The government has forked out $55 million on public relations consultants in the past three years - despite spending $1.16 billion on its own Information Services Department (ISD). The ISD, which employs 344 information officers, yesterday defended the use of external consultants and denied the extra spending was due to any shortcomings of the department. Figures showing that government agencies spent $54.98 million on the consultants from 2000 to 2003 were released in response to a question from legislator James To Kun-sun. This was in addition to the $1.16 billion allocated to the ISD, which has responsibility for providing public relations for the government, during the same period. A senior ISD official said departments generally called in external consultants to provide media training for staff and to assist on large, time-critical or highly specialised projects. 'There is no conflict [with ISD's role] whatsoever,' the official said. In fact, the ISD was itself the largest purchaser of external public relations services over the period, spending $12.3 million to engage global firm Burson-Marsteller on two projects to develop and implement the 'Asia's World City' campaign. Ray Rudowski, a director of crisis and issues management and training at Hill & Knowlton, said private firms could add valuable perspective to how government departments managed their communications. 'I think it's really important, particularly if you look at what's happened with Harbour Fest,' Mr Rudowski said. 'It looked like a great idea, but was it effectively communicated internally or externally? Was there a communications plan in place in case of a crisis?' The ISD official said the fact that departments were trying to upgrade their communication skills was a reflection of the move towards a more transparent government, which should be viewed as a positive.