States need skills retention plan
ONE of the biggest problems for state governments in pursuing critical infrastructure development is their inability to retain skilled planners, according to a major management consultancy company. Ron Loborec, head of Deloitte’s energy, infrastructure and resources division, and Roger Black, the consultant’s national infrastructure leader, say the skills shortage issue is far from unique to Australia — it is being encountered around the world — but is exacerbated here because most state governments are still wrestling with private ownership of key services and with the concept of partnerships with the private sector.
As a result, they warn, the average age of important Australian infrastructure assets is heading in the wrong direction.
With the exception of Victoria, which was put in the vanguard of a new approach by the Kennett Government a decade ago, they say, state governments have yet to fully accept that the old way of delivering services does not work very well any more.
The underlying problem, they argue, is whether planning is undertaken proactively or reactively. Mostly, they say, governments behave reactively and almost always too slowly to meet consumer and community needs.
But even where a government has the right approach, says Black, citing the 2026 plan for south-east Queensland as an example, the magnitude of the task may well overwhelm its capacity to deliver — and this is mostly the outcome of a shortage of people with the skills set to negotiate and deliver major contracts. ‘‘ The enormity of the task leads to paralysis in management.’’
Looking ahead eight to 10 years, Loborec and Black predict, one of the big changes to be anticipated in Australian infrastructure development is the way governments deliver services. Governments, they say, must overcome ‘‘ the urge to own and control everything’’ and come to terms with a new relationship with business in infrastructure planning and management.
How fast a new approach can be embraced, they add, will depend as much on governments being able to find and retain managers with the ability to understand the issue and to drive a new approach as it will on policy change.
With services such as energy, rail and health relying increasingly on ageing infrastructure, say Loborec and Black, there is an urgent need for state governments to revamp their planning processes, but they are more and more hindered in the task because the best and brightest professional workers are moving in to the private sector.
Governments, says Black, need to accept that private business is better equipped, better skilled and has greater incentive to tackle the infrastructure backlog that is now widely identified as holding back Australian economic progress.
An additional key factor, adds Loborec, is the need for governments to recognise the urgency of improving regulation, including planning processes. ‘‘ Even if regulation isn’t perfect,’’ he says, ‘‘ governments can encourage investment by making it certain.’’
How far the federal Government can intervene to improve the situation is an important issue, Loborec says.
He points to the successful use by governments such as Queensland’s of a co-ordinatorgeneral to oversee the spectrum of public sector infrastructure activity.
‘‘ Such a post could enable the federal Government to ensure approvals for major projects deemed to be of national interest to be managed more efficiently,’’ he suggests. ‘‘ It would help overcome one of the biggest complaints of business: that inconsistent regulation between jurisdictions adds substantially to project cost burdens.’’