Kathryn Campbell on DSS’s pandemic response and why she’s proud to be a public servant

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday April 29, 2020

Kathryn Campbell

As Australia slowly makes its way out of the worst phase of the coronavirus crisis, governments must start planning for the economic aftermath that will see Australians need more support than ever, says Department of Social Services secretary Kathryn Campbell.

Speaking on the the Institute of Public Administration Australia’s latest episode of Work with Purpose, Campbell tells podcast host David Pembroke how her department has worked tirelessly throughout the bushfires and the pandemic, and what public servants across the country should be considering for the future.

From the bushfire crisis to the coronavirus pandemic

As a major general in the Australian Army Reserve, Campbell was called out as part of the Department of Defence’s response to last Summer’s horrific bushfire season. During that time, Campbell’s deputy Nathan Williamson acted in the secretary role. They spoke daily.

“And so we got people back in order to make sure that we were supporting Services Australia in particular to get out those payments to Australians who had lost their houses and were feeling hardship during that period of time,” she said.

“That meant a lot of our staff didn’t get the usual break in January, and also of course Canberra was heavily impacted by the smoke and other activities. So people kind of came back at the start of February when Parliament came back, and they were already pretty puffed because they’d been working hard. And then of course coronavirus [came along] and the government’s response meant that we had to mobilise different strategies, get together briefing teams, and we’ve been going ever since.”

But the coronavirus pandemic — which escalated rapidly across the globe — meant new, crucial services had to be delivered quickly on a massive scale.

Campbell described how welfare initiatives such as the jobkeeper payment unfolded, causing a surge of people visiting and calling Centrelink offices around the country, and crashing the MyGov website.

“[The welfare initiatives] were considered, and I think the prime minister announced them on the 22nd of March … And the 23rd, Monday the 23rd was one of the busiest days for us. We saw incredible spikes. We saw the pictures of people lining up outside the Centrelink offices,” she said.

“And there were a few wobbles that day … the CIO did a great job of doubling capacity and things like that. But we saw Australians in need. And that meant we had to be able to respond to that. So we worked with Services Australia and the ministers very closely to do innovative approaches, things that were a little bit different to what we had done in the past.

“It was a very difficult day, that first day.”

READ MORE: Influx of 95,000 users crashed MyGov, not cyber attack

While the IT issues were quickly dealt with, Services Australia desperately needed more staff, and fast. Campbell said  labour hire firms like Serco were engaged to find more people. Staff from across the public service were also seconded to Services Australia, along with graduates.

All the extra staff have undertaken specific training modules to prepare them for their new roles, Campbell said. She noted the last time the department needed such a large number of staff was back in 2011 following the Queensland floods. Prior to that was the 2008 global financial crisis.

“But I think it’s fair to say this has been much larger than that and much quicker. We’d had a more gradual lead up in 2008, and even in 2011 we had more time to get ready,” she said, noting the department has processed more than 500,000 jobseeker claims in the last five weeks.

“So in the last five weeks, we’ve done a year’s worth of work.”

Focus on the outcome

Campbell said her department has an advantage during difficult times because the workers “get to see the outcome for the citizen”, whether it be through setting up welfare payments, creating programs for people in need, or organising NDIS packages.

“We see that people are going to be better off. And that’s very satisfying for our staff,” she said.

“One of the things that we appreciate in our portfolio is that link between what we do and the outcomes we get, but sometimes it’s not as easy. I worked in the Department of Finance for many years, and sometimes the work you do there, it’s kind of hard to connect that to what the citizen sees and what the citizen does.

“I think as public servants, we must always remember what we’re actually here for, what we’re doing and how that links to the benefit of Australians.”

While the APS has shown a great sense of togetherness to deliver services during the pandemic, Campbell said to continue this, workers shouldn’t confine themselves to their own clusters or agencies — they should think about the greater impacts of policies and initiatives.

“And I still believe it’s really important for people to move between agencies, to not stay in an agency for the entire life, to actually go out and get different experiences so you understand where people are coming from,” she added.

What next?

As Australia transitions from the hard and fast crisis response to a more sustained effort, Campbell said managers have to be flexible and must realise that the things they were working on before the crisis may not be as important anymore.

“They’ve got to seed ground, for want of a better term, to something that’s more important, and they’ve got to let their high-performing staff — all their staff — go and do the things that are most critical,” she said.

“And people have to be willing to move. They have to be willing to be doing defence policy one day and social policy the next, or service delivery. I want people to be hungry to understand how the entire public service, how the entire economy works, and what different levers government has to operate to ensure that Australians come through this.”

The next challenge for Australia’s state and federal governments is dealing with the economic aftermath of COVID-19.

“And that’s where we will see a lot more people wanting support from our portfolio,” she said.

“People will be earning less money … so we need to be ready to continue to provide enhanced support for some time. And we need to be responsive to government about what those policies look like.

“None of us will know exactly what’s going to happen. There’ll be a number of different scenarios that might occur and we need to be planning for each and every one of those scenarios.”

The next episode of Work with Purpose will feature Frances Adamson, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Tune in via IPAA’s website or through Soundcloud.

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