[This post cannot be read in isolation. I have also written about why I liked working for the ACCC and the small criticisms which I make here must be read in the context of that post]
If working at the ACCC was so exciting and rewarding, then why did I choose to leave? I’ll need to be circumspect here. The ACCC, like every organization, public or private sector, is not perfect. It’s extremely normal for a place to have a particular external image, but to have negatives which are more apparent to people on the inside. I’m not interested in airing the dirty laundry, but there’s one specific issue I’d like to discuss.
My time at the ACCC has coincided with a period of transition for the organization. It was noticeably smaller even a few years ago. Many of my former co-workers who had been there at that time said that the organization was very different then. It was less bureaucratic and it was easier to know who did what.
Outgoing ACCC chair, Graeme Samuel, gives a helpful summary about how the ACCC has grown during his tenure:
When I first joined the ACCC [eight years ago], we had a budget of $62.5 million a year. That budget is now close to $150 million. The number of staff has increased from something less than 500 individuals to well over 800.
The additional powers and responsibilities entrusted to us range across the board:
We have been given, for example:
– new tools under the Australian Consumer Law to protect consumers from dishonest commercial conduct
– substantially enhanced powers to regulate telecommunications, with, most recently, key roles in Telstra’s structural separation and the transition to and operation of the National Broadband Network
– oversight of a new, national product-safety system with the ACCC now being the single national regulator in relation to product safety issues
– oversight of industry codes for the franchising, horticulture and petroleum industries
– enhancements to the laws guarding against businesses abusing their market power to damage rivals; and
– enhancements to laws letting businesses band together in negotiations with, for example, suppliers or buyers of their produce.
We were asked to devise, and now help enforce, rules encouraging the efficient trading of water in the Murray-Darling Basin, so this precious resource can literally flow more readily to its best uses.
– We have been asked by successive governments to undertake various monitoring tasks and to produce reports on various sectors as a way of increasing the transparency of the competitive processes in these industries and sectors.
– We have played an important role in establishing various third party access regimes particularly in important export industries such as wheat and coal.
The Australian Energy Regulator within the ACCC started with responsibility for energy generation with separate State regulators being responsible for distribution and retail energy regulation
The problem has been that the ACCC Library has not been allowed to grow with the rest of organization. Its funding and staffing levels have not grown to meet the demands of the ACCC’s increasing responsibilities. If anything things have gone backwards, as the library’s physical collection was downsized in 2010.
One of the difficulties is that in the eyes of decision makers, it is very difficult to see a direct relationship between library resources (staff and databases and physical collection) and the ability of the ACCC to do its mission. I saw that connection every single day, but I can understand how some people would not be inclined to assign such importance to the library.
There’s a prevalent view that disintermediation has already happened. This is the notion that most people do their own research these days so the library’s workload should be lighter now, and its need for resources reduced or steady. That argument assumes that all the necessary research resources are being provided, along with adequate training and support, which is rarely true. I also disagree with the view that disintermediation is this prevalent. I always encouraged people to do their own research when possible, but some people do not have the time and in my mind, their brain power may be better utilised analysing and working with the information.
Forget libraries and librarians for a moment, I am still concerned that ACCC investigators don’t have the research resources to do their work effectively. I have heard stories of ACCC staff with university connections - maybe through a spouse, or being involved in part-time study - using those academic databases for ACCC work because they were so much better than what the ACCC library could afford.
I have heard it said that the ACCC doesn’t need so many research resources because it often has the authority to demand particular information from companies being investigated. The stakes can be very high in these investigations. Companies have been known to provide a distorted picture when it’s in their interest and they don’t think they’ll get caught. That’s when third party research resources come to the fore, verifying this information.
The work which the ACCC does is too important for it be relying on second rate research resources, especially when the law firms who represent the companies which regularly go head to head against the ACCC aren’t so constrained in this manner. I’ve worked for one of those firms and have first hand experience of this difference.
Although working at the ACCC was inspiring, it became increasingly frustrating to know that I couldn’t provide the research service it needed, because it didn’t give me the research tools which I needed.