‘The greatest opportunity’: DPC head Chris Eccles on Victoria’s data-driven COVID response and challenging conventions

By Shannon Jenkins

Friday June 5, 2020

Chris Eccles (AAP Image/James Ross

The coronavirus pandemic has spurred the Victorian Public Service to come up with innovative ways of delivering services that will likely last into the future, according to the secretary of the state Department of Premier and Cabinet.

Speaking to IPAA national president Dr Gordon de Brouwer on the latest episode of Work with Purpose, Chris Eccles explained the many initiatives his department has put in place as part of its COVID-19 response, how the VPS is coping with working from home, and opportunities for the future.

New ways of working

While the impact of the pandemic on service delivery was “immediate, wholesale and profound”, the process of getting public servants to change the way they work wasn’t difficult, because they’re already driven by wanting to support their customers.

“It’s more [about] providing a framework for our service providers to systematically examine their service delivery operating method and client needs. And so we’ve identified a method for that purpose,” he said.

The method involves building a framework for assessment. Providers must first look at the benefits and risks of a service delivery approach, as well as the user experience. Then comes the monitoring, Eccles explained.

“You assess the effectiveness of the intervention and the data. You then evaluate through a live evaluation of the delivery model. You then share good practice through the dissemination of the successful alternative responses. And then you embed. So you entrench the improvements in day to day operations,” he said.

“So if you’re providing a common analytical method to enable those on the frontline — with the support of our data people and our analysts — to make sense of their service delivery operating method, and then to systematically change that, then, I think you’ve won their hearts. Their hearts are already there. You’ve also won their minds by supplying them with this method.”

Importantly, the public has also been receptive to service delivery changes because of the pandemic’s “overwhelming impact on society”.

Eccles argued that while rapidly responding to situations can be “totally addictive”, it isn’t feasible for government to operate at lightning speed all of the time.

“How much fun is it to spend $6 billion to support and rebuild an economy in ten weeks? … but ultimately, that’s not sustainable, both fiscally and in terms of good public policy. You can’t continue to move at that speed,” he said.

Despite this, the secretary expects and hopes that some approaches will continue after the pandemic, including the tailoring of government services to the individual needs of the public, data-driven responses, and the state government’s eight new “missions”, which were created in April.

At the time, Eccles described the initiative as a “significant reorientation of the public service”.

Read more: Victoria is reorganising its public service around eight COVID-19 ‘missions’. Here’s who is leading them

He told de Brouwer the missions were created because they “crash through portfolios” to provide a “clarity of purpose”.

They cover three domains: the immediate health emergency, the economic emergency, and the business continuity in priority industry sectors. Each mission is being led by a secretary, who reports to Premier Daniel Andrews.

“And they’ve been removed from the day-to-day administration of their departments, and we now have associate secretaries who are running the departments to enable the secretaries to execute the missions. And the reporting [goes] through the Crisis Council of Cabinet and to the premier. [It’s] a totally different way of organising the business of government but we’ve found to be highly effective,” Eccles said.

A Critical Information Unit has also been established within DPC. Eccles said the unit has “illuminated” the siloed ways government accumulates data, and has identified opportunities for a data-driven response.

“So in one sense, it’s been totally liberating. And we are presenting that data directly to cabinet ministers. So it’s not overly intermediated and it’s not overly analysed,” he said.

“We are presenting in real time, substantial data. Whether it’s about the state of the health response. Whether it’s about the state of business confidence. Whether it’s about what we are discovering in the city a bit through pedestrian traffic about the challenges with people returning to more normal forms of living and moving. And we’re able to calibrate our response as a government to a picture that’s painted by the data in real time.”

Setting the introverts free

More than 80% of the state public service is currently working from home. Eccles noted the changed environment has had some surprising impacts on the way staff operate.

“It’s actually breathed life into the introverts. Which is fascinating … in the conventional work environment extroverts rule. In a remote working environment, it has really let loose the capacity of the introvert to make as material a contribution as the extrovert,” he said.

“I love the idea that we have those who have perhaps been a bit suppressed or repressed in their ability to contribute … it’s also compelling managers to look at their workforces a bit differently.”

A recent survey of 6000 VPS staff found the vast majority have been able to properly do their jobs remotely, with most people wanting to work remotely two to three days per week in the future, Eccles said.

Respondents have an “overall sense of being more productive”, but collaborative working could be improved. While some managers have found handling people more difficult, most have found managing the deliverables to be about the same.

However, Eccles noted that 15% of respondents have been struggling.

“That’s a substantial number. And the longer-term return-to-work arrangements will have to consider support and priority access to office-based work environments for those who are unable to take advantage of the remote working opportunities,” he said.

The VPS has formed a Remote Working Transition Working Group, tasked with developing a whole-of-government approach to the future of work. It has been looking at a range of areas including the use of suburban and regional office hubs so that staff don’t have to travel to Melbourne’s CBD for work in the future.

Opportunity for reform

Government has become more visible and present during its pandemic response effort, which has led to greater public scrutiny. This has increased confidence and trust, and has granted government more licence, according to Eccles.

“I think there is now the greatest opportunity in my time as a career public servant, for that licence to shape the economy, service systems, and more generally create a more equitable, inclusive and progressive society. So I’m hugely excited by the upside and really looking forward to hopefully taking advantage of that community or social licence to drive some really substantial reform,” he said.

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