Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Australian governments need to stop treating citizens as free consultants

Across April I'm spending a week participating in government-run sessions to contribute to the democratic life of our nation.

I'll spend two days with CSIRO, supporting their startup commercialisation programs, a day with the NSW Department of Transport supporting their deliberations on future transport needs and policies and a day with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet supporting the open government partnership process.

Plus there's associated travel and preparation time - including several return drives to Sydney from Canberra.

Every bureaucrat and politician involved in these sessions will be paid for their time and have their travel costs covered. 

Every consultant employed by the government to organise, manage, promote and report on these sessions will receive due compensation - paid at their going market rates.

However the participants who give up their time and intellectual property to provide input to government won't receive a cent in payment from the agencies for any of their time commitment. Not even to defray travel or accommodation costs.

Some of the participants might attend representing a university or corporate interests - so while the government won't pay for their time or travel, their employer will. In return their employers will expect some form of benefit in having them attend, whether it be through building or exhibiting expertise, influencing policy directions, senior connections or another form of  potential commercial benefit.

However for other participants, including myself, our involvement is a cost - a personal cost (spending time in another city, far from loved ones), and a professional cost (losing days of productive income time).

I've been prepared to sustain this kind of cost due to my passion for helping government take full advantage of digital ('digital transformation' as per this year's buzz phrase), improving citizen-government engagement to support and strengthen our democracy, and supporting Australian innovators to create the export industries and jobs that our country will need to remain successful throughout this century.

Indeed I've calculated that my personal investment in these goals has cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost income over the last ten years.

Now I've also had paid gigs helping government to improve in some of these areas - both as a bureaucrat and a consultant, which puts me in the position of seeing both sides of the equation.

However, make no mistake - for most Australian citizens participating in democracy can only be considered a hobby.

While the government 'professionals' (bureaucrats & consultants) get paid - the hobbyists (citizens) do not.

It's no wonder that most Australians do not respond to government consultations, attend government policy events or participate in significant democratic exercises.

It's no wonder that Australian governments find that the same organisations and individuals constantly respond to their requests for attendance at events and round-tables. Organisations with commercial interests and individuals with either commercial or close personal stakes in the outcomes.

Most people can't afford the time off work to provide their views and insights, even when they have expertise on a topic, leaving a deep well of Australian knowledge and ideas untapped.

Now some might claim that it would be inappropriate for government to pay citizens for taking an interest in democracy and contributing their time to inform or influence policy - after all, all that work is being done directly for the citizens' benefit.

However the majority of citizens now only contribute because of commercial benefit to their employer or themselves, or because they have the financial freedom (or willingness to sacrifice lifestyle) to get involved. Most Australians don't contribute at all beyond voting. So this view of citizens as 'free consultants' is quite outdated and doesn't reflect the realities of the real cost of participating in democracy.

When the Icelandic government ran a constitutional event, inviting 300 representatives from across the country to participate in the design of their new constitution, they paid the participants the equivalent of a parliamentarian's salary for the day - plus travel and accommodation costs.

In a country like Australian where people off the street are paid $80-100 to spend an hour or two looking at product concepts and give an opinion, it seems ludicrous that governments won't pay a cent to citizens who give up their time to provide insights and expertise on policy decisions that affect millions.

If we want the best policies for Australia, governments need to at minimum be prepared to pay for the best participants to attend - covering travel costs to bring in citizen experts and leaders from all over Australia, rather than limiting the pool to citizens within driving distance.

Preferable we need Australian governments to budget respectful day rates for Australians who are invited and choose to participate, or who apply and are selected to participate in consultation events of significance to policy and program development. 


  1. More fundamentally, isn't the problem the location of the consultation? It seems to me that part of the problem is that federal public servants seem to have this 'come to Canberra' mentality which tends to suck in ANU academics and maybe a few from Melbourne/Sydney, but not much further. This is instead of going out seeking views in other cities (Adelaide, Darwin, Cairns, Brisbane...)

  2. There may be a good opportunity for Craig to use one of the forums to request the introduction of a transparent and respectful process of acknowledging the contribution of volunteers, including the provision of a sitting fee for loss of income and travel costs. There is a very good example Where people who volunteer their time 'and' where they are not being paid from other sources, can be eligible to receive a financial contribution for their time and travel costs incurred. I suggest you use the excellent example from the SA Department for Health and Ageing (SA Health) "Sitting Fees and Reimbursement for External Individuals". Refer http://www.sahealth.sa.gov.au/wps/wcm/connect/public+content/sa+health+internet/resources/policies/directive+sitting+fees+and+reimbursement+for+external+individuals+policy+directive