Government Insight: Reflections on government’s relationship with industry

Paul Cooper has held executive roles within the Victorian Government, including Director Strategy and Governance at CenITex, and Acting Director, Digital Health at the Department of Health and Human Services.

We asked Paul, a highly respected member of the business, government and tertiary communities, to provide us with a short retrospective on his time in government.

What are the key differences that you see between government and industry?

Government has a focus on how to provide a very broad range of citizens with the services it is charged with providing. Industry, on the other hand, does not have such a wide mandate. While industry can afford to be selective in its choice of customers, products and services, government usually cannot — and must still encourage the uptake of services, often through difficult legacy channels.

Companies in the private sector can take a direct pathway to offering services and selling products; they can punt on different approaches and channels, then make rapid adjustments on the fly if needed. Government rarely has the luxury of working in this manner, and must instead take a collaborative, consensus-based approach, usually involving many stakeholders. And of course the policies government forms, and the decisions it takes, need to be backed by expertise, so it is usual to seek input from research and other expert advisory. Such stakeholder consultation often means meetings have large numbers of participants and projects require multiple approval levels. This can be quite a shock, since the time taken for consultation and gaining of agreement can be lengthy.

On reflection, I think some pathways for decision-making could be streamlined, and I personally do not agree with attending meetings without clear decision-making authority being present. But I strongly agree with the need for government to consult widely for the broadest support for policy formation. For example, I was involved in the consultation for secondary use of health data: it was vital to get this right and rushing the process would have been a mistake. Policy officers really are very underappreciated people; I met many fine policy officers in my time in government and they were intelligent and broadly experienced people working under difficult timeframes and constraints.

I also do not agree with the comments I hear about government officers having a poor work ethic. In my time, I saw high levels of commitment from government personnel and I enjoyed a very collaborative relationship with all my peers, just the same as I found in private industry.

What can industry learn from government (and vice versa)?

Industry usually operates outside the testing glare of public interest — and often has a romantic notion of ‘self-regulation’ being effective. We have seen in the financial industry, and even in sport or the Volkswagen emissions scandal, how large flows of money can lead to poor behaviours, and I think more transparency and clearer power for regulatory bodies is needed to improve things.

In government, the Auditor-General reports are highly effective and lead to action and changes. I believe industry needs to view the current Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry in a broader context for how to ensure better behaviour on an ongoing sustainable basis. Highly ethical firms actually do better by performance than the rest — so where is the spotlight bringing the others to account? Government works under the glare of public opinion, and we need industry to be more transparent when public interest is involved (as it usually is).

On the other hand, government tends to apply wrappers of governance around problems when they are uncovered, without always the fixing root cause. So we sometimes see multiple decision-making for simple things — e.g. recruitment sign-off is a complex procedure with multiple signatures required. That was quite a shock for me, after my experience as a manager in the private sector. I think in some cases this is to reduce individual accountability for poor decisions, and thus government often applied processes as a ‘fix’, which can make things very unwieldy. Streamlining and pruning of committees on an ongoing annual basis would be a good idea.

I would perhaps add that government folk prefer the comfort of reporting structures — because this is how risk is managed, and this is also how they progress in their career paths. This tends to be quite different to the private sector, which is often flatter and used to having people from many ‘levels’ all pitching in to resolve things. Government could learn from the private sector by letting go of some of the hierarchy blockages.

How do you think industry can best partner with government to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes?

Partnering between industry and government sounds great when said quickly. The problem is how to do it while maintaining competitive neutrality in the marketplace. Government cannot be seen as partial towards one firm or one industry sector; it must represent the broad community interest.

I think industry associations have a great role to play here by providing the opportunity for government officers to engage in a neutral manner with industry representatives. Conferences, events that promote mixing — these are all great things. There are also smart ways to procure that involves competitive forces existing right through to final dialogue stages, and these are good innovations.

I think there is a willingness for industry and government to engage more directly, rather than through ‘arms-length’ tenders, but this can be an ethical minefield that must be carefully worked through; e.g. through procurement/partnering workshops directly focused on this topic.

1 comments in this article

  1. Chris Jacob

    Paul Cooper as usual provides an interesting insight into the workings and issues faced by both government and business. The management of suppliers and in particular the need to optimise the value and innovation they need to bring to both sectors remains a vital opportunity.

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