University, business and government administrators should trade places in scheduled secondments to improve cooperation on policymaking, according to a governance expert.
John Simpson, a member of Monash University’s council, said that industrialised economies – and Australia’s in particular – could never achieve their full potential unless the private, public and academic sectors worked together “in a more integrated and intelligent way”. The former oil and gas executive said that, alongside secondments, the higher education sector should stage roadshows to explain itself to government and corporate decision-makers.
“We have become a nation of polarised institutions, and this is very unhelpful when it comes to understanding the pressures on respective parts of the economy,” Mr Simpson told Times Higher Education.
“If you want a departmental head to have a better understanding of what it is to run a university – and vice versa – the only way you can achieve that is by having a cross-flow of people moving between those sectors.”
Mr Simpson said secondments to universities could help public servants understand the impact of sudden changes of government higher education policy. “The sector doesn’t want to be blindsided by government decisions that it didn’t expect. When you have a degree of certainty or policy reassurance, you tend to get better outcomes. You can plan and think better.”
As an example, he cited recent cuts to research funding in Australia. “You gear up projects and employ people, then all of a sudden there’s a 2 per cent cut. That is massively damaging to Australia’s standing, our potential for growth and our reputation as a place to invest for research.”
Mr Simpson said that in the 1990s, when he had been an executive with the energy multinational Shell, an “up and coming” public servant had been seconded to the company’s London headquarters for 12 months. Several years later, the same person was appointed to lead Australia’s Industry Department.
“That was very helpful. The global energy industry is wildly misunderstood at government level. He could draw on the experience and use it to the nation’s advantage,” he said.
In another example, the company hired a Canberra conference centre and invited key public servants, politicians and their minders to a morning’s presentation from the chief executive and the heads of each business arm.
“The first year we got probably 100 people. The second year, 200. Third year, 600 people turned up. That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about. There’s no advantage in sitting on your hands complaining about being misunderstood. You’ve got to take the initiative and do it.”
Mr Simpson acknowledged that issues of institutional autonomy or commercial confidence could militate against secondments of government or business executives. “There are competitive issues involved, but it’s not impossible,” he said.
“You start off in a small way, and the next year it builds on itself. It’s not hard to achieve; it’s not expensive; and Australia needs to do much more of it.”