How COVID-19 is driving APS reform

By Shannon Jenkins

Tuesday April 7, 2020

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The Institute of Public Administration Australia and the Canberra-based communications company contentgroup have produced a new podcast exploring the role of the Australian Public Service during the coronavirus pandemic.

Supported by the Australian Public Service Commission, Work with Purpose looks at the critical role the APS has been playing in the Australian government’s response to COVID-19.

The first episode features APS commissioner Peter Woolcott and the Chief Operating Officers Committee chair Katherine Jones.

Prompted by contentgroup’s David Pembroke, the bureaucrats discuss a range of issues including how the pandemic is impacting them, the challenges of working from home, and the ways COVID-19 is encouraging APS reform.

The interviewees reflect on how the APS is being faced with a nationwide need for crucial services on a scale that no public servant has seen before.

“It’s an incredibly interesting time, I think, for everyone, where you have to deliver [services] but also manage the personal experience of going through this with everyone else,” Jones says.

Woolcott notes that not that long ago everyone was focused on the bushfire crisis, and it wasn’t until mid-January that the government realised COVID-19 would be the next crisis to tackle.

Jones, who is also deputy secretary of the Department of Finance, says the COO Committee (a sub-committee of the Secretaries Board) was created in response to the APS review led by David Thodey, with the aim of breaking down silos and taking a “one APS” approach to operating.


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The committee only had one meeting on APS reform before the COVID-19 pandemic took centre stage. Jones says despite the dire circumstances, the COO Committee’s daily meetings are actually very positive and are leading to a more joined-up approach.

“I have to say, the experience of working on this committee, the experience of the way that everyone has come together to come to common positions on the way that we respond has been somewhat pleasant, it’s been a fantastic experience,” she says.

“Every member of the committee has been quite extraordinary in the way that they’ve approached the proposition of trying to have a shared approach and really start to operate in that one APS way that we’ve talked about but, frankly, probably haven’t landed as well as we should’ve in the past.”

The COO Committee has been looking at a range of issues related to the pandemic, including common approaches around leave arrangements, how to make workplaces safe, communicating with staff, the mental health impacts of COVID-19, and more.

Meanwhile, the Secretaries Board is currently meeting at least three times a week, Woolcott says, compared with the usual monthly meeting.

He argues the crisis is actually accelerating some of the reforms set out in the Thodey review.

“What this crisis is doing is actually driving those reforms in a very real and practical way. And I actually think the reform process…is actually happening in practice,” he says.

Next week’s episode of Work with Purpose will feature the secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment Andrew Metcalfe. Future guests will be leaders from across the APS and ACTPS who are involved with the response to COVID-19.

The public can tune into the podcast via IPAA’s website or through Soundcloud.

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