South Australia’s bushfire preparedness paid off in the pandemic

By David Donaldson

Tuesday May 26, 2020

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SA finished its emergency mobilisation strategy just as lockdown began, allowing inaugural mobilisation coordinator Erma Ranieri to lead redeployment of public servants “within two or three days”. Plus the parts of lockdown she wants to keep when life returns to normal.

Erma Ranieri
Erma Ranieri

South Australia has done rather well through the coronavirus pandemic, registering relatively few cases and now passing two weeks since its last diagnosis.

By chance the state completed its emergency mobilisation plan days before the state of emergency was declared, enabling the public sector to respond swiftly.

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With the threat of future bushfires in mind, SA started working on a plan several months ago in an effort to ensure government could quickly redirect its focus in a disaster.

“Basically it was there and ready to go to cabinet and get approved for the next steps and this hit,” explains Erma Ranieri, the state’s commissioner for public sector employment.

“It was just fortuitous.”

The strategy centres a lot of responsibility on the role of mobilisation coordinator, who can compel agencies to hand over staff in an emergency. This model enables one person to ensure everything happens quickly. As the state’s public sector commissioner, it seemed fitting Ranieri should be its first mobilisation coordinator.

After the emergency declaration, “we advertised within one day for who was interested in the public sector. I had 1400 people put their hand up,” she tells The Mandarin.

This was all public servants, so no new funds were needed for personnel.

“Within two days we went back to agencies. There was a bit of a glitch because people put their hand up, but their agencies weren’t prepared to release them. But we reminded them: we’re in a state emergency, which means the coordinator can take anyone they want.”

She asked each department to appoint an agency mobilisation coordinator as their point person to manage the deployment process.

“That’s how we managed to actually deploy people. I think it’s up to 300 for contact tracing, 850 in the call centre. I had a request yesterday for 50 people in Revenue SA to make phone calls. And another 30 for grants.”

Thanks to SA’s new centralised but flexible structure, this all happened “within two or three days. We worked over the weekend and the rest of it. It just happened seamlessly.”

Of course, success couldn’t have occurred without everyone playing ball.

“It was a team effort. I’m really impressed with the state, because everyone did the right thing,” she says.

“This is what the public service can actually do, and they can do it very quickly when they need to do it. The key now is to make sure we continue to do this going forward.”

Productivity in lockdown

Being forced to live differently during the pandemic has caused a re-evaluation of the way we do a lot of things — and in some cases the status quo has been found wanting.

“I think we’ve all learned a lot. I’ve certainly grown a lot over this experience, and I would hate to think we’d go back to normal, whatever normal was,” says Ranieri.

On a personal level, she has reconnected with family members and her local community — and discovered the joys of Youtube cooking videos.

“I’ve got so much more time. I don’t have those coffee meetings, where it often takes a bit of time to get there and get to the point. It’s a lot more efficient.”

Ranieri has made a conscious effort to manage her wellbeing in lockdown. This has meant spending more time in contact with the people who support her than normal.

“Surprisingly I’m probably the strongest I’ve ever been, because I’m actually giving myself permission to do it.”

Knowing the pressures of working from home — Ranieri often ends up working longer hours than in the office — she says it’s important managers signal to staff that their mental and physical health is important and they should not be over-working.

“The human element of work has come to the fore,” she argues.

But working from home has been beneficial for many, with some working better than before. Organisations should be thinking about how to capture that productivity improvement.

“Some people do exceptionally well working from home. I don’t know that I’d have everyone in my team working from the office going forward.”

There are some who are very keen to resume office life, however.

“We do a wellbeing check-in once every two weeks. We ask every staff member what’s happening, and I’ve got a summary for this week. Some are feeling quite isolated, especially some of the younger ones who live on their own in apartments. That gives me some intelligence about what we might need to do to get them back in early.”

Keeping in regular contact with staff is also beneficial for both their sense of connectedness and to ensure their work is on track, she notes.

Ranieri speaks to her direct reports daily and sends out a weekly email to the whole agency.

“You have to talk to them regularly because you don’t know when they’re clocking in and clocking out at home,” she says.

“Just over-communicate.”

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