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Adelaide: A city of two tales

Opinion

Adelaide's growth is being hobbled by regressive organisational systems, brain drain, recruitment bias and the creation of false media realities, writes Malcolm King.

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It was the best of times for South Australia with a buyer for the Whyalla steel works. It was the worst of times when Holden closed its doors. It was the age of wisdom as our universities packed their lecture theatres with students. It was the age of foolishness, as only two in five graduates found a fulltime job in SA. It was the epoch of belief that building submarines would save the state. It was the epoch of incredulity that all of the jobs would be local.

We live in times as momentous as those in Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities, as revolutionary techno-economic forces pull workplaces apart across the western world.

While economic reporting sometimes uses figures from dodgy methodologies, there is another perspective, another tale, which explains why, over 40 years, the city has failed to shake off insular thinking.

By looking at Adelaide’s organisational systems, we can see how brain drain, recruitment bias and the creation of false media realities have hobbled the city.

The Greater Adelaide population is growing at barely 8000 people or about .5 per cent per year. More than 7000 young people leave the state every year, acting as a release valve for the unemployment figures.

The catastrophic problems in Families SA (now the Department of Child Protection), Health SA, the Department for Education and Child Development, and TAFE SA are in large part due to long-term and sustained cross-generational brain drain.

Many of these organisations have become islands unto themselves with their own pathologies.

Some examples of the problems caused by closed or flawed organisational systems include Oakden, Transforming Health, leadership turmoil in SA Health and the ongoing organisational crisis undermining TAFE SA. There are plenty of examples in the private sector, too.

Without an influx of professionalism, new ideas and strategies pegged at national best practice, organisations “circle the wagons” and turn inward. This causes bullying, factionalism, low information sharing, capability gaps and blame shifting.

Organisations become instruments of oppression.

Flat population growth and an exodus of young people have knock-on effects for our three publicly funded universities. Student enrolments have slowed, so some programs have dropped their entry scores, forcing lecturers to “dumb down” the syllabi.

There is also a “disconnect” between enrolments and the local job market. According to Commonwealth Department of Education and Training figures, there were 11,895 domestic bachelor degree graduates from the three major universities last year.

Including postgraduate awardees, this figure rises to a whopping 19,680 graduates. About half of these end up on the dole, in casual work or on a plane to Sydney or Melbourne. That’s another example of a flawed system.

In a tough employment market, local recruitment is rarely about merit. It’s about groupthink and nepotism, and it’s getting worse as jobs become scarcer.

White-collar candidates feel especially aggrieved as mates give jobs to mates, but spare a thought for the private recruiters: they are simply complying with cultural norms and the expectations of their clients.

The low functional intelligence and capability standards of many organisations across greater Adelaide are due to the exiling of candidates of merit over a generation and a half. One can understand this behaviour in a town of 20,000 people, but not in a city of 1.4 million. It’s a key reason why the state is circling the drain.

There is a great yawning unknowing in Adelaide where wisdom, strategy and action should be

We’re also creating a burgeoning underclass of migrants.

The State Government nominates migrants if they have the skills and experience needed on the skilled occupation list. They must stay in SA for two years, yet neither that list nor the graduate occupation list reflects local employment potential.

This “cash cow” soon dries up once the migrants realise crippling unemployment is endemic. They can’t access Newstart for two years, so they live frugally off their savings. They become the new poor – a disillusioned and disenfranchised “precariat. This is another example of a flawed system.

A classic example of a closed system is the conga-line of senior public servants, who for the past 20 years have filled the same 200 executive jobs. Their salary range is between $220,000 and $367,000 per year for a five-year contract. There is often no screening, no merit assessment or reference checks.

Much of the senior public service operates like a blundering colonial squattocracy addicted to perks.

While we blame the media for almost every evil under the sun, systems thinking focuses on the construction of “realities” through information gatekeeping.

A newspaper, website or TV station can’t run all the news that it receives, so stories are “gate kept” to fit specific frames of reference. These are often archetypes: the local battler down on his luck, nostalgia pieces about yesteryear in Adelaide, the hero who conquers adversity, the dole bludger and the evil criminal, to name just a few.

If the news doesn’t fit these frames, then it usually doesn’t get reported in the mass media.

The real news lies beyond these frameworks: the rise artificial intelligence, careers of the future and the casualisation of the workforce, to name just a few. There is a great yawning unknowing in Adelaide where wisdom, strategy and action should be.

The Government and its agents systematically inoculate the public with happy stories. The worse the local economy performs, the greater the frequency of manufactured good news.

Most Australian media run these “happy face” stories. but in SA they are legion. Bank SA, Deloitte and Tourism SA are on a mission to pacify us.

This false media reality should be replaced by strident town hall meetings from concerned citizens but that’s the last thing the State Government wants.

Former Thinker-in-Residence Charles Landy wrote in 2003: “Decline mostly takes time and happens by imperceptible steps. Each small moment in itself does not matter, but when the steps are taken together it matters dramatically … Adelaide must avoid this fate… It will do so only if it recognises there is a crisis, even though it mostly does not feel like one.”

These closed and flawed systems have grown historically and organically, through ignorance and fear. They serve those in positions of power and sinecures. This story goes some way to explaining why those public servants and business leaders, armed with new ideas and the best interests of the state at heart, are brought low by a pernicious and reactionary status quo.

These types of ecological systems collapse and die. The same applies to cities. This New Year’s Eve, don’t make a resolution, make a new year’s revolution to smash the regressive organisational systems that hobble Adelaide’s growth. Our future depends on it.

Malcolm King, an Adelaide writer, works in generational change and is a regular InDaily columnist.

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