Public servants need to be able to share data across departments, and even jurisdictions, says Gaetjens

By Shannon Jenkins

Tuesday September 15, 2020


The coronavirus pandemic has drawn attention to issues that require the federal and state governments to work together, highlighting the need for public servants across jurisdictions to be able to share data, according to the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Phil Gaetjens recently told Work with Purpose that the Australian Public Service has been considering embracing some elements of its COVID-19 response in the future. For example, in light of the massive redeployment effort the APS has initiated this year, public service graduates should be required to undertake “some time in service delivery because that’s something that we all should be familiar with in helping the Australian people”.

There has been a greater focus on the use of data, too, and even Scott Morrison has “a never-ending appetite for data”, Gaetjens said.

On overcoming the challenges of building a culture of data into the APS, the secretary noted that government leaders have needed information to respond to the pandemic, prompting the public service to work with that information. For example, the biosecurity laws have given the health minister greater powers. This has allowed “more flexibility with respect to privacy laws”, which Gaetjens said has been necessary under the current circumstances.

“I think to get the demand from the top for data helps enormously so that you have a pull factor, which can then drive all of the actions behaviours and exhortations by leaders throughout the public service,” he said.

“So there are a few sensitive areas, which I think people accept in the current circumstances need to be looked at with some flexibility. We have also had at the same time, some recognition within the public service and the government and I think the population, that if the Department of Health has data and the Department of Social Services has data, the Tax Office has data, we have got data within the public sector and we need to join that up.”

The pandemic has highlighted the need for data to be shared across jurisdictions, Gaetjens said. He noted that the government has been working on a data transparency bill which would “provide public servants with a greater ability to share data”.

“In this pandemic, there is a relationship between the Commonwealth health area and even aged care area,” he said. “[And] the state public health units, because when outbreaks occur, the first responder to an outbreak is a state public health unit. So let’s again try and join up what needs to be done to address the issue.

“The population of Australia does not differentiate between state and federal governments … they just want government to do something. So I think there’s a lot greater expectation and understanding, I think for that to happen, we actually need to share data and use data very effectively.”

Read more: Woolcott and Gaetjens flag more professional streams, APS ‘surge reserve’ under reform priorities

In terms of other elements from the pandemic response that could be incorporated into future processes, Gaetjens warned that “the leading edge can be the bleeding edge sometimes”, and so the APS would likely follow the lead of the rest of the country when it comes to doing things differently.

“I think the pandemic has actually changed social/business/work life forever … We don’t have to hop on a plane every day. We don’t have to do this weekend. We can transfer things electronically so that we can see written material. We can see each other, you can see the body language over videos,” he said. “Everyone’s had to do it and they will recall their own experiences. And I think they will be providing suggestions up, down and across as to, well, this worked, why can’t we keep doing it this way?”

The APS should, in Gaetjens’ opinion, work on responding to the public’s expectations and service delivery standards. For example, the standard of service delivery that people receive while online shopping or online banking would also be expected from government services, and the APS must deliver on those expectations.

“So I think we’re being drawn up to a level that exists in the community and that will be required of us because why should governments and people’s interaction with government be a lesser standard than what they do in other parts of their life? That will be a pull factor for what we’re doing,” he said.

“The push factor, I think we’re getting from government itself, is to be more agile, be more nimble.

“So we are being asked to do things more quickly, which means getting data to analyse. So not data in terms of that’s the outcome. It’s getting data to actually help the analysis to anticipate what’s going to happen and then draw a policy and device policy to handle what we think is going to happen.”

APS leaders should also connect with their staff more often, and ensure that there “never be a gap in communications”.

“We should take the initiative to actually look at what needs to be done, to keep everyone motivated, to know that everyone is actually looking after their own wellbeing, because a workforce that looks after its own wellbeing is a productive workforce,” he said.

“So I just think the different way of doing things is setting another level, which will force momentum to keep on happening.”

Gaetjens said that he and APS Commissioner Peter Woolcott have made an effort to stay connected with employees during the pandemic by publishing four open letters to the public service and holding three APS200 events.

“We are trying to make sure that we connect with the service, that everyone can realise that they have a part to play. And that there is still an enterprise notwithstanding. You’ve got 150-odd-thousand people around the country performing different roles, but having one purpose and that’s helping Australia get through this.”

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