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Mr Roger Beale AM
Secretary
Commonwealth Department of the Environment and Heritage


The AMOS 6th National Conference

Canberra
8 February 1999

Introduction:

I am delighted to be here and I want to convey the best wishes for this conference from the Minister, Senator Hill.

Meteorology, atmospheric sciences and oceanography have never been more important.

And just as the fundamental science, the modelling and the data on which it depends are becoming more central to our lives, pressures are developing to change the organisational structures through which we provide these services to the community

Our great national meteorological services - including our own BoM - will need to change and adapt. For some, this will be difficult, particularly as it could involve changing some of the fundamental organisational norms which people have grown used to over many years.

I doubt that there's ever been a time when the work you do has been more relevant or more valued by the community. And that salience will increase.

Just consider the links of your science with the fundamental environmental questions of the day:

And, of course, as business becomes more efficient and competitive, it will look for more accurate, longer term and more finely disaggregated and precise forecasts.

As for the general population, the same can be said. As forecasters apply new and better technologies to provide people with information more and more tailored to meet their individual needs, the demand for and appreciation of the services grows steadily.

This increasing interest and importance linked with new communications technologies has seen an increase in the number of organisations involved in providing information about climate, weather and oceans.

And therein lies the rub for the world's national meteorological services - including our own Bureau of Meteorology.

Meteorology & Public Policy -- some long-term pressures:

We are fortunate in Australia to have one of the best Meteorological services anywhere in the world. It has a proud record of: BoM has evolved into a crucial part of the nation's infrastructure -- providing information which has become indispensable -- not just to many of the nation's most important industries, but also to the protection of the lives and property of each and every Australian.

Studies conducted for the Bureau suggest that in some cases the benefits of meteorological service provision outweigh the costs at a ratio greater than 20 to 1. I doubt it's even possible to put a value on the scientific research and monitoring aspects of BoM's work to current and future generations.

And BoM, like all government agencies is having to confront new pressures and adapt to changing circumstances

In the Bureau's case, I think four pressures are of particular significance:

These pressures have come into closer focus in recent times, with the reviews of Bureau operations conducted by Professor Ralph Slatyer of the ANU, and as a result of the recent landmark cases involving, firstly, the Bureau, MetService New Zealand and the ACCC in relation to access to the Bureau's data; and, secondly, the Monarch Airlines and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in relation to cost recovery of aviation services, including weather forecasts.

The proliferation of improved technology has made it easier to provide more sophisticated and value added weather services to more people much faster than ever before.

This has, in turn, led to greater demand for value added weather services and more pressure on BoM to provide them.

In the private sector, the availability of new and improved technology is also increasing the scope for competitive providers to meet the new demand.

At the same time, the Bureau faces significant financial pressures, as governments of all persuasions seek to maximise the public value created for every dollar spent by the Commonwealth, and to expand the level of cost-recovery in the delivery of services by the public sector.

In the Bureau's case the financial pressure is particularly acute:

Funding has increased under the current government and will be considered further in this forthcoming budget, while the Bureau has worked to identify services which can more be appropriately provided on a cost-recovery basis.

Nevertheless, the Bureau must continue to expect the closest scrutiny of its resource requirements. Not entirely unrelated, the evolution of national competition policy presents significant challenges for the Bureau -- just as it has done for many other public and private institutions. I say not entirely unrelated because the more the Bureau is involved in providing services at a price, the more care it needs to take to ensure that it conforms with the Trade Practices Act.

There is no question that the core work of the Bureau is an essential part of the national infrastructure -- a public good upon which we all rely.

The key task is to separate the public safety/public good products funded by government from the commercial services which are more appropriately turned over to the private sector or provided by a genuinely commercial arm of the Bureau on a competitively neutral basis.

As the ACCC identified, there is potential for an expanded market for specialised weather services, and it should be encouraged.

I see no reason why the private sector should not be able to provide special interest forecasts to specific clients if there is a demand for it -- the Bureau's key role must be to service the public at large through a range of free and cost recovered services.

While this seems clear in principle, it is often hard to draw the line between what should be freely provided by BoM as part of it's public service obligation, what should be charged for on a cost recovery basis, and what should be considered a commercial services and only provided on a commercial basis.

The more demand for specialised weather services grows, and the more the capacity of private sector providers grows, the more BoM will be forced to tackle this definitional problem.

As the skill levels in meso-scale forecasting improve and hence the value of the market expands in sectors such as aviation, crop forecasting, special events, major projects and power demand modelling, the Bureau will need reassess its role, given the converging pressures of fiscal restraint and competitive neutrality. To what extent should it be in these ''narrow casting" fields, as distinct from its traditional 'broadcasting' role?

My own view is that the Bureau should concentrate on ensuring the public product is the best it can be, and that means defining it properly.

BoM simply can't do everything, and it shouldn't try.

There is no reason why the public should miss out, so long as providers of specialised services in the private sector are properly regulated to ensure high standards where they impact on life and safety.

As Professor Slatyer has said

"The Bureau currently recovers costs from a number of activities and provides services on a commercial basis...(and) there is scope to expand these activities but they would still only represent a small fraction of the Bureau's total activity."
And as the World Meteorological Organisation has identified, one of the major challenges of the next decade will be:
"To build an effective harmonious and mutually supportive relationship between the public and private sectors of the meteorological and hydrological communities in the provision of commercial meteorological and hydrological services."
The access arrangements under which the Bureau provides data and forecasts to private sector forecasters are a good example of mutually supportive arrangements between the public and corporate sectors. These arrangements facilitate a greater depth in service for the public while ensuring that the BoM's severe weather warnings are accurately and promptly reflected.

Our choice is to ignore the trends be shaped by them as they overtake us, or to help shape the changes and use them to bolster the important elements of our work in the public sector, and maintain the vital public good aspects which the Bureau has done so much over the years to foster.

There is no inherent reason why the Bureau cannot meet the challenges of government fiscal restraint, competition for climate services, and advances in information technology, without compromising its core objectives.

I also remain to be convinced that there is an inherent incompatibility between the managed expansion of commercial weather services in the private sector and the free and universal exchange of meteorological information internationally which has been so vital to our progress in the field.

Clearly, though, these are areas in which we will need to step carefully to preserve the key advantages of cooperation in science and exchange of data.

How might BoM Look in 20 years?

So how might BoM look in 20 years? Of course, it's impossible to say for sure how institutions will evolve -- it's a little bit like forecasting the weather, only much less scientific! But indulge me for a moment.

If I'm right, the pressures I've mentioned today will continue to effect all government agencies in years to come.

BoM has a unique role, but not so unique that it can be quarantined from these pressures.

All government agencies which operate at the public/private sector interface will need to adapt.

They will need to provide their various public goods in the most efficient possible way, and to take advantage of emerging competitive markets for their commercial services.

What are some of the elements of the sort of agency I am optimistic we might see emerging?

  1. Forecasters of record and our representative in the World Meteorological system;
  2. I think we'll see BoM's role in quality regulation, particularly in areas bearing on safety, become more dominant as the number of private sector providers of weather-related services grows -- this role might even be separated out and administered by a distinct regulatory agency;
  3. I think BoM will gather much of its data on commercial contract subject to competitive tendering, consistent of course with its own standards being met by contractor; and
  4. I expect we will see BoM's engagement in specialised commercial weather services actually decrease as the market matures.
With both demand and supply increasing in the private sector, and given the pressures of competitive neutrality, I expect BoM will want to focus its resources on its core activities.

And finally, I would see BoM continuing to provide significant resources to its vital role as part of an international network of public good providers who advance meteorology and sustainable development though a unique system of co-operation and free exchange of information.

The result will be a leaner organisation which concentrates most heavily on the purely public good aspects of its mission and provides the taxpayer better value for money.

It's not totally clear at this stage how we get from A to B over the next 20 years, but I am confident that we can deal with these pressures and emerge with an even better organisation which continues to deliver the same public goods which we now associate with the Bureau.

Conclusion:

In closing, meteorological and oceanographic work will continue to be crucial not only to the protection of life and property, but to our policy development across a range of environmental issues.

The forces of change which I have discussed here today will not only affect the Bureau -- they will affect the entire profession -- just as they are effecting other government agencies and professions.

I'm confident that the changes will lead to significant opportunities to improve the public value created by the Bureau's activities, and I also think we can be optimistic about the scope for expansion of meteorological and oceanographic activity in the private sector.

I am confident that if these changes are properly embraced and managed that we can increase the relevance and value of your work without compromising scientific and ethical standards we have built.

With that, I want to thank you for the opportunity to join you here today and wish you well in your conference.

Commonwealth of Australia