CSIRO Chair David Thodey AO on the National Outlook and the importance of a vibrant Public Service

20 Aug 2019

Addressing an Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce lunch, Chair of the CSIRO David Thodey AO said “we need to keep looking at where the future of Australia is going to be.”

He discussed the importance of the CSIRO, saying “science and research play a critical part in our livelihood.”

Over the past 20-30 years, the nationally-funded science and research organisation has run a number of projects looking at the future of Australia in an effort to influence the type of research it does.

The objective of its latest report on the National Outlook was to inform science and research going forward, but also to examine what Australia would look like in 2060. The study posed the question ‘how can Australians continue to enjoy the best quality of life, and an even better quality of life for future generations?’ It cast a wide net, drawing on fifty external partners from business, government and the not-for-profit sectors.

The report looked at social cohesion, liveability of our cities, inequalities, energy and environmental impact, land use and agriculture. Mr. Thodey said that, at first glance, things look good.

“We’ve had 28 consecutive years of economic growth, Melbourne and Sydney still rank among the world’s top 10 most liveable cities, and our university rankings have gone up.”

However, there are challenges.

“Our education standards have slipped over the past 5-10 years, we have wage growth problems, and while we are good early adopters of technology, we don’t score high in our use of technology to drive productivity,” he said.

He also said that where we sit on the complexity index of the economy – 87th next to Cuba and Kazakhstan – is because of our reliance on resources and fossil fuels.

“There needs to be an energy shift – we need a move towards renewables – but it’s how we do it. There is great potential in hydrogen here in Australia and as an export industry, but we need to work out how to distribute it and use it in the ecosystem,” he said.

“We need to keep investing technology into existing industries, and we need to invest in new growth industries like advanced manufacturing,” Mr. Thodey continued.

“We need a strong education base, so we must continue to invest in human capital. The urbanisation and planning of our cities are important, and we need to find new ways to use land and take advantage of what countries like Israel and the rest of the world know about Agritech,” he said.

Mr. Thodey said the report is meant to start a conversation about how to address some of our energy, industry, urban and land use challenges.

The former Telstra chief executive then turned to the review of the Australian Public Service (APS), which then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull commissioned him to undertake just over a year ago.

He said that even though he had never worked for the APS, he’d always had “enormous admiration for the public service.”

“They deal with a world that is far more complex than the private sector... and they deal with far more stakeholders than most of us. And I do think being a senior executive of a public service is actually harder than being a private sector executive.”

He said one of the “great tragedies” was that senior executives’ ability to work across public and private sectors was “not great” compared with the US.

“I think we are the lesser country for it. It’s not just about giving back; it’s about having the opportunity to deal with the complex issues that impact this country. If we could start moving people back and forth at the lower levels rather than at the senior ranks, I think that would be much easier,” he said.

While he didn’t speak specifics, Mr. Thodey said that the APS needed to be “more collaborative.”

“One of the biggest challenges is that the issues that we are trying to solve for are getting more complex, not simpler. Many problems we face are cross-departmental. So, if you're looking at homelessness or mental health it’s not just one department that needs to solve the problem.

“We can't solve today's problems unless these departments work better together moving forward,” he said.

He pointed to the NSW public service as “a great example” of breaking down silos with a “cluster” model, but they were “still approaching public policy across departmental structures.”

He also said that one of biggest challenges for the public service was rolling out big, complex projects such as the NDIS.

“Implementation is critically important in the public service, but how do you measure success? We lack a focus on real metrics,” he said.

He also spoke about the need to challenge the structural rigidity of the APS.

“People have deeply held views – how do you address cultural issues around structure? And how do you create a structure of managed risk that allows for innovation going forward?”

Echoing Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s comments from earlier in the week, Mr. Thodey said there were important changes needed around “agility” and “building capability” within the public service.

“The role of the APS is to serve the government, the parliament and the people of Australia equally. Unless you invest in something, you don’t get a return. I'm not saying that we need to increase public expenditure, I'm saying we need to invest in critical areas of the public service,” he said.

Other themes the report will touch on include clarity of public sector roles, “looking beyond the Canberra bubble and being open to outsiders breaking down silos,” apolitical and “frank and fearless advice” and “improvement of services for all Australians.”

The final report is due to be submitted to government “in the next few weeks.”