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Australian Infrastructure Dialogue 2016

Shifting Australia’s infrastructure mindset to the long game

The inaugural Australian Infrastructure Dialogue 2016 ran Thursday 15th September 2016. 100 senior leaders in infrastructure planning participated in a discussion around ‘shifting Australia’s infrastructure mindset’.

The Australian Infrastructure Dialogue 2016 held Thursday 15th September 2016 with the participation from 100 senior leaders in the room made for an invigorating day filled with interesting and important questions that have contributed to ‘shifting the mindset’.

Convening a small, high-powered invitation only Dialogue for leaders and experts provided the right context for a unique and purposeful conversation.

Despite the challenges we face in Australia, the nation continues to be respected internationally for its ability to do infrastructure well. There is a clear responsibility to ensure Australia remains at the forefront of reform and shaping the next frontier of change to build further on our achievements.

The John Grill Centre’s Better Infrastructure Initiative (BII) is restless with the status quo. Australian infrastructure practice and policy development can only benefit from greater transparency and critique to help scrutinise poor decisions. Shifting the epicenter of responsibility so governments are better enablers for private sector provision of assets and services with greater accountability to customers and markets is very important.

A key message resonated strongly at the Dialogue. That is, Australian policy makers need to shift their mindset to be more innovative and customer-focused when designing infrastructure and services while at the same time avoiding the piecemeal approach of many previous governments.

An important takeout from the BII Report launched on the day, Shifting Australia’s Infrastructure Mindset to the long game is that customers should be allowed to drive changes in the way assets and networks are governed. Too often infrastructure is controlled by regulators or institutions who are quick to treat innovation and new technology as unnecessarily disruptive. This denies customers and taxpayers better services and superior productivity.

Doug McTaggart challenged us early in the day as to how to get a customer focus in the provision of infrastructure-enabled services to ensure good long-run outcomes? 

He rightly noted that as we are beginning to understand with the commissioning of publicly provided services, a commissioning approach requires a new and different set of skills within government, one more focused on understanding customer needs and on contract management of external providers.

While governments have mastered the rhetoric of involving the private sector in infrastructure, they remain tentative in committing to a consistent and clear approach. The Federal government’s approach to an inland rail and the role of ARTC was cited as a case in point.

Governments can benefit greatly by being challenged through the emergence of the proactive customer argued NAB’s Steve Lambert. Engaging with the customer in all their forms and empowering them to help shape the decisions that will affect them most is a critical new and desirable feature for infrastructure.

Steve gave a timely reminder that the infrastructure story is also a holistic system story, and we must think about infrastructure as a system to meaningfully impact customers and community. NAB’s social impact investment with NSW in helping to reduce recidivism for inmates in corrective services is a working case example of this principle.

But more of the public debate is increasingly calling on governments to do more, spend more across so many dimensions of life in Australia. Of course governments are unable to, and nor should they.

QIC’s Angela Karl observed that there is a clear case that Australia should do more with less if productivity is to support higher living standards. Improving customer service in infrastructure will demand much more of all stakeholders, including better national planning, greater education of regulators to the consequences of changing technology and service standards and use of data were just some of the issues covered.

Of course the citizen’s perspective is fundamental and as Lucy Turnbull indicated this will form the core of the Greater Sydney Commission in the planning and shaping of the broader metropolitan area. This is a welcomed and timely reform for Sydney that has struggled for too long with credible approach to land use planning.

Newgate Research on community perceptions delivered valuable insight about the contrasting performance of different infrastructure sectors. Sue Vercoe confirmed that customer perceptions are particularly shaped by the quality of human interactions with infrastructure providers and this depends on having well trained and motivated staff to deal with their needs and resolution of problems.

The panel of experts chaired by Les Hosking provided a wonderful contrast of the scope and extent of the customer challenges at play for industry incumbents and new entrants.

  • Alistair Preston outlined AGL’s challenges of new energy and how they are creating their own ‘Uber moment’ with online energy trading for households energy.
  • Use of technology and flexible assets all help to make airports perform better for an increasingly complex mix of passengers, airlines and community needs, argued Shelley Roberts from Sydney Airport.
  • Uber’s David Rohrsheim shared their secrets to scoring so handsomely with customer satisfaction in the Newgate Research on community perceptions to customer service in infrastructure. He suggested that Uber’s focus on customers is essential because customers can easily delete their app overnight and then they are gone.

The lunchtime address by NAB Chairman Dr. Ken Henry AC highlighted that right now there is a leadership vacuum on economic reform in Australia, with a public skeptical of the motivations of politicians, business leaders and the media. Yet a retreat from public policy discussion will not rebuild trust – and it certainly won’t solve the economic challenges we face.

Dr Henry challenged the Dialogue participants that we should be identifying commercial opportunities with positive spill-over benefits that might be advanced by business without the assistance of government. And then we should be very precise about what is needed from governments; the bit that we can’t do ourselves. 

Final remarks
How do we take forward this compelling proposition that government’s need to get out of the way, and enable customers and markets to bring about a better infrastructure approach?

The Better Infrastructure Initiative is working on an agenda that will engage the most senior leadership in the nation that reflects the themes and conviction of our discussions at the Dialogue. 

I am very grateful for your overwhelmingly positive feedback and my thanks and gratitude to each of the speakers, the participants and of course our Global Leadership Partner National Australia Bank that is supporting the Better Infrastructure Initiative with a four-year funding program. 

Special thanks also to Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, QIC and Newgate Australia.

Garry Bowditch
Executive Director, Better Infrastructure Initiative
The University of Sydney, John Grill Centre for Project Leadership