‘The world wins at that struggle’: Mike Pezzullo on embracing uncertainty

By Shannon Jenkins

Tuesday July 28, 2020

Michael Pezzullo
Michael Pezzullo AAP/Lucas Koch

Rapidly redeploying teams and utilising their capabilities across the Australian Public Service will be the “permanent way of operating” in the post-pandemic world, according to the Department of Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo.

Speaking on the latest episode of Work with Purpose, Pezzullo reflected on his department’s response to COVID-19, and discussed the importance of encouraging staff to draw on their basic skills to be able to adapt to any kind of public service role quickly.

Utilising skills and knowledge to redeploy the workforce

Pezzullo noted that during the machinery of government changes which saw the Immigration and Border Protection portfolios move into Home Affairs, the department worked hard to ensure that it had a “three-part lens” of security, prosperity, and unity across its purpose statement, mission, and focus for all of its departmental policies and programmes.

“We’re very explicit about that, not just in terms of corporate slogans as it were, but how do we think about policy, programme and delivery? Is it enhancing Australia’s security? Is it enhancing our prosperity? And is it enhancing our unity?” he said.

That hard work, a collective mindset across the workforce, and a “natural instinct” has helped the department respond to COVID-19, allowing employees in areas like Customs and visa processing to be redeployed to other sectors.

“Obviously there had been a very significant diminution of these [roles] as there has been over time as the restrictions came in, but you’ve got very good public servants who are competent, multi-skilled who can then be diverted on to other challenges,” Pezzullo said.

“We had our staff in Emergency Management who are very good in terms of crisis preparation and in emergency management. We had other staff in the Aviation Maritime Security and Critical Infrastructure spaces who could be quickly put onto the supply chain blockage issues.

“The fact that you’ve got staff — well a department in the first instance and then a workforce that’s in that department —  that has got multiple skills, multiple subject matter expertise, multiple strands of quite distinct subject matter expertise and life experience, which has then come together into one synthesised body known as the workforce, meant that we had both large scale but we had a reservoir of specialised capability across all of those sectors and more, ones that I haven’t even mentioned.”

Early on in the pandemic, Home Affairs mobilised more than 1000 staff and put them in critical sectors like health and industry. To give staff the confidence to tackle these new roles, Pezzullo encouraged them to focus on the skills that they already had, not the skills they didn’t have.

“Don’t worry about the fact that you’re not deeply expert in how supermarkets restock their shelves … you’ve got the general skills of an Australian Public Servant first and foremost. Secondly, you’re a Departmental Officer and then thirdly, you’re a Visa Officer or a Customs Officer. So start with the first of those. You’re an Australian Public Servant. You can problem solve, you can work your networks, you can collaborate. You can draw on other connections, both your own personal skills and knowledge plus that of your network and apply yourself to a problem,” he said.

The value of flexibility

In responding to the pandemic, Home Affairs had two choices: either to do its own thing and “only come together at a fairly superficial level” — like staff engagement or for budget and management — or, to become a “truly integrated department”.

Pezzullo took the second option.

“In the military you talk about that part of the military which raises, trains and sustains the capability — a naval ship for instance — and then that asset is given to the head of operations and they mix and match the assets as are required. You might have elements from the Airforce, the Navy, the Army. They’re still an Airforce, Army and Navy in terms of their pay, their uniforms, their career management, their culture and their legacy … but because you mix and match capabilities around the task that’s required,” he said.

“Defence, to take that example further, has got a more instinctive feel for what are known are joint operations and the culture that we’re building is the same … [In Home Affairs] your home division might be immigration or group of divisions or customs, but where you operate — and it could be for three months, it could be for six months, it could be for three years — you’re in a joint operational team. Your operational commander or leader might not actually be your home FAS or branch head because you might be assigned to problem solve the trucking curfew issue or the supermarket resupply issue which was connected to that or the disinformation issue.”

Read more: The case for a Department of Home Affairs: Pezzullo on his place in history

Pezzullo noted Home Affairs could be mixing and matching various teams and their capabilities into 2021 and possibly even into 2022, which the department would just have to deal with.

“The ethos and the organisational culture that we are instilling is that yes you’ve got a desk or you’ve got a workstation, that’s where you put your bag down in the morning and that’s where your home is, but by the end of the day you might well be deployed under something else and if you embrace that, that’s terrific,” he said.

“If you’re challenged by that, we’re going to be transparent with you because it’s probably something that we need to work on together to get you to a point of either accommodating that, or we need to help you to do something else because that mobility, that flexibility, that ability to mix and match organisational units to wield into shape these larger organisational constructs, is now our permanent way of operating.”

He said the APS could learn from that integrated, flexible model for the future.

“I think the public service at large needs to transition from a model where you still have home divisions and branches, because it’s also important to have a home base for professional development, career management, performance management, your payroll and et cetera, but you can wield on top of that very flexible working arrangements where you literally encourage your staff to think, ‘When you come into work today, if it’s an ordinary day your KPI’s and things I told you to do last week or asked you to do last week, but it is possible that you’ll be deployed onto another team’,” he said.

“Increasingly we should be working in a much more flexible and fluid way. Now we certainly do it within my department because I have the authority to move the resources around. We’re increasingly doing it across the Home Affairs portfolio where myself as the secretary, along with the agency heads have formed a portfolio board and we mix and match units all the time.

“A lot of the public service has not been exposed to it … People say, ‘But my boss is an EL1 or EL2, and I’ve got a good relationship with them,’ and that’s great. No one is suggesting that that should be broken. And, ‘I don’t like uncertainty,’ to which the response is, ‘But the world is giving you uncertainty,’ so you can embrace that and just start to build it into your plans or you can resist it, but it’s a false resistance because the world is going to win. The world wins at that struggle.”

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