How can the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) become more open and accountable in providing information to the public, including via the media?

This is a crude summary of the terms of reference* of an independent review of the TGA that was announced by the Government last November.

The media should be an active contributor to the review. Journalists are known to moan more than every now and then about the difficulty of extracting information from the TGA. (Mind you, the TGA is not Robinson Crusoe in that respect.)

You don’t need to take my word on that – have a look at the Consumers Health Forum’s submission to the review, which states:

The TGA is not an active participant in the ongoing and important public dialogue about therapeutic goods, their safety and their regulation – often we hear from key media outlets that they sought comment from the TGA – but none was forthcoming. This tendency to ‘secrecy’ undermines credibility and confidence in the TGA, particularly when the provision of accurate and timely information is so critical to quality health care.

The website is an example of what is often described as an ‘inhospitable’ public face – too complex and bureaucratic, contains too much information and is hard to navigate.

Given such concerns, it seems a pity that media representatives and Gov 2.0 experts weren’t included in the panel reviewing the TGA, which seems dominated by the usual suspects – ie representatives of the main “stakeholder” groups in health.  

No disrespect to these groups but they may not be best placed to judge what would help journalists do their jobs better. (It should be noted, however, that the review is chaired by Professor Dennis Pearce AO, a former Commonwealth Ombudsman, former Chair of the Australian Press Council and Special Counsel, DLA Phillips Fox lawyers.)

As well, Gov 2.0 and online communications is such a rapidly evolving field that it would have been nice to see some explicit expertise in this field represented.

For example, this article about “computational journalism” (which it defines as “the application of computer science to the problems of public information, knowledge, and belief, by practitioners who see their mission as outside of both commerce and government”) gives some inkling of the potential for public interest innovation in this space.

Not surprisingly, given the panel’s composition, the submissions so far come largely from within the health industry.

And the TGA’s own submission makes very tame and disappointing reading. For example under the heading, What kinds of actions would improve transparency? it says nothing more visionary than this:

While the TGA website is the centrepiece for releasing documentation, there could be advantages in considering other forms of communication to ensure accessibility for the widest possible audience. For example, there could be merit in expanding the range of content in the newsletters that are produced, or in making more effort to ensure that interested parties know about the existence of documents that may be of relevance to them.

The review’s chair has invited media comment, but it doesn’t look like the review has had any submissions from journalists or media organisations yet – at least not that I can see on the website.

Croakey is attempting to muster a small submission to the review, offering some wider perspectives.

I’m keen to hear from journalists, Gov 2.0 experts and others with a concern for transparency and disclosure by public agencies – if you’ve idea for what might constitute best practice for an organisation like the TGA, please let me know.

If journalists and media organisations don’t engage actively with this review, then they will be on shaky grounds if complaining about the TGA’s media and disclosure practices in the future.

I’ve put out a call to members of the Association of Health Care Journalists for examples of best practice in disclosure of information and media engagement.

I welcome any thoughts that others might have – the more lateral and out-of-the-box the better. Examples of best practice do not have to come from government agencies or even health organisations : if you have examples from any sphere, please let me know.

And SOON. Written submissions close a week today.

I hope to post the submission at Croakey.

***

• Terms of reference for the review

The panel will consider and report on:

  • The current arrangements for disclosure of information or advice in relation to all therapeutic goods currently on the market in Australia or previously approved for marketing in Australia;
  • Opportunities for increased provision of public information on therapeutic goods currently on the market in Australia or previously approved for marketing in Australia;
  • Opportunities for improved public understanding of the procedures for ongoing monitoring of products already on the market and the evaluation, assessment and testing of new products;
  • The timeliness of the provision to the public of information regarding the evaluation, assessment and testing of new products;
  • Any constraints on the release of further information, including possible implications for public health or safety, which might influence future arrangements;
  • Arrangements for the public disclosure of information utilised by other comparable international regulators;
  • Opportunities to improve public access to information through enhancements to web-based and other information dissemination mechanisms; and
  • The need to improve public awareness of, and access to, information on the arrangements for regulation of therapeutic goods advertising.
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