The Department of Health and Ageing has put out a tender for “media liaison and issues management services”. It’s worth reading because it says quite a lot about how the Department views this role.

I saw no emphasis on or even mention of concepts like promoting greater transparency or fostering a more open and informed health debate. But of course it was probably naive to even search for such a thing; this job is all about keeping the lid on. Control, control, control – isn’t that what “issues management” is all about?

It could be fun to have a go at re-writing the evaluation criteria – what if DOHA asked for feedback from journalists or those who have been promoting more open government? We could provide comment on not only the consultant’s performance but related processes and the broader departmental culture around media engagement. Or perhaps even on the writing of the tender document…

Presumably the contract – due to commence on October 6, just a day after the final date for its awarding – will be worth a small fortune as it involves masses of work, including being the first point of contact for all media enquiries, handling media inquiries referred by the Ministers’/Parliamentary Secretary’s offices, supporting the Secretary and Departmental Executive, and serving as the Chief Medical Officer’s primary media adviser.

There is also potential for the contract to include the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s media work, once the contract with the current provider expires in June 2011.

The job also involves providing advice to a range of related organisations, including the Australian Health Ministers’ Conference, the Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy, the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council, the Pharmaceutical BenefitsAdvisory Committee, and the Ministerial Advisory Committee on AIDS, Sexual Health and Hepatitis and to  Commonwealth/State and Territory emergency management committees such as the Australian Health Disaster Policy Planning Committee, Communicable Diseases Network of Australia and the National Influenza Pandemic Committee.

And there is plenty more like that…

This is one powerful position.

Kay McNiece is currently the all-powerful gatekeeper of media inquiries to DOHA and TGA, so I emailed her this morning to find out what this all meant for her contract, and how much that had been worth. She passed my request on to the Department to answer. More than ten hours later, I haven’t heard peep. No surprise there.

This tender raises many interesting questions about accountability and whose interests are being served by such arrangements.  Do other government departments, whether federal or in other jurisdictions, also tender out such work?

No doubt there is a story behind this tender. Is it just due process playing out, or are the powers-that-be seeking a change from the current arrangements?

If any Croakey readers can fill in the gaps or have any insights to share on these issues, much appreciated….

Update, 8 April: DOHA has supplied this response:

The current tender is with McNeice Coms Pty Ltd (sic).  The tender was let on 5 October, 2005 for three years with two options to extend, each of a year.
There are four staff from the firm available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  I am currently extracting the data to ascertain the expenditure to date.

Margaret Lyons
Chief Operating Officer

(Croakey will post the expenditure details when they land.)

Post Script: And a Croakey reader has suggested that others may be interested in this article about the US Department of Health and Human Services employing a PR firm “with a past”, as they say, to promote public trust in electronic medical records.

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