Iain Summers is the Auditor General for the Northern Territory. He was formerly with accountancy firms Coopers and Lybrand, and Pannell Kerr Forster, and a general manager with the Northern Territory Tourist Commission. He is 45, married with three children, and a Fellow of AIM.
AIM: Can you describe your background?
Summers: I was trained in accounting in the early 1970s, before it was fashionable. I then worked in Mt Isa and Papua New Guinea. In Papua New Guinea I was training some of the first graduates in accounting. From there I went to Darwin, where accounting was in short supply. A lot of people in accounting or management think going to regional Australia is a backward step, but once they get there they find there is more demand for their skills.
AIM: How did you become the auditor general?
Summers: I was involved with the board of the Chamber of Commerce. It was an excellent experience in terms of understanding the place of management and having a chance to work with a governing board to provide policy direction. I then became a general manager in the Northern Territory Tourist Commission. Then I was offered the post of the auditor general in the Northern Territory in December of 1994.
AIM: How do you understand the role?
Summers: I see the role as an analyst of public-sector management. And to provide encouragement to public-sector managers. The accountability reporting mechanisms are surprisingly complex.
AIM: What are the differences between private and public accountability?
Summers: There is a distinction between acting for more limited shareowners in the private sector and acting in the broad public interest in the public sector. In the private sector the performance measures are about clearly determined things like profitability and returns to the shareholders or owners. In the public sector you have to look at things like “Is society safer?” and “Are education standards improving?”
AIM: What other complexities are there?
Summers: You have to follow the standards of the elected official. You have to be sensitive to take the cues as to what success looks like. In parliament there is often vigorous and acrimonious debate about what success looks like. That tends to make the players more wary. My role is to encourage them to be more open. It doesn’t come about naturally.
AIM: What is your relationship to these managers?
Summers: I see myself in the analyst role as an observer and commentator giving information to the government. I am one of the first knowledge workers.
AIM: How do you ensure you are heard?
Summers: I choose comments that relate to issues that are topical or of general or political interest. There is interest in the Y2K problem, for instance. Reports have to be produced at the right time.
AIM: What is your view of outsourcing the role?
Summers: When a government contracts out service delivery, it needs to retain its supervisory role and maintain its core competencies: an idea of what quality of service looks like. It is contracted out because it is difficult to attract public-sector auditors in the Territory and provide career-paths for them. It is a small jurisdiction and the volume of work would only provide for about 11 full-time auditors. The private accounting firms bring people to the Northern Territory for two to three years.
AIM: How are you audited?
Summers: Peer reviews are conducted and the review is made available to the chief minister.
AIM: What have you learned from the role?
Summers: You gain a greater appreciation of democratic systems and institutions. You need to protect those democratic processes. I think we take them for granted.
AIM: Is public-sector management improving or deteriorating?
Summers: Public-sector management practices will improve when it is seen to be OK to be assessed in a clear and measurable way. It is not there now because of the way the information is used in parliament. For the situation to improve it requires an understanding in the community that they are entitled to that performance information when they are asked to vote. That will put pressure on governments to provide it. But the average citizen couldn’t tell you whether education standards had gone up or down, or whether the local hospital was giving good service. Yet they can tell you about the performance of their favorite football team.
AIM: What other problems do you see in public sector management?
Summers: You need to know who your customer is. It changes as you work your way up the public sector. If you are in the police, or a nurse, or the person on the counter in Motor Vehicles Registration your client is the citizen. But as you move up the ranks your primary customer becomes the government of the day and your primary product is policy advice. A lot of people are unsure of that as they go up the ranks.
AIM: What other thoughts do you have on management?
Summers: In terms of learning management practices, I would say to younger people it is useful to observe the style of managers you work with as much as possible and learn from them. Adopt those you find most successful and eliminate the unsuccessful ones. Develop your own management style.