State of the Service report makes case for permanent Surge Reserve following COVID-19 success

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday November 30, 2020


The Australian Public Service is establishing a permanent Surge Reserve so the government can rapidly mobilise public service volunteers in large numbers to deliver critical services to Australians during times of need.

A Surge Reserve Coordinator function will also be created within the Australian Public Service Commission to work with agencies to develop training and skills development, handle deployment arrangements, and prepare the reserve to respond to future crises.

The new initiative is outlined in the latest State of the Service Report, released on Monday.

The 214-page report highlights innovation, resilience, and mobility across the APS workforce at scale and pace, according to APS commissioner Peter Woolcott.

“I strongly believe that the quality of governance and the quality of institutions are key drivers in keeping a country and its citizens safe and prosperous. The APS response to the Black Summer bushfires and COVID-19 has demonstrated this principle in spades,” he says in a statement.

“Responding to the bushfire and COVID-19 crises has required rapid change and highlighted areas where we can improve and develop capability. However we have certainly set the foundation for an APS that can respond to whatever challenges arise in the future.”

The bushfires and COVID-19 have seen an increase in demand for government support and services. For example, during the pandemic, Services Australia processed 1.3 million Jobseeker claims — the volume normally processed in 2.5 years — in just 55 days.

More than 8900 APS employees were deployed within their own portfolios on critical tasks, while 2300 staff moved across agencies as part of the APS surge workforce, the report notes.

“Many moved to process JobSeeker claims or administer JobKeeper payments, to ensure Australians could access vital support. Others used their expertise in crisis management teams, to support the procurement of personal protective equipment or conduct policy analysis to inform crisis decision-making,” it says.

While activating large-scale mobility in such a short time frame has been challenging for the APS, the surge experience during the pandemic has been “positive” overall, and roughly two-thirds of the surge workforce have said they would volunteer again to support critical government priorities.

As a result, the new permanent APS Surge Reserve will draw on volunteers from across the commonwealth and in every state and territory to “maximise APS readiness for future crises”.

Reservists will be deployed for short periods — with initial terms of up to eight weeks — to help APS colleagues, but their work will vary based on the reason for the call-out, the report says.

“The Surge Reserve adds to, rather than replaces, other arrangements such as internal surge pools, profession-specific arrangements, and temporary registers,” it states.

“The APS Surge Reserve membership will be kept up-to-date to ensure the APS is ready and available when a call out occurs.”

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

Working as ‘One APS’

The Thodey Review of the APS, released in 2019, notes that aligning the public service around shared purpose, vision and values through the concept of ‘One APS’ is one of seven major changes it must make in its pathway to transformation.

“Running the APS as an integrated organisation — as one APS — does not mean rigid centralisation or a homogenisation of the constituent parts. It means aligning the APS around shared priorities, supported by a common purpose and vision, and encouraging a healthy contest of ideas and robust debate to determine the best collective solutions for Australia,” the review says.

“This will be essential to tackle complex cross-portfolio problems, deliver seamless services and build APS capability and productivity.”

The demands caused by the pandemic forced the public service to break down bureaucratic silos and take a “whole-of-service approach” to respond more effectively to the crisis than if the response was handled by just one or two agencies, according to the State of the Service Report.

“The APS has increased collaboration across and outside the public sector to tackle the multi-sector COVID-19 pandemic challenges. In working as a single enterprise the APS has facilitated rapid decision-making, worked across traditional boundaries, and aligned effort to deliver essential services to the public,” it states.

“This past year, a clarity of purpose has helped dissolve silos and change behavioural norms as the APS worked to solve the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. APS priorities simplified to delivering the government’s crisis support package, and protecting the health and wellbeing of its employees.”

Woolcott says that while the past year has been uncertain for many, the APS has operated as one enterprise, “with commitment to service evident in each individual”.

Other Thodey reforms which have been accelerated during the pandemic include the increased use of data and digital transformation.

The APS is currently working to centralise aspects of recruitment to build expertise, and to finalise a whole-of-service workforce strategy.

Read more: How COVID-19 is driving APS reform

Strategies in the works to promote diversity

APS employment data for the 12 months to June 30 shows there has been a small drop in the representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees to 3.5%, despite long-term growth from 2.9% in 2001 to 3.6% in 2019. Meanwhile, there has been a small increase in the representation of employees with disability to 4.0% (up from 3.9%).

The government launched its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce strategy in July. A new disability employment strategy will be launched on December 3, which will set an employment target for people with disability in the APS of 7% by 2025. An accessible and inclusive workplace culture and environment for people with disability is “essential” to meet this target, the report says.

Women occupy 60% of the roles in the APS, and are largely represented at lower levels. For example, women make up 67.4% of APS 1 roles while men make up 32.5%. However, there is less representation in the Senior Executive Service. At the SES Band 3 level, there are 45.1% women and 54.9% men.

The APSC will release a refreshed gender equality strategy in the near future to tackle this and other issues.

More information on the impacts of COVID-19 on changing work practices, wellbeing and productivity will be outlined by the annual APS employee census, to be publicly released in early 2021.

Read more: 2020 APS employee census to focus on changing work practices, but won’t be included in upcoming State of the Service Report


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