The COVID-19 pandemic has had a variety of impacts on Australia’s public sector workforce, whether it was the early shift to working from home, the retrenching of non-essential local government staff under lockdown, the multi-department chaos behind Victoria’s hotel quarantine scheme, or mass hiring initiatives such as ‘Jobs for Canberrans’ and ‘Work for Victoria’.
Today, The Mandarin hears from federal, state and territory public service commissions on some of the challenges, successes, and long-term consequences of mobilising staff throughout the pandemic, specifically via:
- existing mobility provisions to move staff between public sector departments;
- the National Framework for Public Sector Mobility (NFPSM), a system endorsed by commissioners on July 30 to facilitate rapid movement of staff between commonwealth, state and territory jurisdictions; and
- employing people to undertake COVID-19 related roles
For context, the NFPSM outlines five core elements of surge requests — ministerial approval, planning, communication, host agency requirements and consultation — and includes a surge responsibility guide.
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Australian Public Service Commission
As at 01 October, the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) has supported the deployment of over 2,300 APS staff to other APS agencies, the largest mobilisation being the deployment of over 2,150 employees from across 15 commonwealth government portfolios to Services Australia.
Following the spike in unemployment — officially, the rate grew from 5.2 in March to 6.4 in April and peaked at 7.5 in July — these employees assisted with JobSeeker claims processing and related support work.
Additionally, while movements under the National Framework for Public Sector Mobility are not necessarily coordinated by the APSC — nor does the APSC have visibility of total numbers of movements — the commission drew on the framework to surge around 77 APS employees to support the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), following a request from the Victorian state government during their second wave.
“The Commission is not aware of any challenges associated with the implementation of the framework,” an APSC spokesperson notes in response to our question on the issue.
The ASPC also notes that there has been no change to the “legislative requirements for merit-based recruitment throughout the pandemic” and that, while agencies are still responsible for the conduct of their recruitment, the APSC is aware there has been an increased uptake in virtual recruitment processes across the APS.
As to how the body expects mobility and hiring practices to evolve as Australia recovers from Victoria’s second wave and moves towards a “new normal” in 2021, a spokesperson says that, throughout the pandemic, the APS has demonstrated its “ability to rapidly deploy people across the service to the areas they are needed the most” and the body will seek to retain this capacity for greater mobility going forward.
“The APS is always looking for opportunities to improve its recruitment practices. For example, since October 2019 we have launched three new professional streams, covering employees in HR, digital and data roles. The clear career pathways developed through the professional streams will play an important part in attracting talent into the APS workforce.
“A number of agencies have also been working to streamline the recruitment process for graduates, by removing duplicative processes across agencies. This year saw the successful pilot of shared recruitment streams for HR, digital, data, economics, and STEM graduates, in addition to the existing Indigenous Graduate Pathway.”
The APS’ response to the COVID pandemic is set be examined in this year’s ‘State of the Service’ report, which will be tabled in parliament in November 2020.
Victorian Public Sector Commission
Unsurprisingly, the Victorian Public Sector Commission (VPSC) points to the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions as having experienced significant COVID-19 surge demands, and notes that the state’s Jobs and Skills Exchange — which has a ‘Surge Response Mobilisation’ function and over 30,000 VPS staff as members — has had its scale and reach expanded in response to COVID-19.
Mobilisation efforts across the Victorian government have seen staff from departments ranging from Zoos Victoria to the Melbourne Convention Exhibition Centre, Zoos Victoria perform short-term secondments. While the VPSC did not respond to questions on the National Framework for Public Sector Mobility, Commissioner Adam Fennessy adds that the most obvious shift throughout the pandemic is the increase in virtual recruitment, “and for many hiring managers this has been a new experience.”
To support them, the VPSC created guidelines to working, recruiting and inducting and onboarding remotely, and Fennessy notes that the VPS anticipates the tools will, “remain relevant after the pandemic as we settle into a so called ‘new normal’ where remote recruitment and onboarding won’t seem so unusual.”
“As we emerge from the pandemic, I expect in workforce mobility will be more frequent and, to ensure its effective, workforce capability and a leadership culture enabling that mobility will be a focus for the public sector.
“We’ll think less about roles and more about outcomes, so we’ll be hiring for contemporary capabilities as a result.”
Reflecting on the crisis, the commissioner adds that the body is “examining the future capability needed in the sector and its relationship to workforce mobility, as well as building on our already strong culture of flexible work and how remote working can play a bigger role in that.”
Office of the Commissioner for Public Sector Employment (South Australia)
According to the Office of the Commissioner for Public Sector Employment (OCPSE), South Australian public sector agencies leading the response to the pandemic — and consequently requiring the most workforce support — include SA Health, SA Police and the South Australian Fire and Emergency Services Commission, while the greatest demand in workforce resourcing has been for support with call-centre operations, application processing, community testing administration, and contact tracing.
Under the SA Public Sector Mobilisation Policy activated by Premier Steven Marshall in March, agency chief executives are required to deploy resources to areas of greatest need to assist with to the State’s COVID-19 response; select agencies and functions are exempt from this requirement to ensure the continued delivery of essential and front-line services. While OCPSE has not received any requests under the National Framework for Public Sector Mobility since its establishment at the end of July, several members of the state’s frontline services — including nurses and paramedics — traveled to Victoria before the framework was in place.
Additionally, a mobilisation project team was established in March within the Office of the Commissioner for Public Sector Employment, under the direction of the State’s Mobilisation Coordinator, Erma Ranieri, to coordinate mobilisation in consultation with representatives across state government agencies.
As the team continues to work with agencies on workforce surge strategies, Ranieri says the key challenge has been “creating capacity while agencies continue to deliver current services.”
“In order to address this, a talent pool of more than 800 public service workers from a mix of agencies is being sourced and trained to respond to immediate needs and create a standby workforce which can be quickly deployed in the areas such as contact tracing, border control and call centre operations, if that becomes necessary.”
On the transition to a “new normal” in 2021, Ranieri notes that the increase in remote working could lead to roles becoming more portable, with less focus on location and more on ensuring a best fit for the role; this in turn “may be beneficial for regional recruitment, because it could enable a larger pool of candidates to be considered.” She also says that the state’s Senior Management Council has commenced work to identify transformation activities it wishes to pursue in response to COVID-19.
Mental health as a post-COVID mobility concern
Uniquely, Ranieri points to the pandemic’s demonstrated impact on mental health as a continuing challenge for the sector; wellbeing features as one of four principles identified in OCPSE’s September document, ‘COVID-19 Workforce Considerations Moving to a “New Normal”‘, along with physical, attendance and WHS and industrial principles.
“Research during the pandemic indicates that mental health issues have increased significantly during the pandemic, and the impacts are expected to be felt long-term. A continued focus on wellbeing and mental health is crucial, with agencies across the public sector looking for new ways to support employees to maintain their resilience throughout a prolonged state of uncertainty.”
The guide notes that some employees may be concerned and anxious at travelling to the workplace or returning to work and being near a larger number of people, while others may be very keen to return to the office following weeks of working in isolation, and calls on agencies to keep the following front of mind:
- Recognise that there will be a period of readjustment for employees re-entering the workplace, and that it may take some longer to adapt than others.
- Communicate the supports available to workers. This may include the additional Employee Assistance Provider sessions or the peer-support program.
- Schedule performance discussions with teams to re-set and clarify expectations and priorities on returning to the office. This is also an ideal opportunity to check in on your employee’s wellbeing.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, state’s agencies have implemented the body’s SA Public Sector Mentally Healthy Workplaces (MHW) Framework and Toolkit, and the body is supporting agencies to identify new psychosocial risks that may arise from COVID-19 such as isolation, increased workloads, concern over infection for those in front line roles, and domestic violence.
As part of this toolkit, Ranieri notes that the OCPSE have offered Peer Support Officer training to employees already trained in mental health first aid to formalise their role in offering practical and emotional support to their peers experiencing stress.
Queensland Public Service Commission
According to Robert Setter, Commission Chief Executive at the Queensland Public Service Commission (QPSC), Queensland public servants have been mobilised to bolster frontline services in areas such as contact tracing, call centre operations, logistics support, ICT, administration and client support and data entry; some were also endorsed by the NFPSM to be remotely deployed to Victoria to “support the delivery of critical functions in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency.”
“Employees have been mobilised from across 30 agencies to various roles, including to call centres for the Care Army and the Community Recovery hotline, to collect data from people arriving at our airports and borders to enable contact tracing, to support emergency services with calls to people in quarantine, to develop health policy and communications and to support critical ICT infrastructure to keep Queenslanders informed.
“This mobilisation has reinforced our frontline personnel in the Queensland Police Service, Queensland Fire and Emergency Services and State Emergency Services – allowing them to focus on more public safety specialist roles such as air and road border closures, and compliance monitoring and enforcement.”
The QPSC introduced a new Employee Mobilisation Service (EMS) to support public sector mobility in April, and the sector had pre-existing systems to support natural disaster and crisis events such the long-standing Community Recovery Ready Reserves, which were bolstered to support the sustained pandemic response and recovery and were mobilised to help support social distancing requirements throughout the state’s local government elections.
While Ready Reserves are generally mobilised for short periods of time and sought individual volunteers, the EMS allowed agencies to nominate multiple required resources. Mobilisation placements also occur in line with “work performance arrangements”, where employees perform work for a different agency while retaining their existing employment conditions and employer. Other options for QPS employees included working at the State Disaster Coordination Centre and performing specific roles through secondment .
According to Setter, the QPS has been able to “identify, source, train and place people, sometimes with less than 24 hours’ notice, across a diverse range of mobilisation models — from 2 days to 6 months — across various skills.” To date, EMS has sourced more than 500 employees from 30 government agencies and built the state’s contact tracing capability, with over 300 public servants now trained as contact tracers and ready to deploy if needed.
Arguing that the pandemic has forever changed the “where, when and how” of the work of government, he also highlights that much has been “gained through cross agency collaboration, workforce inter-dependency and mobility, and new ways of working.”
“As a collective, I believe we can expect to see greater capacity to maintain our core government business alongside the development of a quite different, more flexible and responsive public sector,” Setter says.
Western Australian Public Sector Commission
According to Western Australian Public Sector Commissioner Sharyn O’Neill, 161 public service employees were mobilised to support response and/or recovery at the peak of the state’s pandemic on 4 May 2020, the majority to police and health agencies and from fire and emergency services, justice, and commerce agencies; she notes, however, that this figure is likely to be an “underestimate as urgent and ad hoc arrangements may not have been captured in human resource systems [and] other employees were redirected to response and/or recovery roles in their own agencies.”
No WAPS staff have been mobilised under the National Framework for Public Sector Mobility, as the Public Sector Management Act 1994 has provisions for employees to be placed in other agencies and jurisdictions, and O’Neill notes that surge processes implemented by the Commission during the pandemic are still in place to ensure the sector is well-prepared in the event of a second wave.
“Other than a shift towards online and virtual interviewing when physical distancing requirements were in place, recruitment processes were largely unaffected during the pandemic,” O’Neill says. “However, recruitment advertising declined between February and April 2020, with a reduction of more than 30% in the last quarter of 2019–20 compared to the same period in 2018–19. By June 2020, recruitment advertising had returned to similar levels as previous years.
“Regardless of the pandemic, practices have been evolving to support a more flexible and candidate-centric approach to recruitment and selection. Employment frameworks continue to be modernised and streamlined.”
The State of the Western Australian Government Sector Workforce 2019–20 report, to be released later in 2020, will provide further information and data on the impacts to the workforce during the pandemic.
NSW Public Service Commission
On March 30, the NSW Public Service Commission (NSWPSC) announced that Government Sector Employment Rules had been amended to fast-track recruitment to COVID-related roles and allow for temporary roles to be extended. Amendments allow for:
- A person to be employed on a temporary basis for up to two years in a COVID-19-related role based on an assessment that demonstrates they are suitable for the role
- A person’s temporary employment in a COVID-19-related role to be extended by up to two years
- A person’s employment in a non-COVID-19-related role to be extended by up to 12 months.
The body also issued a mobility guide, which includes tips for advertising and assessing to fill roles, and offered resources on remote working and employee wellbeing.
In examples provided to The Mandarin, a spokesperson for the NSWPSC says the body has worked to redeploy employees to NSW Health to assist in contact tracing, and separately, create quick response teams to be on standby to respond to further surge requests.
Currently, the NSWPSC is working to develop a government recovery program:
“Following the initial crisis response, the NSW government is focused on recovery and renewal including realising the benefits of new ways of working. This work includes developing core principles for ensuring safe workplaces and establishing cultures and capability development informed by data and focused on outcomes. During 2020-2021 the Public Service Commissioner will convene working groups to roll out this program of work collaboratively with the sector.”
State Service Management Office (Tasmania’s Department of Premier and Cabinet)
Like a number of other states and territories, the most significant example of mobilisation of Tasmanian State Service employees throughout COVID-19 has been the deployment of Department of Health nurses and medical staff to Victoria to undertake duties within the aged care sector, administered by an agreement between the state service and the commonwealth government.
Tasmania has not as yet shared any state service employees under this specific Framework, nor has the state requested any staff from other jurisdictions, but a spokesperson for the Tasmanian State Service notes the body has “also welcomed secondments during this time from non-government organisations to quickly access specific skills needed, for example epidemiologists from the University of Tasmania and economic recovery specialists from industry groups.”
Additionally, the Premier’s Economic and Social Recovery Advisory Council has incorporated some information on the Tasmanian State Service from a service provision and an employment perspective in an interim July report.
For example, the report called on the state government to accelerate a review of the Tasmanian State Service — announced in November 2019 and conducted by Dr Ian Watt AC — while Recommendation 49 called for government agencies to:
“…embed flexible working arrangements delivered successfully through the COVID-19 suppression period, to support the recruitment and advancement of women in the State Service.”
Office of the Commissioner for Public Employment (Northern Territory)
According to the Office of the Commissioner for Public Employment (OCPE), staff mobility has occurred within and between most Northern Territory Public Sector (NTPS) agencies, including the Departments of Health, Chief Minister and Cabinet, Industry Trade and Tourism, Police Fire and Emergency Services, Corporate Services and Digital Development, and Territory Families.
This was enabled by an Emergency Operations Centre, set up to manage the Northern Territory government’s COVID-19 response, and employees from all Northern Territory Public Sector (NTPS) agencies were mobilised into it as required.
In a statement to The Mandarin, an OCPE spokesperson notes that mobility across NTPS agencies is, “relative to some other jurisdictions,” more easily enabled through the territory’s legislative framework:
The Commissioner for Public Employment is the employer for all public sector employees, except uniformed police and a small number of government owned corporations and statutory authorities. This enables movement of employees across agencies without a change of employer, and the associated administrative burden that this carries. There is also a single human resource information and payroll system for all agencies, which means that employment records, and employee entitlements etc, for the purposes of mobility, are much more easily managed than if there were multiple systems across agencies.”
The National Framework for Public Sector Mobility has also not been used by the NTPS, but, in terms of mobility challenges, the spokesperson explains that a challenge for all rapid deployment mobility is “finding the employees with the required capabilities and then matching this to actual operational requirements”.
The NTPS apparently implemented a number of manual processes for this, as well as using a technology solution within the Department of Health; the small size of the NTPS, and the highly connected nature of the relationships between CEOs and senior executives across agencies, also assisted in overcoming this challenge.
“COVID-19 has reinforced that the NTPS already has the requisite flexibility in our employment framework to quickly and seamlessly enact mobility across the sector,” the OCPE spokesperson says. “It is expected that this will continue to be reinforced over time, and in the event of other crisis response requirements.”
In terms of recruitment, the NTPS’ processes have not reportedly changed significantly — “except in the context of utilising technology to conduct interviews when/if required, and applying physical distancing requirements for face to face interviews” — while employees recruited within the timeframe of closed borders and those coming from hotspots have been required to undertake the mandatory 14 day quarantine period on arrival to the NT; in some instances, the new recruits commenced in their roles while in quarantine.
Additionally, intense recruitment rounds were conducted to collate pools of candidates for the requirement of additional screening safety officers for airports and borders to support and replace police officers.
Finally, on how the sector has evolved throughout the pandemic, the spokesperson points to the OCPE’s collection of public servant stories in the ‘COVID-19 Unsung Heroes’ website.
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