A seat at the table

How Engineers Australia’s Public Affairs team is helping engineers get their voices heard.
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A seat at the table

Read any policy, submission, white paper or position statement from Engineers Australia and there are things you expect to see.

You’re almost certainly guaranteed to read detailed data and statistics that uncover insights into some of the most complex and misunderstood issues in engineering.

But what you don’t see are the countless hours of analysis and investigating from a small team of policy experts who rely on an army of knowledgeable volunteer engineers.

Jonathan “Rusty” Russell has been leading that team since 2015 as the Public Affairs National Manager at Engineers Australia.

Mr Russell has spent his time building a strong advocacy voice for Engineers Australia and at the same time tapping into the knowledge from countless members through Engineers Australia’s colleges, tech societies and groups.

Through his team of three policy advisors – who have years of collective experience as senior public servants, policy analysts and government affairs specialists at industry associations– Mr Russell’s job is to focus his team on one main goal.

“Our overarching goal always remains the same at Engineers Australia: when it comes to the ideas that engineers have about how the country should be run, we give those ideas a voice,” he says.

To do this, Mr Russell and his team highlight two fundamental issues facing Australia: how engineers are central to the future of the country and that there needs to be a strong pipeline of engineers.

The three key pillars

Getting governments, industry and the public interested in these issues is not easy. To help pinpoint the issues, the Public Affairs Team created three pillars: energy, infrastructure and technology & industry.

“These are the three biggest, future-oriented, engineering-intensive, public issues being discussed today and that’s why we get involved,” Mr Russell says.

“It always comes back to the fact that these issues show how engineers are central to the future of the nation and therefore a strong pipeline of engineers and being able to listen to engineers is important.”

The team’s job is not to just create the goals. Much of their time is spent researching, analysing and producing reports to identify the challenges and how some of the problems can be fixed.

This work could take the form of high-level position statements, thought-leadership reports or submissions that respond to government inquiries and reviews.

Collaborating with members

Engineers Australia Senior Policy Advisor Sybilla Grady works with college chairs and senior members to gain their insights through specialised Advisory Panels.

The panels sit under one of the three key policies areas (energy, infrastructure and technology & industry) made-up of about a dozen engineers that sit across multiple industries, disciplines and sectors.

This panel structure was adopted as engineering issues become more multi-disciplinary in nature, particularly around energy and infrastructure.

Ms Grady says the panels give a well-rounded and balanced understanding of the engineering experience.

“The panel members circulate drafts and ideas more broadly across our membership via the Engineers Australia colleges, so we get a cross-section of engineers commenting on a particular topic” she said.

“Some panel members might also seek insight from industry colleagues.”

“Our members are influenced by their experience and the context in which they operate, which is useful because it allows access to diverse perspectives.”

Getting the word out

One of those Advisory Panel members is Neil Greet, College of Leadership & Management Board member and owner of the engineering consultancy Collaborative Outcomes.

Mr Greet has also been Engineers Australia’s energy spokesman for about six years with appearances on Channel 10’s The Project, Sydney Morning Herald and ABC News.

Mr Greet says he’s been lucky enough to help collaborate on policy work and also discuss the issue publicly through the media.

“All these things are entwined. If you’ve got good policy, then you’ve got something to talk about, and if it actually cuts through and people want to listen then you can get onto the media. Once you’re in the media, engineers can get encouraged to do something,” he says.

But he says a lot of hard work is going on behind the scenes of a published policy or appearance in the news. Public affairs and media work is demanding and takes a lot of time and resources. Choosing a side of the debate can also be tricky.

“Taking part in the big debates means you have to take a position. And you’ll never get complete agreement with all engineers about any issue, so you need to have the courage to put your thoughts out there and say this is what we think good policy is,” he says.

Mr Greet believes the new Advisory Panels, along with strong collaboration with the Public Affairs team, is now addressing that reality of multi-disciplinary policy work.

“Energy is not just something the electrical engineers do. It cuts across every college. … We have to have these hard discussions. If we don’t have them, we just do nothing. Then we aren’t in the policy debate.”

Engaging with government and industry

Mr Russell says the media is one side of the coin when it comes to advocacy for the profession. The body of work also goes into real engagement with government.

“We take our messages directly to the civil servants and politicians in charge. We go to agency roundtables and meet with politicians at parliament house in Canberra,” he says.

This includes advancing engineers’ registration in various states, most recently in Victoria. Mr Russell, along with Victorian General Manager Alesha Printz, dedicate much of their time speaking to government and cross-bench parties on the benefits of the Professional Engineers Registration Bill.

The Public Affairs team is also a valuable resource for staff within Engineers Australia, including the new student and graduate group, Frontier.

The volunteers and staff for Frontier rely on data and research to help inform activities, events and products for young engineers.

The complexity of the Public Affairs team and the multitude of subject matter means they have their work cut out for them. But Mr Russell stresses that collaboration is key on all fronts of their work.

“This is a collaborative approach. We’re trying to represent the broader profession, so we don’t rely on one voice,” he says.

“We need a broader view of opinions so we can use them to inform future policy work.”

Mr Greet says it’s important to remember how much time, hard work and energy goes into advocacy work.

“At some point in time, you have to have a statement about what’s best for the nation, not necessarily what’s best for some individual part of the engineering organisation. And that’s hard because we’re a member organisation, Mr Greet says.

“If it works, and it takes a lot of hard work, it really is a circle of goodness. If you want to make a difference, then you have to do some work.”