Creeping Message Control

Recent government moves appear to be aimed at restricting official data collection and distribution. The opposition sees this as unwarranted interference/meddling with public information

The Austrian government has announced plans for a major overhaul at Statistik Austria (SA, the Federal Statistics Office), putting it under the direct control of Sebastian Kurz’s Chancellery.  They may even fire Generaldirektor Dr. Konrad Pesendorfer, appointed by the previous but one Kanzler Werner Faymann (SPÖ).

The implications of these plans is profound: SA in Vienna collects and processes masses of data on many areas of economic and social activities, including politically sensitive areas like economic growth, income and debt levels, working hours and risk of poverty. And while the SA has been supervised by the Kanzler’s office since 2000, it has been considered auxiliary, deciding independently what to analyze and when to publish.

Now the so-called Reformgruppe in Kurz’s Chancellery has been charged directly with revising the Federal Statistics Act to set the course for a reorganization of the agency.

The restructuring proposals have unleashed “internal trench warfare,” according to the daily Der Standard.  Specifically: Commercial director Dr. Gabriela Petrovic is determined to carry out the reform, co-director Pesendorfer is dead set against.  The nominal reason is cost cutting and certainly Pesendorfer had enlarged his staff to expand SA’s coverage, running €187,000 over budget in 2018.  But as Der Standard pointed out, since Pesendorfer took over, the SA had often published socially critical analyses that sparked lively debates in the media and irritated the government.

With the reform, SA external communications will be coordinated by the Chancellery and the SA’s own press department is to be cut from eight to two people.  In other words, the government can preview the data and present it as it wishes. The effect is clear to the opposition: SPÖ’s spokesman Jörg Leichtfried told Die Presse: “Instrumentalizing Statistik Austria for Kanzler Kurz’ message control is unacceptable.”

At present the two co-directors – Petrovic the government enforcer and Pesendorfer the independent spirit – are at loggerheads. The final decision will come from the Aufsichtsrat (Supervisory Board), most of whose members are delegated by the Chancellery and the government ministries. Knowledge is power.

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Julia Seidl
Julia started out at "Die Presse." She went on to study "Journalism & Media Management" in Vienna and worked for several local news outlets such as ORF, Kurier and Falter before joining Metropole as online content and social media manager.

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