‘I am the luckiest public servant alive’: Rebecca Skinner on being a glass-half-full leader

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday July 15, 2020

Rebecca Skinner (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Sometimes you might be better off if you don’t know what you’re in for, according to Services Australia chief executive officer Rebecca Skinner.

Speaking on the latest episode of Work with Purpose, Skinner recounted her experience of leading one of the agencies at the forefront of Australia’s coronavirus pandemic response, just weeks into the job.

Skinner was appointed as head of Services Australia in early March. Having previously served as the associate secretary in the Department of Defence, she had spent “most of January” working closely with Services Australia as part of the government’s response to the bushfire crisis.

Her new role was immediately impacted by COVID-19.

“It all happened very quickly. The government announced my appointment on the Wednesday. I think I left Defence that Wednesday night to go home and pause for a couple of days,” Skinner said.

Just weeks later — on the morning of Monday, March 23 — Skinner saw footage of newly unemployed people queueing outside of Centrelink offices nationwide on her television.

To tackle the health risk that the queues posed, the agency quickly focused on ways to keep people home, ways to get them onto a digital channel, and how to get more staff operating on the telephones.

Services Australia set up an online ‘intent to claim’ function through myGov, which allowed people to register for financial support online rather than over the phone or in person. This was a crucial step because it “relieved the pressure valve on people feeling the need to do something”, Skinner said, noting that JobSeeker and JobKeeper also “simplified the policy environment under which we could implement our services”.

The agency also had to increase its capacity, after the myGov site crashed due to being flooded by thousands of people attempting to register for welfare payments. Skinner referred to the crash as “the famous wobble”.

Read more: Services Australia puts measures in place to deal with ‘unprecedented demand’

As the weeks went on, one major challenge for Services Australia was doing business differently, Skinner said. However, having come from Defence, she had already dealt with her fair share of obstacles.

“I brought with me a knowledge that if you have a big organisation with a delivery focus, you’ll find a way to deliver the outcome that’s expected of you. So, that is my glass half full, because I have been there in a range of Defence crises,” she said.

“I was a junior officer when we went into East Timor for the first time. I was there when we went into Iraq. So, I just have this sort of optimism that if you keep people focused, if you’ve got scale, you can eventually find the path to deliver the outcome.”

She noted the agency had “stumbled” into many of its successful pandemic-response approaches. One move that worked was getting its leadership team together multiple times a day to work on solving problems.

“It worked well for us because people got to share the challenges, but also people got to share solutions and help each other, particularly when we had to move the workforce around Services Australia. And as soon as you start to move the workforce, everybody battens down the hatches and holds tight to their people, thinking that they have got their own outcomes to deliver,” she said.

Another approach that the agency stumbled into was the use of “one clear authoritative point of communication”. Skinner began contacting every single person in Services Australia on a daily basis, including employees that had been seconded from other areas of the APS.

“It seemed to be able to keep people clear about what the agenda was. And it helped us celebrate a lot of our success, and keep people motivated. And those were areas that I found we stumbled into but were pretty successful,” she said.

Approaches that were not so successful was the initial working-from-home process, and a reluctance to accept help from others.

“I think we were not quick enough to accept help in some areas. I was keen to get the help in. Other areas in our delivery system were delightfully confident they could deliver in the emergency like they have always delivered. And it took us a little bit of leadership effort to convince them they had to take some help,” Skinner said.

“We needed thousands of staff to come in. We need other people to help do the recruitment, do the training and things like that … they could have been smoother at the beginning if we’d had probably a bit more of an open approach to getting help and doing things a bit more differently.”

Serving the public and leadership

Serving people during COVID-19 was a rewarding experience, Skinner said, and could teach other public servants a valuable lesson.

“We need to look at ways in which we can put service delivery into people’s careers because it does connect policy creation with implementation. It gives us all an understanding of what citizens really need from the services that we provide,” she said.

“We all grow if we do something different. And I saw the fear on people’s faces when they first arrived down in Tuggeranong. The task was they were going to have to call an Australian citizen.

“But once they were brave and they had a go — and they were rewarded by the delight that the Australian citizen provided back to them — they were onto that next call straight away. So, what it really shows is if you are brave enough to try something different, then we all grow, and we all learn. So, I think that’s the biggest leadership piece I’d take away.”

Skinner said she has loved “everything” about being able to serve the public.

“I am the luckiest public servant alive. I’ve come from the Defence organisations; I’ve done all sorts of cool things there. And here I am absolutely delighting in the difference to leading an organisation different to Defence. I was fortunate to be involved quite a bit with things like our future submarine programme, but you have to remain excited on a delivery trajectory that won’t see it in the water till 2032,” she said.

“So, the idea that we could, by the end of this year, deliver digital identities, deliver new online tools, deliver more capabilities, for me, it’s the delight of being able to do it now, and not have such a long time.

“My dad was a public servant, my mum was a public servant. My dad once said to me, ‘If you join the Public Service, you will never have a boring job ever.’ And that is absolutely true to this day.”

The service delivery vision

On Services Australia’s next big agenda, Skinner said the agency was focused on moving away from the mindset that “the only way to get a service is to come into a shop”, while improving the customer’s experience in line with the four principles of simple, helpful, respectful, and transparent.

The principles reflect what Australians want from government, and were outlined in government services minister Stuart Robert’s recent address to the National Press Club.

Read more: Robert gives update on Services Australia vision, key whole-of-gov initiatives

A key part of the agenda involved looking at digital solutions to improve service delivery, Skinner noted.

“We want to get to a point where people only need to come into our office to receive very particular services, and that we allow them to do everything online,” she said.

“So, in the same way that tax can populate your tax return these days, we want to be able to populate the form for people and not have to have them fill it in. And we want people to be able to update their details and all of those things. We want payments to be designed end to end, so people do not receive overpayments and therefore people do not get debt. So, we want to redo that 90-day chunks, sprints, hold to account, clearly have people in charge of those activities. That is how we are going to achieve that over the next two to five years.”

She admitted that some of the agency’s older services are also in need of improvement.

“I think we have been a bit slow on some of the tech front. We can manage capacity, but we cannot show a citizen where their claim is up to, so that is bad,” she said.

“So, we can help you fill it in easily, but we can’t tell you where it’s up to. I think we are great on some things, okay on some things, and poor on some other things. And it is about trying to keep moving everything in a more positive direction so there is a more consistency of service.”

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