The upheaval of the coronavirus pandemic has presented the Australian Public Service with a “blank slate” to start again, according to Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson.
Speaking on IPAA and contentgroup’s Work with Purpose podcast, Adamson noted the coronavirus wasn’t the first pandemic she had experienced in her career — she had been posted in Taipei during SARS.
“SARS hit Taiwan very, very hard and Taiwan learned enormous lessons from it that it’s never forgotten. And I did too,” she said.
“There was a genuine sense of fear of the unknown early on. What does this mean? How is this virus spread? We still don’t really understand it, but I think you build resilience through your own experience.”
Leading through the disruption
While the coronavirus has “upended” the day-to-day work of most of the Australian Public Service workforce, Adamson argued the APS has been presented with an opportunity to transform the way it operates for the better.
“The way I think of it, this might be a bit extreme — I’m not normally extreme — but I think there’s an opportunity now for us almost to start with a blank slate,” she said.
“There’s the period that went before COVID. That’s how we did things. We’ve now got an opportunity to rethink, reimagine, not just in a theoretical way but drawing on the very practical experience of the last weeks and months and some more to come.”
She acknowledged the hard work of the APS’ COOs, the COO Committee, the chief risk officers, and others who have helped keep the APS running during all the disruption.
“When you’re going through a period of change, you really want input from people who think differently, input from young leaders, emerging leaders, future leaders, leaders of any kind, people who can think differently,” she said.
The work of her colleagues has made Adamson proud to be a public servant.
“We all know that we do valuable things in serving the Australian people. We know that in normal times. In normal times, though, you don’t necessarily get that continued recognition. Normal life is normal life. But when I see the amazing way that they’ve stepped up … I am incredibly proud of my colleagues,” she said.
“People have just risen magnificently to the occasion off the back of bushfires and all of the other things, and air quality and other things in Canberra early in the year. So, I say it about the DFAT portfolio, but I say it more broadly about the public service. Because, it’s not that we’re beating our own drum or anything particularly. I just think, we’ve done what we’re here to do, what we joined for.”
As DFAT’s diversity and inclusion champion, it’s no surprise that Adamson views her own leadership style as inclusive.
“I’m a very strong believer in all of this, whether it’s women in leadership, or supporting flexible and remote working, or staff with disability. You’ll find me putting my hand up on the Secretaries’ Equality and Diversity Council often. So, that’s my normal style,” she said.
However, there came a point when the secretary realised that the COVID-19 crisis demanded other styles of leadership, too. She said she was suddenly under a lot of pressure.
“Not just pressure relating to the safety of Australians overseas generally, but pressure relating to the safety of our staff and their dependence overseas and a whole range of other things as well. But you feel it most acutely because as a secretary, my number one priority is the safety and welfare of our staff,” she said.
“So I actually found myself, including with a bit of encouragement, I’d have to say, from my chief operating officer Penny Williams, I needed to be more directive … I still wanted to be directive in an inclusive way, if you like, and there is a bit of tension in those things. But I think we adapted as a leadership group and I think we’ve passed through the peak of directive and we’re back to pretty focused, inclusive leadership.”
DFAT’s COVID-19 response
Since March 13, roughly 300,000 Australians have come home from overseas, 6500 of whom came from across 51 cruise ships. During that period DFAT has also taken 38,000 calls through its emergency call unit.
Adamson said there are still more than 10,000 Australians stranded overseas.
She noted the unprecedented times have “called for an approach that has gone well beyond what’s written in our consular charter”. For example, DFAT has had to encourage its ambassadors, high commissioners, and consuls general to communicate with Australians using social media.
It was particularly difficult to bring those stranded on cruise ships home, she said.
“I mean, we’ve had some instances of Australians being caught on ships that haven’t been able to berth. The foreign ministers personally had to get engaged, calling counterparts, asking for assistance,” Adamson explained,” she said.
In regards to Australia’s economic recovery from COVID-19, DFAT is currently focused on trade policy.
“We can get a certain amount of growth domestically, a population of 25 million, it’s not small. But to really get things going, we need to have those connections to the rest of the world for trade, for investment, for tourism, for international students. And part of the work that we’re doing in terms of our policy thinking and advice to government is around the temporary nature of these measures and how they might be undone when the time is right,” she said.