Federal public servants who refuse to take on a different role during the coronavirus pandemic will have to take leave, as the Australian Public Service Commission’s new taskforce works to relocate staff to critical functions.
On Tuesday APS commissioner Peter Woolcott said while “every public servant who can work, should work”, the APSC is taking employees’ health and wellbeing seriously.
He reiterated that agencies have been reminded to ensure a safe working environment for those still in their usual workplaces. This is despite reports that some agencies have been reluctant to allow staff to work remotely, and ordering them to come into the office.
Employees should tell their HR or corporate support area if their agency is refusing to allow working from home arrangements, Woolcott said.
“HR and corporate support teams are responsible for implementing the policies decided by their agency head, and for making sure they are being applied consistently across the agency,” he said. “HR and corporate support teams within the agency are best placed to provide immediate support and to investigate when staff report issues such as this.”
Last week Woolcott announced the establishment of the APS Workforce Management Taskforce, which is coordinating the movement of the APS workforce across departments and agencies.
The taskforce’s current priority is to increase capacity in areas that are critical to the delivery of government services impacted by COVID-19, such as the Department of Health and Services Australia.
Woolcott said staff won’t be forced to redeploy, but they may be asked to work in a different role in their organisation, or else take leave.
“This is about identifying the critical services for Australians right now — if current work is not identified as critical and employees are unable to take on another opportunity, they can take leave instead,” he said.
He argued that many APS staff want to be moved, with the number of nominations for redeployment growing daily. By Monday afternoon, there were almost 2000 APS staff who had nominated themselves, and more than 350 casual staff wanting to support critical government functions.
Staff have already moved to support Health — which is in charge of operating the National Incident Room dedicated to the COVID-19 response — and there were around 280 additional APS staff supporting Services Australia on March 31.
The taskforce is currently only looking to redeploy staff in the city or town that they already work.
COO Committee monitoring IT infrastructure
The APS Chief Operating Officers Committee, a sub-committee of the Secretaries Board, has established a separate working group of Chief Information Officers to evaluate and monitor the capacity of IT infrastructure to support large-scale remote access demands.
Despite this, agency heads will need to take into account operational requirements, security, and capacity of their IT systems when deciding on remote working arrangements, Woolcott said.
Woolcott repeated the argument that “working from home is not new for the APS”, and agencies are “well-placed to deploy technological solutions”. He said every agency has been preparing for working from home “for some time”, by testing IT systems to ensure remote access is feasible.
The current number of people working from home across the APS is unknown.
Regular services to continue
The commissioner said that while the current priority is the pandemic, it is only temporary and the “regular jobs” are still important, with services and programs outside of the COVID-19 response continuing.
“Like all sectors across our economy right now, we need to reassess the business model to navigate this pandemic response. After the pandemic, the public service will need to get back to their usual business,” he said.
There have been no known cases of COVID-19 in the APS.