The Australian Public Service’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of having a diverse workforce that offers a range of skill sets, according to the Department of Home Affairs’ chief operating officer, Cheryl-anne Moy.
Speaking on the latest episode of contentgroup and IPAA ACT’s Work with Purpose, Moy argued the APS would “never go back to what we were exactly before this all started”.
She recalled March 5, when the prime minister activated the National Coordination Mechanism, sending Home Affairs into pandemic-response mode.
The mechanism coordinates the cross jurisdictional response to non-health aspects of the pandemic. Staff were pulled in from a range of departments, including 300 from Home Affairs, to look at problems that were being caused by the pandemic — including the more unexpected issues.
“So the good old issue of toilet paper on the shelves was one of the first things that the National Coordination Mechanism worked on,” Moy said.
“They worked with industry, they worked through supply chains, we had staff who had worked in many different areas, but I don’t think in their entire career they thought they’d be worrying about the supply chain of toilet paper … it was quite interesting.”
“While you won’t see a lot of the work that they did, the night and day work did come to fruition in terms of decisions made around travel bans, different restrictions of how industry managed the supply chains, lifting certain restrictions so trucks could travel at different hours of the night to get to the Coles and Woolies, those sorts of things.”
Experiences drive mobility
Mobility has always been a key issue for the APS, but its importance to the workforce has been highlighted by the coronavirus crisis, Moy noted.
“Mobility’s a critical process to ensure that the public service is able to respond during these periods of time. If you look at any of the deputies and the first assistant secretaries and the assistant secretaries who have taken the COVID-19 response and run with it, all of them have varied experience,” she said.
“They push themselves outside of their comfort zone to be able to learn new skills and harness those for when they need them in new jobs … I’m looking forward to what we can do during our ‘new normal’ period in terms of some strategic work and one of those will be around mobility. But the more we have people who have varied experience across the public service, the better chance we have.”
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Moy said future leaders must push themselves to gain extra experience, and should show interest in departments outside of their own so they can understand all aspects of the APS.
“Don’t be interested when there’s a problem, be interested every single day about what you can learn about the APS because it is a very big organisation,” she said.
“Don’t be afraid to push yourself out of that comfort zone into new functions … You actually need to understand the full supply chain of what we provide to the Australian community. So when you need to lead through the unknown, the best base you can have is a varied one where you’ve worked outside your comfort zone, you’ve been a little bit nervous, but you know how to make the hard decisions and you know how to process and ask for information.
“So, if you can do all that, it keeps you calm as a leader and it also helps your team be outcomes-focused rather than be nervous themselves. So the calmer you are as a leader, based on your experience and the breadth of your experience and the depth of it, the better leader you’ll be, the better your people will be.”
Leading through a crisis
Moy said it’s important to recognise the struggles some staff may be experiencing during times of upheaval.
“Everyone’s going to have their COVID-19 story. Some people will have multiples of them and I think, no matter what the issue is, it’s really important to be aware of your staff’s resilience and understand how resilient they are from week to week,” she said.
“The value of communication can’t be understated through times like this. I think our first rule at the beginning in corporate — in terms of communicating with our broader group of staff — was that communicate, communicate, and communicate, and when you think the message has got through, say it again.”
Moy said that during the current environment, it’s important to ensure staff have downtime, but also remain up to date. She noted her department’s pandemic response would likely overlap with the bushfire response.
“We’re actually in COVID alert phase and we expect to be in bush fire season probably around the end of August this year. So, the pressure is high for people and being able to ensure that they’re well rested and managed as we move through each of the phases is particularly important,” she said.
“But interestingly, staff both at the SES, the EL, and the APS level are actually ready for what it means next. We’ve had a lot of conversations with staff and they’re interested and they want to know, ‘So what are we going to do next? How do we move forward? What’s going to change? What can I do?’
“Keeping people engaged for us is the most important thing because our staff have done a tremendous job, they’re on the front line in more ways than one … they do a great job and they deserve as much information that I can give them about what decisions we’re making.”