Peter Strong reflects on some of his many encounters with the public sector during his time leading a small business peak body.
From where I sit, we have one of the best public services in the world.
I’m talking about all levels – federal, state and local. There are more than two million* public servants around Australia. There were 2,100,800 public sector employees at the end of June 2021, comprising 247,600 employees in the commonwealth government; 1,662,400 in state/territory governments, and 190,800 in local governments.
During my years as the CEO of the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia (COSBOA), I had cause to deal with the public sector on a very regular basis.
As a result, the agencies and departments with which COSBOA interacted could work with us knowing it would be constructive, and there was mutual respect. We could focus on policy and process – on change – with an understanding of just how difficult that change can be at times.
As background, I was a public servant working with the old Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) from 1977 to 1990. Then I moved into the Department’s Central Office in Canberra. I did not want to move to Canberra but due to the changes being progressed with the CES, I had little choice.
I didn’t like the thought of moving to Canberra – yet it was the best thing I ever did in my working career. It led me to a deep understanding of Australian policy and politics as well as many years doing consultancy for the World Bank and United Nations in foreign climes.
In the old CES, I directly managed small labour markets in places like Goulburn, Inverell, Wollongong, Moree and Albury as well as working in the zone or head offices that basically covered rural NSW. I also spent considerable time as an employment counsellor working with the disadvantaged and at various times as a staff trainer.
In the national office, I was quickly involved in the Office of Labour Market Adjustment (OLMA). We focussed on support to industries, businesses and communities affected by the so-called Button reforms of Australian industry. I was mainly involved in the setting up of local economic-development processes and the empowering of communities to have a greater say in their own futures. I was involved in setting up more than 80 groups right across Australia.
In 1993, the World Bank approached the department and asked us to put together a team to do restructuring work in the old Soviet Union. They wanted to see what Australia had to offer. So, I set off to Kyrgyzstan with four others from the department to develop policy and process for the major reforms and disruption occurring in that country. I was known as the Mass Retrenchment Expert, and when factory managers and others saw my business card, I got some strange and worried looks indeed. I worked on and off in Central Asia for several years. I also worked on another World Bank project in Turkey for two years, developing processes to manage their privatisation program. I also worked in the late 1990s with the UN and AusAid setting up China’s first Women’s Small Business Incubator in the city of Tianjin.
The local economic development programs we set up are still running in Turkey and Central Asia.
I started running my first business back in 1985, writing and publishing management books. Eventually, in 2005, I had my own bookshop in Canberra where I learnt all about the complications of employment regulations, superannuation, GST and so forth. While I was running that shop, I became the CEO of COSBOA and eventually sold the shop in 2012.
Back to the public service. When I first moved into the national office, I discovered a whole new world. So different from working in a small community. One thing I experienced in those early days was the reality of dealing with peak industry groups.
When I was in the community, in country towns with the CES, the relationships with local industry groups such as the chambers of commerce was normally good. But at the national level, I discovered that various peak groups representatives, plus some union people, were just plain belligerent, overtly political and appeared to have little respect for public servants. Not all were like that, but many were. Often, their manners with individual public servants were disrespectful and insolent. This actually shocked me, but the more experienced people told me that’s the way it always has been.
So, when many years later I eventually became part of the peak industry sector, I knew I would do it differently. We needed to be apolitical, not overtly or even covertly political, never favouring one party over another. It was about policy and people – not parties. We would praise where it was worthy and be much more constructive when we thought it could be better. I would certainly and deliberately be publicly belligerent and critical when I could achieve no engagement at all or where the public servant or politician was aloof and arrogant, which didn’t happen often but did happen. This constructive approach worked. I found, no surprise, that the public sector in the main was very happy to engage to improve communications and processes for small business people.
Not all public servants are good to work with. Initially, there were some, particularly in the health and safety agencies, who seemed to think that small business folk deserved little respect; so, I reflected that attitude back at those agencies. For example, the head of one health and safety agency told me that the self-employed were legally responsible for their own mental health – what a dangerous belief. I was public and scathing in my criticism of that agency. There was another time that a senior person – a good person – decided to tell me how small business people think. Which was odd, given he had never run a small business. He got it totally wrong of course.
The ATO is, without a doubt, one of the best in the world. It isn’t perfect and can’t be with some 25,000 employees and a complicated system to regulate. The engagement between industry and the ATO has helped achieve important outcomes, such as single touch payroll and e-invoicing. There is also, in partnership with the ATO, Treasury and ASIC, the combining of all the businesses registers into (sort of) one register. That is a great outcome. While other peaks who claimed to represent small business were all “do nothing and let the market decide” the rest of us were making sure the market could decide through streamlining processes and focusing on communications. It was a partnership between industry and government.
Our public service is as imperfect as the society it regulates and supports.