James Riley
October 11, 2016

Govt has forgotten how to govern

Policy

Govt has forgotten how to govern

Bill Ferris: Differences emerged over the direction of Innovation and Science Australia

Innovation and Science Australia’s decision to appoint an outside consulting house to design a strategy to build Australia’s innovation eco-system is baffling and denigrates the public service resources available to it.

The decision, in the form of a Request for Tender for the creation of a 2030 Strategic Plan for Australia’s innovation system, almost defies belief.

It does prompt a few questions. Of the 150,000 people in the Australia Public Service, is there no-one qualified to research and write a report that sketches an outline of policy options that strengthens our innovation ecosystem?

Surely the Department of Industry’s well-resourced Chief Economist Mark Cully and his team might have the right credentials? They have, after all, written an excellent Australia Innovation System report each year since 2012.

If the Innovation and Science Australia chairman Bill Ferris goes ahead and awards the work to one of the usual suspects, the first thing they will do is lift Mr Cully’s reports and start reading.

And if researching a report and developing policy options designed to improve Australian innovation system isn't a job for the Industry Department, then you have to wonder what its purpose is.

If it’s not there to develop policy options, then what’s it for?

The snub – and that is what it is – has already created tensions between the ISA board and both the Industry Department and the Minister’s office.

It has been rightly described as ‘a joke’ from within Prime Minister's Office, and has deeply offended those who have been working this area of policy development within the Industry Department for years.

It seems incredible that the first major decision of the ISA board is to pull out a cheque book to gift a job to one of the usual suspects from the consultancy class.

Surely this is the opposite of what the Prime Minister had in mind when he announced the creation of the new ISA?

ISA, which is chaired by venture capital legend Bill Ferris and deputy chair by the Australian Government Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, was set up as an initiative as part of Malcolm Turnbull’s National Science and Innovation Agenda (NISA).

The fact that the board’s first order of business has been to for to outside consultants reveals much about the low regard its members have for the public service.

InnovationAus.com was critical of the composition of the new board when it was first announced, saying it seems too heavily stacked with alpha-VC and startup interests, and not enough with science and broader industry.

The newly-installed Minister Greg Hunt has had a crack at levelling the spheres of influence with a couple of appointments that bring broader industry skills.

Mr Hunt has also set out a through a series of landmark speeches (the first delivered in industrial Port Pirie of all places, flagging his commitment to innovation across all sectors) a new direction that de-emphasises the over-eager focus on startups and inner-cities.

There is a collective tin-ear at ISA board level. This has led to some frank exchanges of view between the ISA and the department, and with the Minister’s office.

Of course I am late to this. The tender documents were issued a long time ago submissions were due in early September, and a decision is expected shortly. But while the tender has not been awarded, there is the opportunity to change tack.

There is another issue at Innovation and Science Australia that is perplexing.

It has still not appointed a Chief Executive Officer, despite having set out on a global search last February. This seems a very long time, particularly given a shortlist of preferred candidates is understood to have been drawn up some time ago.

The speculation is that there are deep differences of opinion between the ISA board, the Minister’s office and the department about the role. One side wants a high-profile industry person who will be out selling the ISA agenda as a primary role. The other side wants an executive officer who does the resourcing and who gets stuff done, leaving it to the board and chairs to do the selling.

No-one was interested in commenting publicly for this story. But there are a lot of people very interested in commenting on background.

Innovation and Science Australia is an important agency, and the 2030 Strategic Plan it has been charged with creating will be an important contribution to policy thinking.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Long-term thinking is important, but no-one has a crystal ball. Paying through the nose for a consultant report won’t give Australians a better picture of the future.

It may be an unfair characterisation, but the ISA board seems stacked with people who simply don’t respect the ability of public servants to deliver policy options, no matter how well-credentialed the executives assigned to the task are.

That’s a fundamental problem.

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