns some much-warranted attention to this story. See, something stinks here in my home state of Maine, and at least this time around it’s not the State’s abysmal DirigoChoice health are program.

Instead, I’m talking about some highly irregular, irresponsible, and completely unprofessional behavior on display by our state’s Office of Tourism. The story is getting long, but it’s quite familiar, as it involves potentially huge sums of taxpayer money wasted on inept programs by seemingly clueless consultants and buearocrats.

Pay-per-gate, as it’s being called, is an ongoing investigation by Lance Dutson of Maine Web Report, a fellow Maine-based blogger and web developer.

Back in October of last year, Dutson discovered that the Maine Office of Tourism was buying Google AdWords targeted to specific Maine businesses. As he noted at the time, that act itself is just plain wrong, for the reasons he lists, including the facts that the State is not only bidding against the businesses it is meant to promote, but further that it should be focusing on general Google-juice and not re-directing traffic better suited for other sites to its own web presence.

The plot thickened, as its apt to do, when Dutson then noted that the Office of Tourism is expressly forbidden from spending its budget within the State of Maine That fact is important because last month, Duston reported that the Office of Tourism was violating this rule by not filtering Maine out of its expensive AdWords campaigns.

(UPDATE: Lance wrote to tell me this point is not correct. While the Office of Tourism is not prohibited by law from spending within Maine, they would certainly appear to be wasting money doing so. Maine business spend, in aggregate, millions of dollars marketing themselves to Maine residents. An Office of Tourism, meanwhile, should exist to represent them outside of the state.)

Here is where a good PR strategy becomes extremely important. After some of the campaigns were pulled, then all of them, Lance waited while the PR firm and the State both failed to respond to his inquires. I have an inquiry myself: have any of these people ever heard of blogs?

After a series of go-rounds between the consulting firm, the state, and Dutson, in which the ads were pulled first within the state and then overall, the director of the Office of Tourism Dann Lewis again demonstrated that the Office has no business what-so-ever doing business on the web. Here’s an excerpt of Lewis’ letter to Dutson, according to the Maine Web Report:

I will devote sufficient time to this over the next several days in order to respond to you fully and factually by Monday afternoon, March 6. I will be in Washington on business for the next three days, hence the time frame for my full response, which I hope you will share with the readers of your site.

In the meantime, I would ask you to refrain from making any further comments on this matter.

Yep, you know what this last statement reeks of: It’s called “Do you know who I am?!” disease, and it appears to be prevalent among even the most mid-level of State governmental agencies.

Worse, Lewis’ promise to present the Office of Tourism’s side of the story hasn’t even come true: it’s now 11pm on March 6th and Maine Web Report has not posted any reply from the agency or Mr. Lewis.

Since Lewis’ request for Dutson to “keep quiet,” the blogger has done anything but. In the past week alone, he’s discovered perhaps the most sickening and relevant facts yet. According to a 2004 newspaper article, the Office of Tourism was spending up to $7,000 per month on Internet advertising. Keep in mind, that’s $7k per month- or $78,000 per year- to out-bid Maine businesses at their own game. And as Dutston notes, in 2006 it’s likely that the Office of Tourism’s budget is at least that, if not much higher.
All in all, this is a sordid, embarrassing affair that is quickly rising to the level of scandal thanks in part to the state’s bungling response to Duston’s many legitimate inquiries. As a web developer, I’m appalled at the level of incompetence on display here. As a taxpayer, I am on the verge of outrage.