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Me and the summit

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Thursday, 7 May 2009


I was part of the buzz - and the inevitable chaos - of the 2020 Summit. The idea I took to Kevin Rudd’s festival of open-mindedness was National Information Policy. Just as we reviewed competition in our economy in the 1990s, I proposed we do the same for information. Better information can improve our workplaces, our hospitals and schools, our environment and our political processes.

So which “stream” should I join - health, productivity, economy, environment or governance? See how difficult open mindedness really is? The moment you even structure the discussion, you inevitably corral it, foreclosing options. In the event I had no choice and was drafted into the “productivity” stream comprising around 100 souls, and participated in a breakout group of about 25.

Delegates’ “Summit Ideas” were delivered to breakout groups. So I tailored National Information Policy to the narrower concerns of my breakout group on the workforce. Enter National Workplace Transparency.

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Say you particularly value some aspect of a job you’re applying for - for instance a good career path, intrinsically rewarding work or flexible “family friendly” hours. If you’re applying from outside the firm you’re generally in the dark. The employer may have a good story to tell. They’ll say that their employees are their most important resource. But who can’t rattle off a few clichés? They might even mean it. They might think they have flexible hours or good career paths. But do they really?

Now firms regularly survey their employees regarding their satisfaction with these things. So it would be good if you could get a peek at their answers. Here there are two problems. First, firms that did badly wouldn’t want to release their information. The second problem is trickier still. Even if you somehow compelled firms to release this data, their survey results can’t be readily or reliably compared because they’re not reported against some common standard. I proposed not that governments mandate some standard, but rather that they organise and campaign to encourage a standard to emerge. My examples of flexible hours and career paths piqued the interest of quite a few women in the group.

Not so much the economists. The economics professor to my left was sceptical. He wondered if I wasn't proposing that the government mandate anything, whether I was proposing anything. I explained that the best firms had an interest in such a standard emerging - as it would advantage them in competing to attract employees. And governments are also major employers, so they could establish standards for their own agencies to report against, which, if deftly done might form the kernel around which more widely used standards might emerge.

The economics professor to my right was beyond sceptical, complaining that her kids knew which employers were any good, so what was the problem. What was the market failure at the heart of my problem? (The technical answer is that common standards are a public good. More commonsensically, success might do a lot of good and since no one was being coerced, there was virtually nothing to lose.)

Our facilitator concluded by omitting proposals that had attracted dissension or confusion, leaving only the most platitudinous proposals. Which brings me to the gentleman in our midst with nothing to declare but his own confidence in an idea which had sailed through a Courier-Mail competition and earned him his place at the Summit. “Golden Gurus” should mentor young people in the workplace. Who could object, except perhaps to the loquaciousness of its proponent? I didn’t dare. (But just between you and me, haven’t Rotary and similar associations run such programs for years, and wouldn’t they do it better than governments?)

Persevering, I salvaged my proposal from dropping off the list. Then, as spokesman for our group to the productivity stream plenary I summarised our 20-odd ideas in the allotted few minutes. But underwhelming as I found it, I forgot to expound Golden Gurus. Its proponent shot to his feet, and some hearts from our breakout group sank on imagining how much time might elapse before he’d finished, I bounded back down the front and apologised for forgetting Golden Gurus, explaining it briefly.

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The next morning, having enjoyed two functions the previous night, I found that someone skilled in the art of such things - I think from co-chair Julia Gillard's office - had given my idea a nice propaganda name. Arise: Windows on Workplaces. It even abbreviates well! WOW! On the downside, the text explaining it mangled it beyond recognition. Picking my moment, I ducked down the front and proposed a rewording within the word limit, which, from memory, was 50 words. I got it into 35.

Encourage employers to provide good jobs in safe, healthy and productive workplaces, and empower employees to choose their preferred workplaces, by facilitating the dissemination of information about employment experience, for example work-life-balance and family friendliness.

And there my idea reposed for the best part of a year. I spoke with some senior staffers about it and they seemed keen, one even saying I could expect a call from the relevant department which buoyed me as I thought I needed more than 35 words to avoid misunderstanding. Alas no call came. I can’t complain. It’s been busy. It really has!

With the Summit response finally issued I can confirm that Golden Gurus made it as one of nine initiatives going forwards. Windows on workplaces not so much. In the 50 words of gobbledigook comprising the Government’s official response, my idea was worthless all along:

Employers are required by law to ensure workplaces are safe and healthy. The business sector already has strong incentives to have a productive workplace and market their workplaces accurately to potential employees, either directly or via commercial employment service providers. Commercial employment service providers could facilitate this kind of information.

Whatever …

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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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