Kim Williams: new rules of engagement for the political class

Our administrative culture saps the country’s energy, the former boss of News Corp in Australia argues in his new book. The digital age requires a refashioning of political skill sets.

Kim Williams' new book, Rules of Engagement

Kim Williams’ new book, Rules of Engagement

Commerce is not uniquely virtuous and governments in Australia do many good things. But do they do them well? Much of our society’s systems work well enough but our regulatory and administrative culture is sapping the energy and vitality we need to forge ahead. It provides a huge leadership test and multiple management challenges. The problem manifests itself most plainly in the difference between leadership and management.

Leadership is about setting the chosen course, testing it, advocating for it persuasively and ensuring that the priorities and resource allocation that it requires are well understood and accepted. Management is about effective administration to deliver the required targeted outcome. Too often in Australia we confuse the process of doing with the act of deciding. Leadership and the muddle created with execution is seen in the consistent misunderstandings that arise between government and commercial endeavour, where the languages, the rules and the operational imperatives are often misunderstood. All too frequently there is an absence of real connection, creating confusion of the worst kind. It is a modern problem in western democracies, generally, but we have it in unusually bad measure in Australia, where process is often preferred above and beyond the actual outcome.

All these leadership, advocacy, commercial assessment and execution skills are needed in modern media, given the historically unprecedented transfer of power from producers to consumers as seen particularly in that industry. The significance of the power shift is difficult to exaggerate and impossible to stop. It is probably the largest citizen empowerment change in history, and it has happened almost entirely from technology and the impact that has had on consumer behaviour and more importantly, expectation. We see it in the fact that three once small digital start-up Australian companies — Seek, Car Sales and REA — are now each worth more than Fairfax, the company that used to control the so-called “rivers of gold”, the classified advertising in Melbourne and Sydney. The lessons from that shift are stark and merit revisitation repeatedly.

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