Infrastructure – too precious to be left to the pollies…

With its 3-year Federal parliamentary cycle and fixed 4-year terms in each State and Territory*, Australia is never too far away from an election. South Australia and Tasmania are both currently in full election mode. Victoria doesn’t go to the polls until later this year, but the informal campaigning (rather like a phony war?) is already underway. And although the next Federal election is not due until 2019, the stump speeches are already being wheeled out.

Fiction imitates (or even predicts) fact in ABC TV’s “Utopia” (hard hats obligatory)

With so much focus on “infrastructure”, it’s going to be a bumper year for hard hats, hi-viz vests and photo opportunities in front of big “stuff”. It’s just such a shame that even with the real life Utopia, Infrastructure Australia (and respective statutory and quasi-independent bodies in each State), so much of the decision-making is left to politicians. Because this “stuff” is far too important to be left to the short-term priorities, self-serving tactics and party preservation shenanigans that most of our elected representatives are forced to succumb to.

Hot infrastructure topics this time around are energy (especially in South Australia), water (Murray Darling Basin), resources (what do we do after the mining boom?), and the call for “jobs” linked to putting up or digging up “stuff”.

I understand that we need employment opportunities both sparked by, and as a driver for, economic stimulus. But there has to be more than simply creating short-term jobs on unsustainable projects (Adani, anyone?). Of course, one could argue that the powerful construction and mining unions (and their infrastructure owning superannuation funds) have a vested interest in maintaining this trajectory.

But if these projects need to take on long-term debt, with the 3 or 4 year election cycles, you can see how difficult it becomes to manage budget priorities. Worse, incoming governments may strive to cancel, overturn or curtail projects of their predecessors, which won’t endear them to the private sector companies (and their banks) who have successfully bid on the contracts.

Roads represent a large chunk of the infrastructure “stuff” in my own State of Victoria, and are already shaping up to be a key election issue (at least in the minds of the parties). For a major city that still doesn’t have a dedicated train service connecting the CBD to its ever-growing international airport, Melbourne probably needs fewer roads, and more planning (especially as we move to ride-sharing and self-driving vehicles). Besides, while we are in an urban and population growth cycle, given the rate at which some of the current new roads are being built, they will be under-capacity before they are even finished.

I would argue that there is just as much demand to upgrade and refurbish existing infrastructure, (which will probably generate just as many employment opportunities) rather than feeding the insatiable demand for shiny new toys. Or revisiting (and even restoring) some “old” ideas that might actually make sense again today, such as the orbital railway concept connecting Melbourne’s suburban hubs. Sure, we have the new Metro Tunnel project under the CBD, and this may lead to extensions to existing suburban services, and even the airport itself. But future projects have not been scoped, and are subject to prevailing party ideologies (not to mention the NIMBY brigades…) – rather than serving  the interests or greater good of the population (and environment) as a whole.

Finally, some sobering news came out of the UK recently, where London is actually experiencing a decline in passenger numbers on public transport. There have been a variety of explanations for this drop (the first in more than 20 years) – from the threat of terrorism, to new work patterns (more people working from home); from changing lifestyles (more Netflix, less Multiplex), to the “on-demand” economy (more Deliveroo, less dining out).  With fewer people likely to commute to the CBD (40% of the population will have self-directed careers), governments, their infrastructure boffins and their policy wonks will need to think about what this does actually mean for roads and rail…. and how much longer must I wait for the NBN in my suburb of Richmond (and will it already be obsolete by the time I have access)?

Next week: Blockchain, or Schmockchain?

 

 

 

 

 

 

* For the breakdown see here.

Box Set Culture

I was first introduced to the box set phenomenon in 1974, when I received a collection of novels by J G Ballard for my birthday. This led to an on-off interest in sci-fi (Asimov, Aldis, Bradbury, Dick, Spinrad, Crichton et al). It also made me aware that curators (like librarians) have an enormous influence on the cultural content we consume, and the way we consume it. Even more so nowadays with streaming and on-demand services. Welcome to the binge society.

Welcome to box set culture (Image sourced from Unsubscriber)

With network TV being so rubbish (who needs more “reality” shows, formulaic sit-coms or re-hashed police procedurals?) I am slowly being drawn back into the Siren-like charms of Netflix. More on that in a  moment.

Box set culture has been especially prevalent in the music industry, despite or even because of downloading and streaming services. It’s possible to buy the complete works of particular artists, or curated compilations of entire record labels, music genres or defining eras of music. It’s a niche, but growing, business. In recent times, I have been lured into buying extensive box set retrospectives of major artists (notably Bowie, Pink Floyd, The Fall, Kraftwerk), as well as extended editions of classic albums (Beatles, Beach Boys), and first time releases of exhumed and near-mythical “lost” albums (Big Star, Brian Eno, Beach Boys again). I like to justify these acquisitions on the basis that they are significant works in the canon of contemporary music. But only die-hard fans would attempt to embrace the monumental box set put out recently by King Crimson – comprising a 27-disc compilation of just TWO(!) years in the band’s history.

Death (and/or lapsed copyright) has become a fertile ground for box set curators and re-issue compilers, whether in literature, film or TV, as well as music. I’m sure there are publishers and editors maintaining lists of their dream compilations, waiting for the right moment to release them (a bit like the TV stations and newspapers who keep their updated obituaries of the Queen on standby). Sadly, in the case of Mark E Smith of The Fall, his death was immediately preceded by a significant box set release (tempting fate?). And as for Bowie, he had no doubt planned his legacy (and now posthumous) retrospectives prior to his own demise.

On the other hand, streaming services create the false impression we are in control of what we listen to or watch. Unless we meticulously search, select and curate our own individual playlists, we are at the mercy of algorithms that are based on crowd-sourced behaviours that are imposed upon our own personal preferences. These algorithms are based on what is merely popular, or what the service providers are being paid to promote. And while it is possible to be pleasantly surprised by these semi-autonomous choices, too often they result in the lowest common denominator of what constitutes popular taste.

And so to Netflix, and the recent resurgence in pay TV drama. Binge watching (and box set culture in general) has apparently heralded a golden age of television (warning: plug for Sky TV). But depending on your viewpoint, binge watching is either a boon to shared culture (the normally stoical New Statesman) or results in half-baked content(the usually culturally progressive Guardian). Typically, the Independent is on the fence, acknowledging that binge viewing has changed the way TV is made (and watched) but at what price? Not to be left out, even Readers Digest has published some handy health tips for binge-TV addicts. Meanwhile, Netflix itself has released some research on how binge-watching informs our viewing habits (and presumably, our related consumer behaviours). And not everyone thinks this obsession with binge watching is healthy, or even good for business – presumably because it is not sustainable, as consumers will continue to expect/demand more and more at lower and lower subscription fees.

Meanwhile, for a totally different pace of binge-watching, SBS recently tested audience interest in “slow TV”. The free-to-air network screened a 3 hour, non-stop and ad-free documentary (with neither a voice-over narrative nor a musical soundtrack) featuring a journey on Australia’s Ghan railway. So successful was the experiment, not only did the train company’s website crash as viewers tried to find out about tickets, but SBS broadcast a 17 hour version just days later.

Next week: Infrastructure – too precious to be left to the pollies…

What should we expect from our banks?

As I have written elsewhere, bank bashing is a favourite Australian pastime. In recent months, this has struck a new crescendo. There have been various allegations, legal cases and regulatory investigations surrounding such misconduct as mis-selling of products, rate fixing, over-charging and money laundering, all culminating in a hastily announced Financial Services Royal Commission.

Cartoon by David Rowe, sourced from the AFR, published November 30, 2017

The banks had tried to get on the front foot, by abolishing ATM fees, reigning in some of their lending practices, and appointing a former Labor politician to help them navigate the growing calls for a Royal Commission (largely coming from her former colleagues in the Labor party). But the (Coalition) government clearly decided enough was a enough, and sprung their own inquiry into the industry.

For the benefit of overseas readers, Australia has a highly concentrated banking sector, which is also highly regulated, highly profitable, and in some ways, a highly protected market oligopoly. There are only four major banks (also know as the four pillars, as they cannot acquire one another, nor can they be acquired by foreign banks), and a few regional banks. There is a smattering of non-bank financial institutions, but by their very nature, they don’t offer the full range of banking products and services. As an example of this market concentration, the big four banks traditionally account for something like 80% or more of all home loans.

Aside from the Royal Commission, there are a number of policy developments in play which will inevitably change the banking landscape, and the dynamic between market participants. In addition to the growth of FinTech startups aiming to disrupt through digital innovation, there are four key areas of policy that will impact traditional banking:

  1. Open Banking – giving customers greater access to and control over their own banking data
  2. Comprehensive Credit Reportingmandating the hitherto voluntary regime among the big four banks
  3. The New Payments Platform – designed to allow real-time payment and settlement between customers, even without using bank account details
  4. Restricted ADI Regime – to encourage more competition in the banking sector

The major banks have tried to laugh off, rebuff or diminish the threat of FinTech disruption. They believe they have deeper pockets than startups and just as good, if not better, technology processes. Moreover, customers are traditionally so sticky that there is an inherent inertia to switch providers.

But with banks having to set aside more risk-weighted capital to cover their loans, they may be vulnerable to startups focussing on very specific products, rather than trying to be a full service provider. Banks no longer have the technology edge, partly because of the legacy core banking systems they have to maintain, partly because they lack the know-how or incentive to innovate. And changing demographics will influence the way new customers interact with their banks: “mobile first”, “end-to-end digital”, and “banking for the gig economy” are just some of the challenges/opportunities facing the sector.

So what should we expect from our banks? I would say that at a minimum, a bank should provide: trust (but with Blockchain, DLT and trustless, zero-knowledge proof solutions, banks are no longer the sole arbiter of trust); security (linked to trust, but again, with biometrics, digital ID solutions and layered encryption, banks do not have a monopoly on these solutions); capital protection (although no bank can fully guarantee your deposits); reasonable fees (still a way to go on account keeping fees and some point of sale transaction fees – while disruptive technology will continue to challenge legacy costs); and an expectation that it will not bet against the direct interests of their customers (like, shorting the housing market, for example). The latter is particularly tricky, when banks are mainly designed to deliver shareholder value – although of course, most Australian bank customers also own shares in the banks, either directly, or indirectly through their superannuation.

In recent months, and based on personal experience, I think a bank should also know its customers. Not just KYC (for regulatory purposes), but really understand a customer as more than just a collection of separate products, which is how most banking CRM systems seem to work. Given how much banks spend on consumer research and behavioral data, and how much they talk about using big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning to anticipate customer needs, it’s a constant frustration that my bank does not really know me – whenever I contact them, for any reason, I always feel like it’s a process of “product first, customer second”.

Moreover, I can’t think of a single new product that my bank has launched in the past 15 years of being a customer. Sure, they have rolled out mobile apps and online banking, and they may have even launched some new accounts and credit cards – but these are simply the same products (accounts, loans, cards) with different prices and a few new features. Even the so-called “special offers” I get for being a “loyal” customer bear no relation to my interests, or even my spending patterns (despite all the data they claim to have about me). And because banks are product or transaction-driven, rather than relationship-driven, their internal processes fuel silo behaviors, to the extent that the left hand very often does not know what the right hand is doing.

Finally, with more and more of the working population becoming self-directed (self-employed, freelance, portfolio career, contracting, gig-economy, etc.) banks will have to innovate to meet the financial services needs of this new workforce. Bring on the disruption, I say.

Next week: Box Set Culture 

 

 

 

 

Australia Post and navigating the last mile

Over the years, Australia Post has featured in this blog. And here. And over here too.

You would think I had no more to say on the topic. (Believe me, I’d prefer to have something else to write about – but it’s the summer, it was a long weekend, the weather is frying my brain, etc.)

But Auspost just loves to keep delivering poor service (see what I did there?).

From direct personal experience, four times in about as many weeks Auspost have failed to meet their own service levels for parcel delivery. In short, on each occasion their drivers claimed to have attempted delivery, but did not leave any notification. As a result, the parcels were delayed, and it was only when I received the “Final Reminders” from my local post office that I had any idea these items were awaiting collection.

Each time, I have lodged a formal complaint. In fact, I was encouraged to do so by the counter staff, who indicated that my experiences were not unique, and that they were as exasperated as I was. They also suggested that the front line staff are not being listened to by management.

With each complaint, I have been advised that “the relevant people will be spoken to”, and I have been assured “it will never happen again”. But it keeps happening, and nobody at Auspost can adequately explain why.

OK, so once could be a genuine error. Twice sounds like poor performance. Three times, and it starts to seem like a regular occurrence. But four times, and it points to a systemic problem, a failure which Auspost seems unable or unwilling to address.

So pervasive is Auspost’s reluctance to engage in genuine, honest and open dialogue with their customers (remember the National Conversation?), that at one point, a supervisor I spoke with refused to confirm the address of my local parcel delivery office. During another call, when I asked for some basic information as to whether other people in my area had made similar complaints, I was advised to submit a Freedom of Information request to obtain that sort of data.

After the second occasion, and sensing that Auspost was not getting the message, I also submitted a complaint to the Ombudsman. However, the latter said that “twice was insufficient” for their office to take any action. Ironically, the exact same time as I took the call from the Ombudsman, the postie was delivering yet another “Final Reminder” card, in respect to a third parcel for which there had been no evidence of a previous “Attempted Delivery”. I’m still waiting for the Ombudsman to get back to me….

More importantly, I’m still waiting for Auspost to notify me of what specific steps they have taken to resolve this pattern of poor service.

Meanwhile, Auspost keeps boasting about all the parcels they are delivering, thanks to the boom in online shopping. It’s just a pity that (from my experience), they are doing a really poor job of it.

Next week: What should we expect from our banks?