‘Whole-of-community’: how the ACT’s size has strengthened its COVID-19 effort

By Shannon Jenkins

May 19, 2020

It’s all relative. Adobe.

Two bureaucrats from the ACT Public Service have detailed how their jurisdiction has utilised its small size to respond to the coronavirus pandemic while continuing to support the community.

The ACT’s coordinator general for COVID-19 response, Rebecca Cross, told IPAA ACT and contentgroup’s podcast Work with Purpose that one of the key things the ACT has had to do in order to effectively respond to the bushfires and the pandemic, has been working as “one government”.

“And that’s part of my role as the coordinator general, to make sure that we’re all working together, we’ve got really good governance and decision-making because the pandemic crosses so many parts of the community, the economy, that it’s really important that we work as one government,” she said.

“So I think the difference because the ACT Public Service is a little bit smaller, is we can connect up and we can work across directorates really effectively. And that’s one of the things I love about working in ACT government.”

She said the government has been able to connect with the public through surveys and a community panel.

“I think we’re the only jurisdiction in Australia that has a community panel that we’ve created at a whole-of-government level, that we can tap into and say, ‘Is the messaging getting through? How are people feeling? What are people concerned about?’” she said.

“We can get that information within 24 hours, and we can use that to make sure that we are giving the public the information that they need. And that if there’s things they’re worried about, then we can have a think about how we respond to that. And I do believe we’re the only jurisdiction that can do that at a whole-of-government, whole-of-community level. And it’s one of the things we found useful during the bushfires. We’re finding it useful again now.”

Prior to joining the ACT government, Cross held federal government roles including deputy secretary at the Department of Human Services, and head of domestic policy at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. She said the ACT’s involvement with national cabinet has “looked like an awful lot of meetings”.

Prior to every national cabinet meeting, “the relevant people” from the ACT government brief Chief Minister Andrew Barr. The directors general receive a debrief from the head of service after national cabinet has concluded, followed by a security and emergency management committee of cabinet meeting. Cross then meets with representatives of every directorate at the deputy level.

“That’s a bit more of a conversation, where people can ask questions, talk about some of the connections, make sure the right people are connecting up. And that’s just built into everybody’s diaries,” she said.

“The Coordinator General’s group meets daily, directors general meet at least daily. And so it’s a really quick information flow and it makes sure that we don’t waste effort with people going off in the wrong direction or missing things.”

ACT schools ‘well ahead’ in use of digital technology for learning

ACT Education Directorate director general Katy Haire said the territory’s response to the COVID impact on schools has been quick and efficient, thanks again to the ACT’s small size.

There are 88 schools in the ACT. Haire said many of their principals have been happy to “make the time to hop on a video chat and give me their advice” because “they feel that sense of closeness to us”.

“It’s so much closer than working in that much bigger system, where organising a meeting of principals might take weeks. Obviously at a time like this, we don’t have weeks. And so it’s really crucial that we’re able to make the most of the scale to get in touch with people and get things done,” she said.

Haire formerly served in the Victorian government, as deputy secretary of the education and human services departments, and executive director at the Department of Premier and Cabinet.

She argued the ACT has been well placed to deliver remote learning because it was “well ahead of many other jurisdictions in terms of its adoption of using digital technology for learning”.

Within a couple of days of remote learning measures being announced, 5500 teachers had commenced online professional learning to prepare them for the online environment. Roughly 4000 high-quality laptops from past senior students were also given to primary schools, so the students could learn online. Haire described it as “quick innovative thinking”.

“So we already had the technology, we already had the skills, but we also had this kind of agility to get people together,” she said.

“The longer term advantage that we have by using digital technologies really smartly, is that it gives us the chance to reach the kind of education nirvana, where you have personalised learning. And so you have kids learning at their own pace, you have teachers able to use the digital technologies … And that’s one of the things we are hoping that we’ll take back from this time into the next era of education.”

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