More heads are better than one: solving Victoria’s productivity challenges

By Victoria Draudins

January 25, 2018

Supported by a $508 million fund, the Premier’s Jobs and Investment Panel was created to provide a structured means for the highest levels of government to tap into the minds of leaders in industry and academia as the government grappled with trying to boost economic activity.

The panel’s 12 members accordingly come from a wide and varied of backgrounds, such as the chair, Harold Mitchell of Mitchell & Partners, University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Glyn Davis, REA Group chief executive Tracy Fellows along with a representative of the Victorian Farmers Federation and Belinda Duarte, director of the Korin Gamadji Institute, to name a few.

Considering the amount of money and resources involved, a natural question to ask is how successful is such an arrangement, nearly one and a half years on? After all, initiatives like this often sound good in theory but may fall down in practice. Coming up with ideas often isn’t the problem, especially in this case when you consider the collective dynamism of this panel. Instead, the ability to execute is where real success or failure manifests, not just in government but in any enterprise.

Fruits of labour so far

Since its establishment in 2015, the panel has been involved in a number of projects.

On 15 August last year, the government announced JobsBank. This $5 million initiative aims to enable disadvantaged jobseekers to participate more in the workforce. It does this through matching jobseekers with complex needs with some of Victoria’s largest businesses who pledged jobs, such as AGL and Linfox. As part of this, the government also provides dedicated support to help ensure workers a smooth transition into the workforce, such as intensive case management and a flexible funding pool. The Premier explained at the time of the launch: “We don’t want anyone left behind.”

While it’s early days, it will be interesting to see how JobsBank plays out, as getting the long-term unemployed back into the workforce is key to creating significant and lasting impacts on our welfare system.

In another initiative called Precinct Activation, the panel sought to help answer how jobs precincts could realise their full potential and become productive engines of the economy. The panel’s advice informed the government’s decision to purchase the Holden site at Fishermans Bend back in September 2016 for $130 million. The aim is to turn it into a hub for advanced manufacturing and design, before reselling it. The panel’s advice also led the government to set up the role of Executive Chair of the Melbourne Biomedical Precinct, realising a need to enhance governance and better tackle the difficult task of driving R&D commercialisation and collaboration, so that Melbourne might rival world bio-science leaders like Cambridge and San Francisco.

Active involvement allows for better execution

Supported closely by DPC, the panel seems to take a proactive stance to its task. It doesn’t just hand down a set of recommendations to government, relegated quickly to collecting dust in some mandarin’s dusty office. Instead, it meets quarterly with secretariat support from DPC and the Premier attends every meeting. Drawing on VPS resources, the panel has initiated its own projects and set its own work program. In particular, project support comes from the economic strategy branch, and the economic development and international branch, of the department.

To help drive action, the panel established five working groups to progress work out-of-session: Business Environment; Precincts; Liveability; Education and Innovation; and Inclusive Growth. These groups progress projects and bring proposed recommendations to meetings for the whole group to discuss and endorse as the panel’s recommendations to government.

Getting the wider community’s views

The thinking behind the panel was to leverage government connections with industry, academia and the community sector to directly tackle Victoria’s challenges. But beyond the panel members themselves, how does this play out? As I’ve written about previously, when examining newer forms of engagement like citizen juries, it is often a challenge for government to connect with constituents and industry in a meaningful way.

Providing a good case study, the panel released a discussion paper on 13 June as a platform for generating dialogue. It centres on five areas spanning regulation, transformation and construction.

Online or in-person still the best approach

An online platform facilitated formal submissions. Interestingly, in a less formal, social media-eque style, people could also share brief comments and others could vote on whether or not they agreed. I think this reveals some interesting lessons.

Online platforms like this are not a new phenomenon in government. For example, in 2011 the Obama Administration created We the People, as the first online petition platform that “gave citizens a reliable way to have a conversation with the government about the issues that mattered to them.” The Better Reykjavik online platform in Iceland connects citizens to city hall, with an envy-inspiring rate of nearly 60% of the population participating.

In Victoria’s case, only 12 people have uploaded comments. But remember that this forum takes up very little time and money. And this at least shows a willingness by government to start engaging the community in newer, less formal ways, which are more representative of how people’s interactions happen nowadays. And another initiative taken with the VPS shows how with the right execution, an online platform like this can be successful.

In parallel, an online platform called “VPS Policy Pitches” was trialled to collect productivity reform ideas. As DPC explained to The Mandarin, “The interactive platform allowed people to form teams, as well as view, comment on, and support other people’s ideas.

“The three best ideas were then pitched to the Victorian Secretaries Board and the panel, after workshopping the ideas and attending training sessions. Those three ideas are included in the panel’s report to government.”

Ultimately, almost 500 VPS officers signed up to the platform over three-weeks and 111 idea were submitted.

So, while there has been low levels of participation at the community level, this is not necessarily unexpected, considering the amount of promotion probably needed to get the community to actively buy in. The VPS portal experience reveals how valuable participation can be generated if the circumstances are right namely when there is a more contained area, a greater ability to promote the initiative and the presence of an invested target audience.

At least for the moment, more targeted, in-person actions may still be most effective in the community. Over 25 submissions were received from industry, academia, think tanks, community groups and individuals. One-on-one meetings and roundtables between panel members and key stakeholders were also held.

It will be interesting to see how the panel’s work continues to unfold. And while it’s unclear precisely how the panel’s efforts have contributed to date, a brief look at ABS Labour Force statistics shows that the government did indeed reach its goal of 100,000 new jobs in Victoria within 2 years.

Image: Donaldytong

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