COVID-19 response: Collaborative effort across sectors and within national cabinet is ‘remarkable’, says WA public sector commissioner Sharyn O’Neill

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday August 5, 2020

Sharyn O’Neill (Image: wa.gov.au)

Strong partnerships with the public and working towards a common goal have been key aspects of the Western Australian Public Service’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, according to state public sector commissioner Sharyn O’Neill.

In an interview with IPAA national president Dr Gordon de Brouwer, O’Neill noted that she is the only commissioner who has attended national cabinet meetings, with the other public service attendees being the heads of the premier’s or chief minister’s departments.

“The Premier [Mark McGowan] felt that I was able to bring with me the power and the work of the public sector, which he knew was going to be needed on steroids. And so to have me at the table with him, he felt was a direct connection,” she said.

“I’d been a department head for a long time so, I guess there’s good experience working across the sector, with the Premier’s Department, with the commonwealth, and the premier was of the view that going forward, we wouldn’t be resting at all as it turned out, but we would be placing a lot of emphasis on the work of the public sector to draw us all together.”

And that’s exactly what they did. At the beginning of the pandemic, all the WA director-generals came together to form an Emergency Cabinet Committee, and since then the state public service has changed its “structure of collaboration” in response to COVID-19. O’Neill — who was also named state recovery controller — said she hopes that collaborative way of working continues.

“I think there will need to be some consideration of structure and definitely culture to embed this way of working into the future. So I think one thing we can do is stop talking about public sector reform and just get on and do it, right?”

A large survey was developed and sent to all WA department heads and small CEO organisations to get a sense of how the pandemic response was going in terms of productivity levels while working from home period, lessons learned, and other areas.

In addition to the survey, the state created an iThink platform, which allows public service employees and the general public to share innovative ideas to support WA’s recovery from the impacts of the pandemic. iThink received more than 30,000 hits from the general public, O’Neill said. She noted that the WA public sector took a “partnership approach” to dealing with the broader community, businesses, not-for-profits.

“So we were seeking their voices, and we got some interesting ideas and thoughts through that [platform]. But generally, working with industry, we ran more than 30 ministerial round tables involving more than 600 people. And we opened up and said, ‘here is our assessment of the impact to date’ — knowing that this impact unfolds from a health to an economic to a social crisis — but here is our take on the impact to date,” she said.

“And we just laid it out for them in a really transparent way. Is this your experience of the impact on the ground? Industry, individuals, not-for-profits unions, public sector, et cetera. And eight in ten people said that it [was]. And I was really encouraged by that because often people think that the public sector is disconnected from reality on the ground. But they told us where the gaps were. I was really happy to receive that.”

O’Neill compared the partnership approach of engaging with the public to the national cabinet process.

“When you see the common cause, you know, working with and for and against a common issue, the galvanisation — rather than vulcanisation that happens — has been quite remarkable. And that’s certainly my reflection on being a participant or at least an advisor at national cabinet,” she said.

“The humanity in that room, I also found remarkable. And I remember the day that I walked out of one of my first national cabinet [meetings] with the premier and we were up on the 14th floor or 13th floor. We walked out to a window and our premier just put his hands on the window — it looks out over Perth — and I could just sense the gravity. He said, ‘I really feel deeply about these decisions we’re making that impact so greatly on the lives of Western Australians’, you know, closing businesses, etc.

“And so the gravity, the humanity, the collaboration — it’s just remarkable to have been able to be an observer to all of that and to feel so encouraged that people were at the heart of the decisions, regardless of what other people might say. That was certainly from my perspective, a great privilege to be able to see that in motion.”

Giving yourself permission to lead and helping others lead

One of the few positives of the pandemic was the way “people just stepped up” and adopted a mindset that allowed them to be flexible, innovative leaders, rather than constraining themselves, O’Neill said.

During the working from home period, O’Neill said she was giving managers a lot of attention to ensure they knew how to “manage and lead” in the new environment.

“So we made available a lot of resources and had sessions with managers, because it is a different way of working and a different style and it certainly suited a whole range of people, and then other people asked if they could come back,” she said.

Agencies also supported each other to ensure that the public servants located in regional WA had the digital capability they needed.

“So on the ground, out in regions, agencies assisted each other in this regard. And I understand in some places where digital capability wasn’t as stable, people found ingenious ways to communicate, good old-fashioned phone meetings as well,” O’Neill said.

“So people just made do where it wasn’t optimal, but I think it shone a lot for us in terms of sustainability, or future operations, if we had a second wave, or found ourselves in another situation. The digital issue is something that we need to think about, but also, the management and leadership issues in regions where they’re less connected, I think that’s a clear focus for us in Western Australia.”

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