5 March 2024

Who regulates the regulators in our public sector?

| Peter Strong
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a woman and a man in an office

Are agencies always good at working with stakeholders? If not, who regulates the regulators? Photo: File.

I’ve said many times that our public service is one of the best in the world.

I get all sorts of replies to that statement – there are predictable replies such as: “If that’s true, what hope has the world got?’’ Most replies, though, acknowledge it as the truth.

Some time ago, I asked then prime minister Julia Gillard: “Just who regulates the regulators?” She and her government developed the Regulator Performance Framework (RPF), implemented for federal regulators and mostly received well.

There were two main reasons for the framework. One was that some regulators weren’t good, with attitudinal issues in management and some field officers.

Second, while most of our regulators did engage well with their stakeholders – the millions of small-business people – there was a tendency from some industry groups and politicians to attack regulators because they are easy targets, such as the ATO.

A performance framework would allow those associations to vent their concerns with facts, not emotion. When the RPF was announced, it met with approval from some agencies.

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First, they thought they were doing a good job and the RPF would show that; second, they knew there were always areas to improve or areas where changes were taking place, and the opinion of stakeholders was important to manage those changes.

Those positive constructive agencies included the ATO, the Fair Work Ombudsman and the ACCC. One interesting story is from the ACCC. There was a large business that was fined $20 million for breaches of competition law.

The ACCC approached the business as part of the RPF process and the firm’s response was: ”We didn’t like the outcome one little bit, but the communications from the ACCC was timely and professional, the respect from officers was good, transparency was there at every step – so we cannot complain, except about the outcome.”

Governments, consumers and good businesspeople – the great majority – want our regulators to perform well and communicate professionally. Most do.

So, we come to the ACT. I know from experience in running a retail outlet that the regulators in the ACT are a bit hit-and-miss.

I had great assistance in getting a liquor licence when I needed one but also had to verbally eject a regulator’s field officer from the premises after I found them yelling at a 17-year-old employee – over nothing. I have heard of similar things from other businesspeople.

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One story is when a retail business was having a management meeting and a field officer just opened the door and walked in – no knocking – pointed at the owner and said: “Out here now.” Where is the respect? The normal politeness? That particular field officer had no complaints and was just demanding immediate attention, as though they were much more special than normal folk.

I spoke to the head of one ACT agency, who told me point blank that they didn’t like businesses. What chance does a law-abiding businessperson have to get proper, polite professional treatment with attitudes like that coming from the top?

Regulators need to go get the bad businesses; associations will likely help with that but treating all businesspeople without respect will make the regulators’ job more difficult.

I suggest the ACT introduce its own version of the RPF – an assessment of how regulators are interacting with stakeholders. Good regulators will thank you for the opportunity and the bad ones will say, ”We already do this” – but they don’t.

In discussing this with others in the ACT, it became obvious that this issue also applied to non-business stakeholders. Some, in community-based groups and associations, find it difficult to consult with government agencies and feel any complaint or constructive suggestion will be met with negative actions.

Maybe we also need a Government Consultation Framework for other agencies and directorates. An annual or even two-yearly assessment by an independent body of processes and attitudes involved with consultations and communications by government agencies.

Are agencies and their staff timely, respectful, firm but polite when needed, transparent and easy to understand? Are processes for compliance or for accessing grants fit for purpose?

After all, if processes and communications are not fit for purpose, community groups will not be able to spend grant money as effectively as they might.

Like the regulators at the federal level, the ACT agencies should also embrace transparent stakeholder feedback. Then we would know which directorates see themselves as separate from the community and view the community as just a thing to be bossed around and lectured.

We would also know who the good ones are and congratulate them.

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HiddenDragon7:47 pm 06 Mar 24

Some good points here.

A less defensive and sharpened up (particularly regarding complaints and general accountability) version of the Access Canberra Customer Service Charter would be a very worthy non-negotiable demand for any independents who might find themselves in a balance of power position after the next ACT election.

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