I recently experienced my own little frustration with getting information out of the government. I’m writing a CIS paper on private providers of higher education, and one of the arguments I planned to make was that the FEE-HELP provisions of the Higher Education Support Act 2003 are protectionist, in restricting access to the loans to institutions with their ‘central management and control’ in Australia.
In the course of doing various company searches on private higher education providers, I found that two of them with FEE-HELP access are foreign-owned. Perhaps ‘central management and control’ was being intepreted so broadly that it wasn’t as much of an issue as I thought. I needed to know how it was being defined.
I sent an email to the bureaucrat responsible for this area, asking her how it was defined. A couple of weeks later I received a one-line email from a Departmental media person informing me that ‘central management and control’ was not defined in the Act, ie telling me what I already knew and what had prompted the inquiry in the first place.
If the very useful Report of the Indpendent Audit into the State of Free Speech in Australia (big pdf, short html summaries here) is a guide, my experience is far from unusual. There has been a declining willingness (or freedom) on the part of public servants to provide background information, with inquiries directed through media offices. (Though DEST did give me some, though not all, of the information I wanted for my paper on FEE-HELP itself in 2006.)
While I am not as one-sided about this as the report – as I used to complain occasionally, while working as a Ministerial adviser, people in government can be so busy being ‘accountable’ that they don’t have time to do the things that they are supposed to be accountable for – governments do hold much information that is not published but not really secret either. It’s hard to see how the requirements for gaining access to FEE-HELP can be confidential.
The Independent Audit focuses on negatives. But it should be acknowledged that there has been a massive increase in the general accessibility of government information, thanks to technological change. Making all the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports freely available online means anyone who wants to can look at masses of data about how well the government, and Australia more generally, is going. Almost every goverment department and agency website I have ever had cause to examine has useful information available for free download. The volume is far greater than ever could be reported in the mass media.
That same technology means that though there have in recent years been some added restrictions on what people can say, overall the capacity to have a say has never been greater. The whole blogosphere is testimony to that. Personally, I have far more freedom of speech than I did five years ago.