Business has reached out to Asia for the emerging possibilities, but is the public service as well positioned? Speakers to the recent IPAA conference suggested there’s a long way to go, reports Stephen Bartos.

We’re in the Asia century. So what does that mean for the public service?

Engagement with our northern neighbours was a key theme of the national conference of the Institute of Public Administration Australia in November. Attendees heard the global shift from west to east is on, and public servants need to respond.

Sir James Wolfensohn, former head of the World Bank, is perhaps the most influential Australian-born international figure of the past two decades. His message was clear: the public sector must reach out to their counterparts in Asia now more than ever. Australian bureaucrats need to become Asian students and travel to the region. That may be uncomfortable for some, Wolfensohn acknowledged, but people in government ought to be uncomfortable.

A quick quiz of the audience later found them wanting: the majority said engagement with Asian administrations was superficial, at the level of visits and delegations, rather than a deeper understanding.

Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson pressed the message. Clearly the shift in the balance of economic power — the focus from Treasury — has shifted to Asia. But that doesn’t necessarily mean opportunities for Australia, he said. Berlin, he noted, is closer to Beijing than Brisbane. As the Asian middle class grows, demand will turn from commodities to services, where Australia has less of a comparative advantage than in commodities. If we are to take advantage of opportunities in Asia it will require much more focus and effort.

Indonesian Professor Sofian Effendi offered a similar message, with even more weight coming from an expert in public administration in one of our closest Asian neighbours. It was clear from his presentations that the shift to Asia is not underway:  it has already happened. As one participant commented afterwards, for the Australian public service the question is no longer how to prepare for the coming Asian century but what to do now we’re in it.

Sofian Effendi’s message was not one dimensional. While he demonstrated that, on current trends, Indonesia will be the seventh-largest economy in the world by 2030 — well ahead of Australia — he also noted there are massive provincial differences inside Indonesia. Some provinces have much higher levels of poverty than the average, leading to internal tensions and political problems for the government in Jakarta.

None of the speakers was impolite enough to mention the revelations of Australian spying in Asia, but Effendi attracted the biggest laugh of the day when he said Indonesia and Australia were good friends — so if Australia wanted to find things out about the President, we should just pick up the phone and call.

International comparisons of public services are difficult because different countries have such different political and economic drivers. But it was clear from the evidence presented of trends in Asia that many countries across the region have the economic means to outperform Australia. There were examples of good practices in Asian countries; Indonesia, for example, is tackling problems of a federated state that dwarf the arguments between the Commonwealth, states and territories. They are starting from much further behind, but are at least making progress and generating measurable improvements: as other speakers at the conference pointed out, public servants who manage Commonwealth-state-territory relations seem at times to be making no headway at all.

There is perhaps, as Sir James Wolfenshohn suggests, a case for public servants to spend time in Asia learning from others rather than travelling there as providers of expert advice in our aid programs.

*Key presentations from the conference, and papers from the research day that followed, are available on the conference website

This story was produced as part of a new partnership that IPAA National is working on with Private Media. To be kept up to date with how this partnership will bring information and analysis of public administration trends and issues to your in-box email us at info@ipaa.org.au.

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