At last, the Australian Public Service at large has discovered what it really means to ‘pivot’

By Verona Burgess

Thursday April 9, 2020

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THE OBSERVER: Designing straight-forward delivery mechanisms is one of the most difficult challenges in public policy. But, says Verona Burgess, senior public servants are feeling their way through this pandemic management, aided by more than 5000 people across the APS and more than 350 “casual” staff volunteering to redeploy to critical government functions.

The Australian Public Service may not be universally “agile”, although parts are doing brilliantly, and much may be happening on an ad hoc basis; it may not be comfortable or planned to the nth degree; but the changes continue to be widespread and sweeping both in workforce management and policy design.

In other words, it’s a work in progress with multiple moving parts that has also turned traditional public-service risk management — or should we say risk aversion — on its head.

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By admission of both the Public Service Commissioner, Peter Woolcott and Finance deputy secretary Katherine Jones, COVID-19 has already swept away some of the “bureaucratisation” that would have characterised the way the Thodey reforms would have been implemented.

The same might be said of the program design for the three tranches of the total $213.6 billion allocated to support the nation through the crisis, more of which later.

First, the workforce. Jones chairs the Chief Operating Officers’ committee that was stood up under the Secretaries’ Board to drive the implementation of Thodey — in essence, the “One APS” approach. The plan was to meet monthly.

“We had one meeting largely focused on reform,” she told contentgroup’s David Pembroke in a new podcast hosted by the ACT division of the Institute of Public Administration, Australia. “It went really well. There were all these things we were going to focus on in the near future to drive reform but we acknowledged that we needed to be ready to deal with emerging issues.  Little did we know.”

Then COVID-19 took over. They went from meeting monthly to weekly, to twice weekly, and now every day at 9.30am — twice a week for two hours and the other days for half an hour.

As Woolcott put it of the APS response to COVID-19, “We’re not working from a playbook. Yes, we’ve had crises like the GFC but this is on a scale that none of us in the public service have dealt with in terms of its implications and regard to people’s health [and] welfare; economic implications, national security implications and people working extra hard at every level of the public service. We’re feeling our way a bit, I’ve got to say, because it’s something none of us have ever had to deal with on this scale and it’s not going to be over any time soon.”

It is refreshing to hear senior public servants say that they are feeling their way. Normally, that is not the message the public service likes to give, but the truth has its own resonance and more broadly the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, seems to have at last realised this, since his epic leadership fail during the bushfires.

Little wonder that trust in institutions has suddenly taken an uptick, according to a recent Essential poll. Ironically union membership is also soaring, so perhaps hedging bets on the question of trust isn’t a bad option.

It is a little difficult to put specific numbers around what is happening inside the APS.

For example, on Tuesday we asked the Department of Health for an overview of how it has been, or is being, reconfigured to redeploy resources; how many staff were working from home and in what areas of work; and whether any programs or parts of programs had been put on hold, and if so, what they were.

The reply from a spokeswoman was, “All staff in the Department of Health are working in critical roles — either in the National Incident Room, on the implementation of health related COVID-19 response measures, on program delivery support roles, or as corporate services to support these functions.

“Business-as-usual policy and program functions that are not directly related to implementation of the COVID-19 response but support the health and ageing system more generally are continuing as appropriate given the context.”

More than half the staff were now working remotely some of the time, she said. “Exact arrangements are being negotiated and agreed at the team level with consideration given to operational requirements, health factors and caring arrangements.”

Guess they’re figuring it out too.

Woolcott leads the APS Workforce Management Taskforce, which is coordinating the movement of APS staff across departments and agencies. The key priority is to increase capacity in the areas that are critical to delivering the relevant services, especially Services Australia and the Department of Health.

According to the APS Commission, more than 5000 people across the APS had volunteered by March 31, along with more than 350 “casual” staff, to redeploy to critical government functions, including to Health and as part of Services Australia’s 5000 extra staff required to handle the Jobseeker scheme. They were looking at redeployments of about two to three weeks, with some up to six months.

As of Wednesday [April 8] these numbers had swelled to 650 staff supporting Services Australia for Jobseeker, while the numbers of APS staff volunteering to redeploy continue to grow every day and more than 4900 were positioned to move as needed. That’s a heartening response.

As for program design, it has been interesting to watch the development of the COVID-19 packages not only in terms of the gargantuan numbers of dollars (not all of which may be spent) but also their delivery.

Designing straight-forward delivery mechanisms is one of the most difficult challenges in public policy, especially under a government that has had an aggressive ideological obsession with a surplus and small government.

As each tranche is brought forward, the delivery mechanisms appear to become more streamlined and would seem to require fewer extra swathes of public servants to filter the expenditure through layers of compliance obstacles.

It doesn’t mean there aren’t problems that need to be adjusted, or that there won’t be glitches or people falling through the cracks, let alone that there should not be full accountability. Quite a lot of public money will no doubt go astray; attempts to defraud the Commonwealth by both individuals and employers will certainly abound when so much is being poured into keeping the economy going.

But it does mean that the public service has, with the government, taken giant steps towards designing programs that have the potential to be far more transparent in terms of process than is often the case traditionally and has accepted that if things go wrong, they will need to be fixed along the way.

Putting the childcare funding model entirely on ice and substituting it with the 50% direct payment to childcare centres, combined with free access and the JobKeeper wage subsidy program paid through employers is no mean feat of policy design.

And even though some childcare centres will still, unfortunately, have to close, as will many businesses, the government’s unconditional recognition of the vital role that childcare provision plays in the modern economy is of enormous significance, especially to women.

The Senate select committee will be vital for scrutiny and accountability, in the absence of Parliament sitting, and no doubt the Auditor General is also keeping a watchful eye. We may even end up with a royal commission when all’s done and dusted. Let’s just hope no demeaning sports rorts style scandal, or worse, unfolds behind the scenes.

When this is all over, there will inevitably be a massive exercise in attempting to backfill the budget black hole over time, and few, if any, spending programs and APS operating expenses will be spared the fine-tooth comb of the beancounters and auditors while the economy is being reconfigured for the post-COVID era.

There will be pain, and plenty of it, before the economy recovers its health. If there are any upsides for the APS from COVID-19, they might be threefold: that the government learns to trust it more; that it achieves its own next phase of workplace reform more quickly and efficiently than it would have done otherwise; and that the public policy lessons translate into cleaner and less onerous program design and delivery. You have to hope some good will come of it all.

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