Do you have a moment? Let me take you to a site I know, where you can see a government caught in a quandary. Its at https://www.schoolsrecruitment. dcsf.gov.uk/ and it represents the entanglement of media, a networked society, and the controlling urges of government in a fairly graphic way. The dilemma for the UK’s brand new Con-Lib coalition is as follows:

* the previous lot, outed on May 11, were moving in education towards the idea that teacher and school staff recruitment was best controlled by government on its own website. This is it, launched only 3 months before the UK election.

* one of the big bills for local government in the UK is teacher advertising. If this were to be done by government itself on the web, serious savings could be made, and these could be channelled back into the education system.

* futhermore, government doing the advertising enables better quality control to take place, offers ways of monitoring local government practises and ensuring compliance. And online application using government approved forms would create productivity gains and entrench better human resources practises. And government need not expand to contain the new service – it has been outsourced to Tribal Education, a supplier whose service fees would be less than the annual cost of advertising every vacancy in the commercial education press.

* and, what is more, the previous government can be blamed for the scheme! Surely a winner, then?

Hold on a minute. I did type “commercial education press”, didn’t I? Well, yes, there is one, led by the venerable Times Education Supplement (TES). Does it do teaching jobs online? Yes, it has an excellent service, developed since Mr Murdoch’s News International sold this unit away from Times Newspapers, fearing as he did that government may pull this trick. Now its owned by private equity investors who have courageously re-invested in it to modernize it, enable it to beat off web competition from eTeach and, to my great delight, have re-created it as a portal for communications amongst teachers. It has a great role yet to play in the exchange of resources in the UK teaching marketplace.

But will it be able to play that role if government policy cuts off its lifeline advertising revenues? Hard to say, but surely a Conservative government, devoted to the interests of private enterprize, will discontinue such a media abusive policy and ensure that this saving is not made. Even harder to say, in my view: government now has a bigger reason for not doing anything about putting  this into reverse – cost reduction beats out ideology in most instances.

Of course, that begs the question of whether costs really will be reduced this way. Last time round this track in the UK, it was National Health Service jobs. Britain’s NHS, with 1.6 million employees (third in the world behind the Red Army and the Indian Railways), was and is a huge recruitment advertising engine. Creating NHS Jobs permanently blighted the prospects of the nursing press and health management publishing in the UK, but there was a private sector winner, in the form of DMGT’s Jobsite, who leased the systems it used to the NHS in return for being able to mirror the NHS site, getting traffic though no revenues. The NHS system is now embedded in NHS personnel practise and there can be no going back.

So government has the capacity to blight whole sectors of publishing activity through re-inventing publisher services on the web? You betcha, and if you doubt, look at the UK’s regional press, once deeply dependent on local government advertising. The huge decline in local press interests, despite all the bleatings of politicians who professed their devotion to the local rag, was as much about the loss of government advertising as anything. And is this inevitable and should it be reversed? Given that government uses the network less effectively and in a more costly way than most users, there is a good case for advising them to stay clear. But that will not happen.

In a society where publishing is increasingly democratized, government will see its chance. And the ability to control and direct is irresistable. If the instrument of control is a job ad, then so be it. The advice to a Young Publisher may well be “Join the civil service” in due course, but for society at large this process may create a democratic deficit.

Come to think of it, did I describe that website as a policy ruin? I was wrong. It is a foundation for the next incumbent to build a more ideologically correct version. But how I wish that I was wrong about that too.

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