National auditor-general Grant Hehir has offered government agencies key advice on governance, risk management and policy implementation during crises, in a new audit report examining the Australian Public Service’s response to COVID-19.
The report released on Tuesday assessed the management of the APS pandemic response, led by the Secretaries Board, the Chief Operating Officers (COO) Committee, Australian Public Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott, and agency heads.
Since COVID-19 first reached Australia’s shores, the APS workforce has had to quickly adapt to the increased demand for government services and support measures, and has responded to a number of challenges.
The APSC’s Workforce Management Taskforce successfully deployed 2,165 staff to Services Australia and 75 staff to three other agencies during the pandemic, but “the deployment process was impacted by the absence of an existing framework for large-scale APS deployments and the challenges of identifying critical functions and available staff in the middle of a crisis”, the audit found.
The report noted management of the APS workforce in implementing the government’s COVID-19 priorities was effective, and governance arrangements were “fit for purpose”.
“As a whole-of-government framework for managing the APS workforce in a crisis was not in place prior to COVID-19, planning was conducted in flight and risks were managed reactively,” it said.
“APSC established largely appropriate arrangements to oversee, monitor and report on the work of its cross-agency taskforces. Further, the COO Committee provided appropriate oversight for the response, including appropriate monitoring of actions it initiated.”
The APSC COVID-19 Taskforce gave agencies “largely effective” guidance on COVID-19 workforce measures. However, feedback from agencies suggested the guidance “was not always timely and there were issues with version control and consistency”, the audit found.
COVID-19 has highlighted the need to consider workforce risks at an APS-wide level, the report said. A whole-of-government risk assessment for managing the APS workforce in a crisis had not been conducted prior to the pandemic, which led to key workforce risks from COVID-19 being managed “reactively”.
And despite the COO Committee having identified the need for an APS-wide risk assessment in early April, this has not yet been conducted. However, the APSC did update its enterprise risk register to include consideration of shared risks to the APS last month.
While the auditor-general didn’t make any recommendations in his report, he did outline several “key messages” for all government agencies relating to governance, risk management and policy implementation.
For example, entities involved in a crisis response should be clear on roles and responsibilities and follow processes consistent with statutory requirements.
“Accordingly, there would be value in whole-of-government crisis management frameworks, plans and arrangements including consideration of APS-wide operational management matters, such as roles and responsibilities for identifying critical functions, mobilising the APS workforce and issuing APS-wide directions,” Hehir wrote.
Entities should also maintain engagement with responsible ministers, as frequent briefing that outlines activities, progress and emerging issues — and that is backed by data — can help the government manage a crisis.
When monitoring actions initiated by governance bodies, secretariats should adopt a “disciplined approach” to recording decisions and actions, assigning responsibility for actions, following up with responsible parties, and recording reasons for the closure of actions.
Agencies should spend time on developing clear guidance and templates where urgent information is required at a whole-of-government level. When setting deadlines, they should consider the trade-off between haste and data quality, the report noted.
“Data gathered in short timeframes offers limited value if it is inconsistent and of poor quality,” it said.
During a crisis, it’s also more important to apply a structured process to planning key aspects of a project — like governance, risk and stakeholder engagement — than creating “elaborate” planning documentation.
In regards to communicating key information, having a clear strategy for dissemination can help ensure information reaches the intended audience quickly. This includes identifying and addressing potential barriers for access, Hehir said.
“In a crisis, maintaining proactive communication with entities as central guidance is developed can help manage uncertainty and ensure entities are aware of key developments,” he wrote.
The audit was one of five performance audits conducted under phase one of the ANAO’s multi-year strategy that is examining the delivery of the federal government’s COVID-19 response.
In welcoming the audit findings, Woolcott said Hehir’s key messages to entities would “help to position the Australian Public Service to continue to respond effectively to future crises”.
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens said he was “immensely proud” of the APS and their state and territory counterparts.
“Their joint efforts have supported the response to COVID-19 and in the economic recovery which will be ongoing,” he wrote in his response.
The APSC and the COO Committee have begun working to capture lessons from the past year to inform planning for future operations.