Don’t be ‘dopey’: ACCC chair warns against regulators obsessed with keeping government at bay

By Melissa Coade

February 18, 2022

Rod Sims
Outgoing ACCC chair Rod Sims. (The Mandarin)

Outgoing boss of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) Rod Sims has reminded public servants involved in regulatory work the government is a key stakeholder with whom they must develop a culture of collaboration if they want to do their jobs well. 

Sims, whose tenure ends in March, is the longest-serving ACCC chair, having held the position for more than a decade. In conversation at a regulatory reform conference hosted by IPAA ACT and the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet, he reflected on how being independent of government should not mean regulatory agencies make collaboration and communication with ministers and departments difficult.

“There’s got to be some flexibility — independence is one thing, but independence taken to the level of saying, ‘Well I don’t care what the government thinks’, that’s dopey,” Sims said during a panel session conversation about the factors that lend to good culture in regulatory agencies.

Responding to a question about how to work with government when political decisions contributed to ‘poor regulatory culture’, Sims considered the effect of a savings mechanism (going back to a time when Scott Morrison was treasurer) that saw public service budgets shrink each year by 2.5%.

“How do you handle [successive cuts] of 2.5%, 2.5% and 2.5% when so much of your budget is fixed? You can’t,” Sims said. 

“In that circumstance, [the government] was culpable. When blind things are done without any regard to what [your agency is] trying to do, they are culpable of contributing to poor regulatory culture.”

Sims said the effect of the ‘ridiculous’ efficiency dividend policy bankrupted the ACCC to a point whereby the incoming government had to bail the regulatory agency out.

“My main advice is to own the problem and see how you can influence it and be just that little bit flexible around the margins to make sure that you’re meeting some of [the government’s] objectives as well.

“That means you do need to continue to engage with your minister, you may need to make contact with the financial departments, you may need to just have an eye to what they’re interested in,” he said, acknowledging this would mean the government of the day would be influencing – to some extent – where the agency’s time and resources were going.

In terms of the ACCC’s internal culture, Sims said he regarded warmth and friendliness as core workforce values. Employees who did not contribute to a positive or collegiate professional environment did not last long, he said, adding that managing risk when mistakes were made (as will inevitably happen from time to time) also meant being alert to staff welfare.

“For any organisation, culture is what binds. We don’t want one-upmanship. We don’t want people fostering for their own benefit. This is a very warm, friendly organisation, and I’d like to think the ACCC is that,” Sims said.

“Yes, we celebrate success but we [also] wrap our arms around things that don’t go very well and that’s just a fundamental part of our culture.”

Sims noted it was important for public servants employed by regulators to be clear about the purpose of their business. This clarity of purpose helped to set the stage to perform the ‘tricky’ exercise of regulatory reform well.

“For me, what really matters is what is the shared understanding of why the organisation exists. The ACCC exists to make our market economy function as it should – that’s why we’re here,” he said.

“We do that through enforcement of competition laws, enforcement of consumer laws and regulation of infrastructure, and we’re also in charge of product safety, which is also a neutral regulatory role.

“What we’re aiming for is effective regulation. It’s a bit of an art and it’s a bit of a science but I want to make the point that it’s complicated,” Sims added. 


READ MORE:

Competition litigator Gina Cass-Gottlieb to replace Rod Sims as ACCC chair

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