By Julian Bajkowski
The federal government’s official style guide is set to become a pay-per-view exercise after the Department of Finance and Deregulation revealed that it will imminently gavel-off the public sector reference manual to private operators to cut costs.
A tender notification issued by Finance reveals that the agency intends to pursue a “seeking to form a joint arrangement with a suitably qualified provider to develop, publish and distribute” the 7th edition of the government ‘Style manual’ whereby a commercial publisher would carry the costs of its creation – in return for being allowed to sell the public sector tome.
The notice comes as the Gillard government and Finance Minister Penny Wong talk-up another round of spending cuts after ahead of an election year Budget.
According to Finance, the Style manual was first published in 1966 and “provides a standard reference work for government and is also widely used within academic, business and professional writing spheres.”
However Finance is worried that because the present edition is now over a decade old, it now “requires updating to incorporate guidance on digital publishing and to reflect current conventions in style and language usage.”
In plainer English, that translates into tips about how to issue official Tweets and other social media updates that have created a new vocabulary in the business of official communications.
Intriguingly, the outsourcing of the dialect of officialdom is being spearheaded by those at the vanguard of brevity, clarity and simplicity – the recently bifurcated Australian Government Information Management Office [AGIMO], which first wants to pick the brains of industry.
“At the conclusion of this consultation process a position paper, outlining the approach that Finance will pursue to develop the 7th edition of the Style manual, will be published on the AGIMO blog at agimo.gov.au/blog/” the technology-cum-wordmongering agency said in its tender notice.
One task for the new custodians of the Style guide will be finding a commercial digital publishing model for a document that has remained stubbornly wedged in the paper era, despite several iterations of e-government and online service delivery.
But the move to an electronic edition is unlikely to come without controversy and resistance.
One strong argument against the cost recovery model is that access should be free given that taxpayers already pay for government services.
Similarly, it is difficult to see how charging for access to the document fits in with the popular existing policy of Open Government, which has successfully made available reams of previously inaccessible government information and data.
Previous attempts by state agencies to restrict access to and reproduction of public government data and information on the basis that it constitutes intellectual property have also backfired badly.
In 2009 New South Wales transport agency RailCorp was ordered via Tweet by then premier Nathan Rees to halt its legal pursuit of a software developer who made train timetables into the user friendly iPhone app TripView.
The Premier’s rebuke to the agency followed a social media backlash against RailCorp and the state government for stamping on outside innovators who provided already paying travellers with information in a useful, convenient and relevant format.
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