I have an article in the Crikey bulletin today looking at the amount of public money invested in media management by health bureaucracies and services, and wondering whose interests are being served.
I asked Andrew Podger, the former secretary of the federal health department and former public service commissioner, to comment on these issues and you can read his views below. His e-book also has a relevant chapter on the media.
Meanwhile, I have a query for Croakey readers. I am organising a health panel for the forthcoming Public Interest Journalism Foundation conference, to be held as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival in September (more details here). One of the issues I’m hoping the panel will canvass is the potential for new media and Web 2 to help transform the public debate around health.
I’ve been looking for a champion of Web 2.0 agendas (you can read more about the Federal Government’s aspirations in this area here) within health bureaucracies and services, but must admit that I’ve been scratching my head on this one. My impression is that most power-brokers in health see social media and the like as a threat rather than an opportunity.
Yesterday, I asked a senior health bureaucrat for advice. A senior DOHA person was suggested, though then I was told: “But of course he wouldn’t be able to speak in public”.
Perhaps we should just leave an empty chair at the panel, in recognition of all those who remain silenced, in the vein of PEN’s empty chair…
Please speak up if you have some suggestions for who might fill the chair usefully.
Meanwhile, I asked Andrew Podger to comment on the history and context of media management within health bureaucracies, as well as about the DOHA contract to McNiece Coms, which has been worth more than $2.8 million since October 2005.
“Re the issue of DOHA communications arrangements, the outsourcing deal pre-dated my time. I was aware of some disquiet about the transparency of the arrangement and the lack of open competition when it was extended. I guess I did not give it my personal attention as the performance seemed to be generally satisfactory.
Also, I was aware (as I mention in the book) that managing public affairs people through normal bureaucratic processes can be counter-productive as the culture of effective media professionals is not always conducive to such controls. Nonetheless, the truth is that the so-called outsourcing was an ongoing internal arrangement but with its own unique rules.
For me, performance reflected a number of requirements. Not least was the confidence of the minister that we had capacity to work in close cooperation, to avoid mixed messages and to provide technical support (such as the management of government advertising campaigns, organising legitimate market research etc).
Within the department we also needed a centre of excellence in both advising on communications strategies and managing campaigns and particular issues. As I say in the book, communications management is not just about politics but about the successful delivery of public programs and policies, and must be part of the professional capacity of any government agency these days. But this requires careful understanding of the public interest as against the partisan interests of the government.
These considerations led me to keep a pretty strong and central communications team. In fact, I had some trouble reigning in the ‘outsourced’ group who were located in the then Population Health Division to work more closely with the internal team in my Corporate Services Division (under a former Canberra Times reporter).
But I also had a clear view that my team(s) were not simply working to the minister’s office, and that there were times when the government ‘spokesman’ should be from the department including with a public face (eg the CMO, the Secretary and in the case of the kerosene baths incident, the officer with the delegated authority).
I won’t repeat here the challenges involved – you can glean that readily from the book and my other writings.”
Update (May 27): Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration in the US is “letting the sunshine in” – opening up its processes to greater public scrutiny, according to this BMJ report (extract only for free).