Sean O’Grady’s expertise is helping Indonesian organisations to better manage their finances – but he’s learnt that it’s not a quick fix.
Sean O’Grady CPA may not be a surgeon or an engineer, but his work could still improve the quality of life for millions.
O’Grady had long dreamt of a career in development work but recognised that his skills – economics and accounting – were not the mainstay of aid agencies. So he set about laying the foundation for a role in public financial management.
“Ultimately, allocating resources in an effective and efficient manner is what’s going to drive improvements in the quality of life for people,” says O’Grady, who works in Jakarta as the lead public financial management adviser at the Australia Indonesia Partnership for Economic Governance.
“It’s a big problem in most developing countries that they need to be more effective in how they deliver public services and allocate their budget.”
O’Grady first studied economics and politics at the University of Wollongong, and later took up accounting, becoming a CPA.
“I needed to have that background and experience,” he says.
“You really need to have patience and drive and keep an eye on the long-term future.”
During his early career, O’Grady deliberately moved through several government departments, including the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), the Department of Finance, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and even a stint with the US Department of State at the US Embassy in Canberra.
“I tried to get a very broad overview of the whole public financial management system in Australia,” he says.
“I learnt about the overarching frameworks and budgeting in the Department of Finance and about transfers to lower-level governments in the Commonwealth Grants Commission.”
O’Grady also learnt about internal budgeting practices at the ATO, as well as tax and revenue collection systems. “Now, when counterparts ask ‘how do you deal with this in Australia?’, or ‘what is your answer to that?’ I’m able to answer on a range of different issues,” he says.
O’Grady has been working in Indonesia for eight years. His early years in the region were spent building networks and gaining trust, and he says his efforts are now beginning to bear fruit.
“Building stronger and productive relationships is something I have had to do a lot more of here than I had to back home,” he says.
Although the will exists in the Indonesian Government to improve internal practices, the sheer size of the nation – with more than 17,000 islands – makes change a significant challenge.
O’Grady says he has had to take a long-term perspective. “You really need to have patience and drive and keep an eye on the long-term future, because in the end it is something that potentially is going to help 260 million people,” he says. “That’s something I keep reminding myself.
“In the short term, I do find myself sometimes getting frustrated, but I’ve learnt to deal with that. I find the Indonesian people very patient people, and that has really rubbed off on me – just to keep a view on the long term.”
On a personal note, O’Grady says moving to Indonesia has proved positive for his young family. While they reside in a major city, life in Jakarta is less frenetic for the couple and their three children, aged 15, 13 and 9, than it was in Canberra.
“It’s a very fascinating place,” says O’Grady. “It’s brought us closer together as a family.”
The AIPEG program
The Australia Indonesia Partnership for Economic Governance (AIPEG) is a joint Indonesian and Australian program aimed at strengthening economic governance in Indonesia.
The program, which began in 2009, has about 60 staff in Indonesia, eight of whom work in Sean O’Grady’s team. They work with Indonesian Government partners in the areas of economic analysis and policy advice.
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