BCA plan misses innovation mark

James Riley
Editorial Director

If you were searching for a world-class innovation policy to drive productivity and growth across the economy, the Business Council of Australia is probably not going to be the first place you’d look. At least, not for the ICT sector.

The BCA, effectively representing the Top 100 CEOs in the country, is not an organisation that will lead the world in identifying and promoting the disruptive technologies and business models that are changing whole industries right now.

So don’t bother searching the BCA’s Action Plan for Enduring Prosperity for a deep understanding of the role of the ICT sector in innovation, or in productivity, or economic growth or ‘enduring prosperity.’ You won’t find it.

And this is disappointing. They don’t get it. But there is some good stuff in this plan regardless, lots of generic “innovation environment” recommendations that the the ICT sector has been pressing for. Long-termism for example, which the BCA advocates for government, is essential to building an innovation culture and rebuilding the nation’s core technology and sciences skills.

So in the interests of not chucking the baby out with the bathwater, lets have a look at the good stuff, before we get too cranky with the omissions and crazy-talk. (There is not a lot of crazy-talk – but there are certainly recommendations that are a lightening-rod for polarised political warfare. Increasing GST, lowering corporate and personal tax, reducing social welfare benefits – or increasing ‘incentives’ to work, etc etc are worthy of debate – but you won’t find it argued here.)

The BCA wants the next government to implement the National Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Strategy called for by the Chief Scientist. Great stuff. This is fundamental, and the ICT innovation sector would be a chief beneficiary of this plan – although it would take a long-term commitment from the highest level of government.

The BCA also wants the Commonwealth to require state government’s to introduce primary level specialist teachers, particularly in maths and science (but I am taking a leap and assuming they also mean ‘computing’ subjects.)

It also wants curriculum updated to include ‘design thinking’ as a core competency from primary onwards. Yep, bewdy mate, love it. Bring it on. All this stuff is at the core of our skills issues and have been canvassed by a variety of other industry organisations.

In the broadest terms, the BCA tries to articulate (not especially successfully) how government can be used as an engine-room for innovation, and that government departments should be encouraged to drive innovation in collaboration with both SMEs and research institutions – and take advantage of any IP that might be created along the way.

As part of this, the BCA has called for a ‘digital first’ policy – to get government services delivered online as the primary means of dealing with the citizenry in clever and ICT-based ways. Yes, hooray, good stuff (but Stephen Conroy already announced this as part of government’s digital economy agenda before he left the portfolio.

Senator Conroy also announced a target for having 80 percent of all dealing with the public carried out electronically, which the BCA also wants. So great, at least everyone seems to be talking to each other.

And anything that gets small business involved in government procurement (the BCA says a portion of departments research/innovation budgets go to small innovators) is a very good thing.

On sub-class 457 skilled worker visas, the BCA wants the program extended. Yes, for our sector, yes. There are problems with this program and it has been politicised beyond any rational conversation. But the tech sector needs flexible access to top line skills wherever it can find them – and that includes foreign markets and foreign professionals. And if we can convinced them to stay in Australia, good.

So there’s some of the good stuff. In 93 recommendations in the BCA plan, of course there’s good stuff. But on innovation generally, the BCA is very non-specific, and on ICT it is non-existent.

This agenda has the feel of the Old World. And nothing more so than its call for a national approach to innovation.

Of course we agree that there should be a national approach to innovation and of course we applaud the BCA’s call for a National Innovation Council. But to follow-up that with a comment regarding supporting Australia’s comparative advantage in mining equipment, technology and services (METS) does not inspire confidence.

I am pretty sure the mining industry will attract innovation investments without a government-appointed council pointing the way.

A National Innovation Council, chaired by the Prime Minister as part of a top-down, politically prioritised, whole-of-government innovation agenda is certainly a good idea.

It’s just that the mining sector shouldn’t be the first thing such a council has in mind. We need to get past that thinking.

Australia certainly is at a crossroads, just as BCA president Tony Shepherd says. The BCA plan is a good contribution to a discussion, and hopefully allows some debate about some taboo subjects. It is refreshing to see a paper that has clearly long-term objectives in mind. And the debates need to be had.

The paper is unfortunately wide of the mark in many areas, and in relation to ICT innovation, is completely oblivious to much of the ICT industry agenda.

The reality is that any organisation representing to the top 100 CEOs in Australia will not be able to see the ICT sector as a service industry for more important old skool business. Much like the tea lady delivers a service on the executive floor of any top 100 company.

We are nowhere.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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