Rob Carter is chief executive officer of the Brisbane City Council, the world’s largest council (by area). Before that he was director-general of the Department of Planning and Housing in Victoria and director-general of the Housing Corporation of New Zealand. He has a master of economics from Monash University, and has studied at the Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland. He is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Management.
AIM: How did you begin your career?
CARTER: I ran my own consultancy for 13 years out of Melbourne. I did a lot of public sector projects in areas such as the labor market and industry studies, and developed a lot of contacts in public sector management. I took a job as the deputy of the director-general in the Victorian Ministry of Housing and Construction. The job in New Zealand (with the Housing Corporation) came up and I applied. That was when Roger Davis was changing everything: they had a very advanced approach and chief executives were expected to manage a high level of change.
AIM: How do the Australian and New Zealand public services compare?
CARTER: The New Zealand public service was well ahead at that time (the late 1980s). The kind of reforms that have taken place over the last 10 years in Australia had already taken place in New Zealand in 1988. Since then Australia has come on in public sector reform, whereas New Zealand has slowed down.
AIM: On the one hand managers are asked to be more responsive to their customer, yet they are also trying to take them into areas where they might not wish to go. How do you see the citizen v. customer issue?
CARTER: You have to consult with the community if they are to have a real say and if you want them to accept change. But they aren’t just citizens: they are also customers who want first-class service. These days governments have to be just as good as, or better than, the private sector.
AIM: What are the most significant differences between public and private sector management?
CARTER: Market research is different. You don’t do market research, identify products and make customers aware that they might want to buy them. In our case customers are actively involved in market research. We hold open meetings where the whole civic cabinet goes out into the community and answers questions. Our business is citizen-owned so we have to have a lot of contact with the customers. They influence priorities and how services are delivered.
AIM: What is the role of local government?
CARTER: I am a great believer in the subsidiary principle: that services should be provided at the level of government closest to the community. But the dominant power structures are still the federal and state structures.
AIM: Which management thinkers have most influenced you?
CARTER: Karl Albrecht on service and Jan Carlsson in his book Moments of Truth; Charles Handy I shared a platform with him recently; [Peter] Senge has also influenced me with his work on the values-driven organisation and communications strategy in organisations.
AIM: How do you approach the business side?
CARTER: We have a holding company. The bigger businesses all have a balance sheet. We are on full accrual accounting; we recognise assets and depreciate them in our balance sheet. Our balance sheets and profit-and-loss statements are exactly like those of a private company: we even pay tax according to the Australian Tax Office rulings, although at this stage we only pay within the council. We also use the balanced scorecard: customer service, people and learning, financial outcomes and business-process innovation.
AIM: How do you rate Australian managers?
CARTER: We still suffer a bit from a cringe. Managers who are top-class in Australia would do well anywhere. It is all becoming international. The guy who runs Nestle Australia is Spanish. We have US chief executives running our companies and our people working in California. In Europe, as far as business is concerned, countries are becoming irrelevant. Countries will become increasingly like cultural symbols; passing a few local laws. You will have global companies and local communities.
AIM: Do you see any downside to the globalisation process?
CARTER: Leadership and governments have to be up to it, especially in relation to wealth distribution. Much can be gained. However, there is the danger that we may do this in a way that jeopardises people’s feelings about their communities and that adversely affects their environments and lives. I think you are seeing that in Australian regional communities. The peril is that you can let communities slide as a result of global competition.