The 2020 Summit and me

Our Cate, looking stunning just three minutes after giving birth to her latest accessory. Really how does she do it?

The night I got Kevin Rudd’s email advising me that the Government had got its full response to the Summit out, I had a quick look and was not surprised.  I penned something for Troppodillians and, on working it up and reading it through, thought I might see if the AFR might like to run it as a column.  They did. So here – a couple of days late – it is.

How my great idea went down the gurgler

I was part of the buzz and the inevitable chaos of the 2020 Summit. The idea I took to Kevin Rudd’s festival of open-mindedness was National Information Policy. Just as we reviewed competition in our economy in the 1990s, I proposed we do the same for information. Better information can improve our workplaces, our hospitals and schools, our environment and our political processes.

So which stream should I join health, productivity, economy, environment or governance? See how difficult open-mindedness really is? The moment you even structure the discussion, you inevitably corral it, foreclosing options. In the event I had no choice and was drafted into the ‘productivity’ stream comprising around 100 souls, and participated in a breakout group of about 25.

Delegates Summit Ideas were delivered to breakout groups. So I tailored National Information Policy to the narrower concerns of my breakout group on the workforce. Enter National Workplace Transparency.

Say you particularly value some aspect of a job youre applying for: For instance a good career path, intrinsically rewarding work or flexible family friendly hours. If youre applying from outside the firm you’re generally in the dark. The employer may have a good story to tell. They’ll say that their employees are their most important resource. But who can’t rattle off a few clichés? They might even mean it. They might think they have flexible hours or good career paths. But do they really?

Now firms regularly survey their employees regarding their satisfaction with these things. So it would be good if you could get a peek at their answers. Here there are two problems. Firstly, firms that did badly wouldn’t want to release their information. The second problem is trickier still. Even if you somehow compelled firms to release this data, their survey results can’t be readily or reliably compared because they’re not reported against some auditable, common standard. I proposed not that governments mandate some standard, but rather that they organise and campaign to encourage a standard to emerge. My examples of flexible hours and career paths piqued the interest of quite a few women in the group.

Not so much the economists. The economics professor to my left was skeptical. He wondered if I wasn’t proposing that the government mandate anything, whether I was proposing anything. I explained that the best firms had an interest in such a standard emerging as it would advantage them in competing to attract employees. And governments are also major employers, so they could establish standards for their own agencies to report against, which, if deftly done might form the kernel around which more widely used standards might emerge.

The economics professor to my right was beyond sceptical, complaining that her kids knew which employers were any good, so what was the problem? What was the market failure at the heart of my problem? (The technical answer is that common standards are a public good. More commonsensically, succeeding with my proposal might do huge good and since no-one was being coerced, there was virtually nothing to lose.)

Our facilitator concluded by omitting proposals that had attracted dissension or confusion, leaving only the most platitudinous proposals. Which brings me to the gentleman in our midst with nothing to declare but his own confidence in an idea which had sailed through a Courier Mail competition and earned him his place at the Summit. Golden Gurus should mentor young people in the workplace. Who could object, except perhaps to the loquaciousness of its proponent? I didnt dare. (But just between you and me, havent Rotary and similar associations run such programs for years, and wouldnt they do it better than governments?)

Persevering, I salvaged my proposal from dropping off the list. Then, as spokesman for our group to the productivity stream plenary, I summarised our twenty odd ideas in the allotted few minutes. But underwhelming as I found it, I forgot to expound Golden Gurus. Its proponent shot to his feet, and some hearts from our breakout group sank on imagining how much time might elapse before hed finished, I bounded back down the front and apologised for forgetting Golden Gurus, explaining it briefly.

The next morning, having enjoyed two functions the previous night, I found that someone skilled in the art of such things –  I think from co-chair Julia Gillard’s office  – had given my idea a nice propaganda name. Arise: Windows on Workplaces. It even abbreviates well! WOW! On the downside, the text explaining it mangled it beyond recognition. Picking my moment, I ducked down the front and proposed a rewording within the word limit, which, from memory, was 50 words. I got it into 35.

Encourage employers to provide good jobs in safe, healthy and productive workplaces, and empower employees to choose their preferred workplaces, by facilitating the dissemination of information about employment experience, for example work life balance and family friendliness.

And there my idea reposed for the best part of a year. I spoke with some senior staffers about it and they seemed keen, one even saying I could expect a call from the relevant department which buoyed me as I thought I needed more than thirty five words to avoid misunderstanding. But alas, no call came. I can’t complain. Its been busy. It really has!

With the Summit response finally issued, I can confirm that Golden Gurus made it as one of nine initiatives being implemented.

Windows on workplaces? Not so much. In the 50 words of gobbledigook comprising the Government’s official response, my idea was worthless all along:

Employers are required by law to ensure workplaces are safe and healthy. The business sector already has strong incentives to have a productive workplace and market their workplaces accurately to potential employees, either directly or via commercial employment service providers. Commercial employment service providers could facilitate this kind of information.

Whatever . . .

Postscript: Welcome to . . . you guessed it . . .  Golden Gurus.

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22 Responses to The 2020 Summit and me

  1. Tel_ says:

    Commercial employment service providers could facilitate this kind of information.

    They couldn’t and they don’t. If anyone can find an advertisement on Seek stating something like, “Mildly disreputable employer with so/so safety record seeks hard-working but gullible employee for what will probably be a short stay” then I’d be amazed. Please, go try and find an advertisement with even a single slightly negative statement about the employer.

    There’s an obvious conflict of interest for an employee (or employment agent) making any sort of public statement (or statement that might become public indirectly) about their employer. The only honest and safe option is to say nothing at all. The scheme could only work if some neutral third-party collected anonymous surveys and provided a statistical digest for public viewing (much like our current secret ballot system for government, and for exactly the same reasons).

    …her kids knew which employers were any good, so what was the problem. What was the market failure at the heart of my problem?

    Her kids obviously know the best pubs to go drinking, because that’s the only place this valuable information changes hands. I would have thought that the market failure is obvious… show me where I can get accurate statistics on accidents and near-miss incidents for all the industrial sites in my neighbourhood. Can’t find that? OK, show me statistics for average unpaid overtime hours in each of the major city offices. How about any published grading of employers on significant factors
    relating to employee working conditions?

  2. conrad says:

    “So which stream should I join health, productivity, economy, environment or governance? See how difficult open-mindedness really is?”
    That’s very funny (in a rather ironic sort of a way, with myself generally being on the losing side of it!). I note that if you propose something that doesn’t fit into a neat category, no-one in government will love you for it (as you seem to have found out). This is typical and is exactly the same problem that all the public research people in Australia face every day (and no doubt many policy people too), except you sometimes need to exchange “open-mindedness” for “interdisciplinary”. The amusing thing about this all is that if you dig through all the government documents you need to if you do such work, you will see the virtues of open-mindedness and interdisciplinary research written literally hundreds of times, and how the government likes to encourage it and doesn’t penalize it in their various reward schemes. However, once you actually fill in the grant/evaluation/etc. forms for these schemes, it’s quite the opposite. You need to make sure your idea is particular to a particular field (as one of the head Aus. Research Council cronies recommended in a talk I saw “we like grants that specify they are 100% in one area), and make sure everyone already knows the answer of your idea — that way they’ll know it’s good and they can be open minded about evaluating it.

  3. Ken Parish says:

    Here’s what I said when Nicholas ran an earlier version of this column past me by email:

    Golden gurus, eh? I can’t help commenting on the woman who didn’t like your idea because her kids already knew which were the good workplaces. Was that typical of the smug, self-satisfied, well-connected middle class “achievers” standard of the participants? I know from experience that CDU law graduates mostly don’t have good knowledge of the qualities of the law firms they’re going to be moving to for their first jobs as legal practitioners. For Darwin-based ones, luckily our law academic staff is strongly professionally based, having a high proportion of recent and current practising lawyers among our ranks. Thus we can give them some inside knowledge about the strengths and weaknesses of local firms and some of the personal qualities and attitudes of senior partners. But we can’t provide any assistance at all for for the 80% of our students who live interstate.

    And what conceivable commercial motivation would Job Network providers have for providing this sort of information? In fact it’s contrary to their interests: they wouldn’t want job seekers being too picky, unless the Commonwealth specified it as a condition of appointment as a provider (which of course they’re not proposing even though they’re currently reletting the contracts and could have included the idea if they’d wanted). The same goes for ordinary commercial employment service providers , who in any event would have a hopeless conflict of interest in providing any such service because they’re most commonly contracted by the employer anyway. It’s like imagining that a real estate agent is going to give you accurate, dispassionate information about the house you’re thinking of buying.

    Luckily I was totally cynical about the 2020 Summit in the first place (as you might recall), so it doesn’t come as any surprise.

    As for Golden Gurus, it’s lucky I wasn’t there because I wouldn’t have had the self-restraint to avoid bagging it mercilessly. I suppose there might occasionally be something useful that an old codger could tell young employees about their workplace, notwithstanding the pace of technological and other change and the fact that you’d imagine we’d be aspiring to advance workplace culture with things like TQM rather than freeze attitudes and cultures in time by building in an innately reactionary force with a vested interest in reminiscing about “in my day, sonny …” and shitcanning new-fangled nonsense they don’t understand. I can’t help thinking of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen sketch.

    Still, there might be at least one benefit. By coincidence I’m running a trial mentoring programme this semester where we pay senior Honours stream law students in book vouchers to mentor/tutor first year “at risk” students. We also bribe them with threats that they won’t be considered for the Supreme Court Medal unless they participate in mentoring! We’ve got our next mentors’ meeting tomorrow evening in a Wimba Online Classroom to discuss progress. I might run up the flagpole the idea of labelling them “Golden Gurus” and see who salutes. It should at least get a couple of laughs.

  4. Jacques Chester says:

    Sounds to me like you participated in a stage-play adaptation of Orwell’s Politics and the English Language.

    There’s the problem with pure-consensus models: only platitudes will ever get past on the nod. Hence the focus on a Republic, which achieves approximately nothing in concrete terms, but makes the intelligentsia feel jolly good about themselves (and secretly start planning their presidential campaigns).

  5. Jacques Chester says:

    Here’s the bit I remember best from Orwell’s essay. Sounds almost exactly like your experience.

    Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

    I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

    Here it is in modern English:

    Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

  6. Funny you should mention Ecclesiastes. The picture was meant as an illustration of one of its zinger lines. “All is vanity”.

  7. Sacha says:

    The idea of having more (useful) information in the public domain is interesting -but I don’t think that more transparency about employers is the best place to start – although governments could be obliged to be transparent.

    Commercial employment service providers could facilitate this kind of information.

    The could – but they usually don’t reveal the employer!

  8. Sacha, it’s the best place to start if you’re trying to sell the idea of better information flows more generally and you’re in a breakout group on the workplace.

  9. pablo says:

    As the dad of a daughter trying for her first real job I can undertand Nick’s lament. Check any junior job ad and you will find scant detail on remuneration or wages for those of us who’ve read Orwell. Occasionally you might be favoured with ‘award’ as all you need to know about the most important reason for fronting up each day. If you want to know what the ‘award’ is then you will need to chase through industrial commissions or a potential union secretariat, maybe the receptionist at the local trades hall could help. Because somehow it is still considered the height of effrontery to enquire at interview what’s the job worth.

    As for other data on an enterprise, newspapers keep extensive library info. Maybe finding some way for the Fairfax library to turn a quid could be their salvation.

  10. Sacha says:

    Nicholas, sorry, I might have been a bit hasty in my comment. Of course, we want better or more useful information, e.g. to assist markets working more efficiently, and the employment market is one better information about employers would greatly assist potential employees. This is especially true given the costs for both employees in finding a new position and employers in finding new staff.

    I wonder if people “rate” their workplaces on a webpage somewhere? The designer of the webpage could ensure a standard set of questions, but it may be difficult to collect reliable data.


    Trouble is, a lot of money has to be spent marketing the site to get people to know of the site and for it to become the standard. And who’s going to cough up the money?

  12. TimT says:

    Your idea sounds much better than ‘Golden Gurus’, which seems as if it was designed to appeal to the incipient nanny-statists inherent in the hearts of many-a Labor politician.

  13. Tel_ says:

    I think it has some potential, you probably have to get the small upstart companies in the door before anyone major comes along. I dunno if just spending a lot on advertising will actually make people respect the process, it takes a kind of genuine groundswell of interest which is difficult to artificially generate. In the current climate, competition over scarce employees isn’t the main concern of most businesses so I doubt there would be a huge rush to register even if they did all know about it.

    Also, how do you propose to prevent vote rigging? It’s a serious question, I mean all the employees get told to do the survey with someone watching over their shoulder, or monitoring their keystrokes… or the boss just fills in all the survey forms himself to get a good rating. There’s been enough research into online voting to know that it isn’t easy to implement a failsafe system (and most of the proposals are dauntingly complex). You could bluff it for a while like google does with their adwords (“we have mystical anti-rigging technology that will catch you when you least expect it”, but very few people actually believe that anymore).

  14. Of course your question is a serious one about vote rigging. You can’t prevent it that I can see. That’s why it’s difficult to do this stuff well without some involvement of a central neutral party – governments fit that role, though perhaps others might have a chance – industry associations for instance. But the sociology of industry associations tends to be pretty lowest common denominator.

  15. Nicholas Gruen says:

    You can follow up Golden Gurus – one of the few Summit initiatives that got implemented – here. Can common denominators get any lower than that?

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  17. Nicholas Gruen says:

    This study provides grist for my mill.

    A central prediction of information economics is that market forces can lead businesses to voluntarily provide information about the quality of their products, yet little voluntary disclosure is observed in the field. In this paper, we demonstrate that the inconsistency between theory and reality is driven by a fundamental failure in consumer inferences when sellers withhold information. Using a series of laboratory experiments, we implement a simple disclosure game in which senders can verifiably report quality to receivers. We find that senders disclose less often than equilibrium would predict. Receivers are not sufficiently skeptical about undisclosed information – they underestimate the extent to which no news is bad news. Senders generally take advantage of receiver mistakes. We find that providing disclosure rates by quality score helps to improve receiver inferences.

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  20. Tryvix says:

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    • paul frijters says:

      I have wondered where this kind of comment comes from. Clearly, it is a bogus comment that is surely generated automatically. But why? It doesn’t advertise anything, nor link to anything. And it doesn’t even bother to have good English. What is then the point of such random noise?

      I suspect the point is to create a web presence: to establish a name as legitimate by having the name appear in many places on the internet as a real entity. Somehow, that has got to buy brownie points with search engines or identity checkers, or something like that. It’s the only reason I can think of for these kind of comments to be posted.

      • Paul
        It used to be the case (Not sure if its still current) , that placing links to a low traffic low status website, onto a website that has creditable audiences ( or best of all has some sort of official status like a public library or a government website) would help push up the google page ranking of that low status website.
        There were people who in return for payment offered to do that sort of thing ‘to improve your google search algorithm results’.

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