Damon Thomas, chief executive of the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry since 2000, has served as Tasmania’s Ombudsman, Electricity Ombudsman, Freedom of Information Commissioner and Health Complaints Commissioner. His numerous qualifications include a Master of Laws from Queensland University, and he is at present completing a PhD on corporate social responsibility. He is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Management.
AIM: What is your assessment of levels of transparency in Australia, at corporate and government levels?
Thomas: At a government level, the most dangerous thing is an increasing reliance in some jurisdictions on pleading commercial-in-confidence as a defence. I don’t think this is good because it leads to an increasing cynicism about freedom of information.
But we do have agencies – health and human services and the police – that really take it seriously. They have appointed senior people to run the FOI unit and they treat requests much like a normal agency treats getting a request from a minister.
In the private sector, you get other considerations. The private sector is not affected by FOI, except where working for the Commonwealth or a state government, but you do have an increasing awareness in business that unless you have to keep it quiet, it might be good marketing strategy to broadcast your success. And if someone is trying to get information about themselves, there might be implications under the Federal Privacy Act in regard to a person’s right to change a record, have a record corrected or find out what information a business is holding about them. So, a few new developments are starting to filter through business.
AIM: How necessary is whistleblower protection?
Thomas: It is seen as an important way of protecting people who have bona fide reasons to talk about what they believe is wrong in an organisation. But there has to be protection on both sides: protection of businesses against mischief-makers and protection of genuine parties who are only going to the extreme personal distress of being a whistleblower because communication has been lousy within an organisation.
AIM: Why does management struggle with customer-service issues?
Thomas: You can teach customer service to employees and managers every day of the week, but you have to have something innate that respects and responds to customer needs.
And, it’s not just employees. If managers don’t realise the need to make that extra stretch, you can’t expect staff to come along with them.
AIM: Australian management has been criticised for its inability to deal effectively with diversity issues. What management strategies can be put in place to tackle this problem?
Thomas: I think there is a fear of anything that is different. When looking to employ someone from a different social background, the biggest part is understanding where they have come from. They don’t suddenly arrive in Australia and start working for an organisation and give up all their values and views.
AIM: What is your general view of the state of Australian management?
Thomas: We are not spending enough time teaching managers how to communicate. The other thing that concerns me is that we have a range of top-class management school products but our take-up nationwide of management training is abysmal. The courses are there and the funding is there for people who have not achieved a certain level. But even with flexible programs, we can’t get people off the juggernaut. The other thing is balance. We hear a lot of preaching about the work/life balance, but we don’t really practise what we preach.