Why Fairfax is wrong on the Public Sector Informant

The Public Sector Informant is a monthly lift out from the Canberra Times about issues regarding the Australian Public Service and public policy. Unique in a major broadsheet paper, it is filled with serious discussion about policy implementation, advice from career bureaucrats and how government operates in society.

It is a fantastic addition to the Canberra Times – yet something you have probably never heard of. You see, the Informant is deliberately excluded from the Canberra Times website. By choosing not to publish Informant pieces online, Fairfax is robbing the the federal bureaucracy and broader Australian public of an opportunity to engage in public policy innovation, discussion and education. The predictable excuse that Fairfax cannot make money from online content is troublesome. This is just one example of how the mainstream media deliberately obscures the role that government plays in our society in search of higher profits.

Markus Mannheim, editor of the Informant, says that in its current format, the publication makes money and Fairfax “obviously wants to ensure that it keeps doing so”. A brief online trial in 2010 was quickly abandoned due to cost-related issues.

Yet the Informant is vital. It is a way to communicate the complex public policy process – creation, implementation and evaluation – in an easily understood manner. Elected Government, stakeholders, interest groups and the bureaucracy all play important roles in this process. The Informant regularly highlights cases of public policy that were done well, and more importantly, those which weren’t. Specific examples relayed by senior public servants lay the foundations for understanding by the next generation. For example in the previous edition, issues about Freedom of Information, the ACT Parliament and the East Timor processing centre were all discussed at length. Mannheim says that he is able to give columnists “far more space than they would get in a newspaper (even a broadsheet)”.  This allows a more detailed discussion, with a greater possibility to educate the reader on the role of government. He says it’s a national publication stuck with a regional audience.

To me, there are two major downfalls with restricted access.

First, current public servants cannot freely access innovative and helpful methods of achieving better work outcomes. The Australian Public Service is a network which often struggles to innovate. Stimulating discussion and sharing experience is one method to help. That the Informant does this in an easy to understand method is admirable. The fact that it is not online hampers the accessibility of this information. It is easy to imagine articles quickly circulating large networks of public servants via email and social media. Relating concepts and ideas that are relevant to work matters immediately stimulates interest. Unlike crusty seminars or conferences where it is not uncommon to see drooping eyes and a lack of interest, URLs are instantly available. Knowledge and information drives better outcomes. This pre-built network to freely distribute information is waiting to be utilised by Fairfax.

Second, improved understanding of the way the public service operates and the issues that it deals with is only a good thing. The level of misunderstanding of the public process is enormous in Australia. This feeds into unbelievably high expectations of governments and future disappointment about the ineffectiveness of government programs and policies. By making the Informant available online (and incorporating it into other major media outlets), the education around government and the bureaucracy will be improved. Providing context to decision making and relationships helps to improve understanding of what are seriously difficult issues and outcomes. Anyone who thinks it is easy to create an IT system for immigration purposes or change the way Centrelink communicates with its millions of clients is sadly misinformed.

It should be noted that the federal public service is trying to engage the broader public but failing to do so.  Gov2.0 strategies are calling out for mainstream involvement to help educate the public service itself and the society which it serves, about the role innovation can play in government.  The Informant could be part of this process but stubbornly chooses otherwise. By restricting access to an elite audience, Fairfax fails to understand their responsibility to the Australian public.

I realise the difficulties for media organisations to make profit in the age of free information. It is hard. It is a serious problem. Perhaps people will have to pay for it. Mannheim sounds confident about the possibilities in the future – “it’s a matter of refining/targeting advertising techniques and convincing the market. The question is how quickly that will happen, and how much of the media industry will survive in the meantime”.

Hopefully this optimistic note about refining techniques is true. Mannheim says that more content is being published online every year and hopefully the Informant will go digital this year. Yet in the meantime, it beggars belief that the only monthly mainstream publication in Australia which details how public policy and government actually operate, is not available for wider consumption. Media organisations owe a larger obligation to the public that read them. Their public interest criteria should extend to helping inform debate, not just broadcasting it, and highlighting the processes which occur within the large boring buildings of Canberra.

I want to say that the Canberra Times is an excellent paper. It has the right mix of local and nation news with some fantastic reporters. But they miss the point in regard to this. The Australian political environment is screaming for something more nuanced than the latest Newspoll. The Informant can provide this. It communicates in a way government cannot. It is light on fluff and big on detail. It has the capacity to reach across sections of the economy and heighten an understanding about the realities of the public service.

Before I joined the Australian Public Service, I had very little understanding of how public services and Government programs operated. After three years, I am slowly learning. Every issue of the Informant helps shape this journey which is why it’s such a shame it is not available more widely.

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