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The eternal tension between the Department of Defence and the media has been the subject of review again by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), with the independent body concluding that it could be done better in some ways.

The review is the fifth in 20 years and comes at a point where the process is once again in transition in the wake of recommendations from the First Principles Review.

“Defence commenced an organisational reform of its Ministerial and Executive Coordination and Communication (MECC) Division in 2018,” the report explains. “The new model gave accountability for delivering Defence media and communications services to the Associate Secretary. Key functions such as the management of media enquiries and support to ministers and Parliament remained within MECC Division.

“Communication roles within the departmental groups and the three Australian Defence Force (ADF) Services became MECC Division embedded positions. People in those positions continued to provide communications advice and support to Defence groups and the Services, with an additional reporting line through to MECC Division.”

In comparison to other departments, Defence is on par with the number of people it has in these APS roles; in 2018–19, MECC’s budget was around $18.06 million and included an average staffing level of 140 people (media roles in the Defence department account for 1.05 per cent of its total APS workforce). This does not include uniformed staff.

“Army currently has 25 full time Public Affairs Officers (PAOs), Navy has 14 personnel in full time public affairs positions, and Air Force has 12 full time PAOs,” a Defence spokesperson said in response to questions from ADM. “Additionally, five full time PAOs are posted to Headquarters Joint Operations Command, and five are also posted to the 1st Joint Public Affairs Unit.

“Media and Communication staff in Defence receive departmental tasking from MECC and are responsible to their respective Group or Service Head for the provision of media and communication services.”

In practice, these 61 media professionals within the services now have joint reporting lines. Noting the current ADF workforce of 58,363 as at 30 June 2018, the percentage of full time ADF PAOs compared to the total ADF workforce is around 0.1 per cent.

“Defence developed a manual and introduced a successor policy in mid-2019 to provide guidance for the management of its planned and routine public communications and media activities,” the report said. “The manual and policy do not clearly document the overarching objectives or expected outcomes of those activities, or establish related performance measures, as a basis for assessing effectiveness. While the responsible division (MECC) routinely reports to Defence senior leaders on communications and media activities, these reports focus primarily on output measures such as the timeliness of responses to media enquiries.”

All well and good, until: “Reporting does not inform senior leaders or provide assurance on whether the department’s public communication and media effort delivers meaningful results or whether resources are being allocated appropriately.”

At this point Defence has even yet to define what it wants to achieve with its media engagement apart from the obvious of not embarrassing the government/minister of the day or themselves. It’s hard to measure success when you’re not sure what you’re trying to achieve.

“Of the 197 communication plans located by Defence for ANAO review, only 40 per cent (79 plans) were cleared at the level of seniority required by the manual. While the plans mostly set out the activities to be undertaken — including key messages, communication objectives, target audiences and stakeholders — only 23 per cent of plans included budget information and 49 per cent included criteria for evaluating the outcomes of the activity. Risks and sensitivities were considered in 68 per cent of communication plans.

“Defence cannot monitor the delivery or effectiveness of all its public communications and media activities against planned outcomes and budgets, because it does not always include evaluation criteria in its communication plans or routinely undertake evaluation activity.”

The report made two recommendations to which Defence has agreed;

1. that the Department Defence clearly document the objective(s), expected outcomes and related performance measures for its public communications and media policy and activities, and assess risks to the achievement of the documented objective(s) and

2. Defence clarify its expectations for the evaluation of planned activities and introduce arrangements to provide assurance that evaluations are completed as expected and in a timely manner.

ADM Comment: This is a topic near and dear to me for obvious reasons. Dealing with Fortress Defence Defence Media in its various iterations for over 13 years now, it has been a rollercoaster. The persistent issue is that of timeliness. The changing nature of the media cycle means that deadlines are tougher than ever before. Material reported to the ANAO by the Defence and National Security Media Association (a collection of journalists that report consistently on these issues) found that even when the deadline was met, just 60-70 per cent of the responses were useful.

The Department has instituted a new prioritising structure with a three-hour response window which, at first glance, is great. At second glance when you realise that the response is an email saying ‘your request has been received, we’ll do our best’, faith tends to wane but there is still hope that the new system will deliver for all parties.

The report also outlined the laborious process of getting a response cleared through the system that saw a 10-step procedure in place (everything goes to diarchy and Minister) that all parties admit is sidestepped as needed.

It was also interesting to note that the number of media requests looks to have fallen significantly between 2018 and 2019; I suspect this is a reflection of journalists either self-censoring (what’s the point? Why bother asking a question when it’s answered beyond deadline and may not even be of use) or using other channels to get the information they need. 

Many stories are simply not written as getting two independent sources on the record to verify the material is difficult, time consuming and sometimes just not possible within a deadline timeline.

ADM hopes that the new system, which is in transition still, can go some way towards addressing the eternal tension between the department and an informed media presence.

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