As Australia finally rouses from a year of pandemic-related restrictions that redefined how we live, work and govern, it’s logical that many of us are now thinking about what comes next.
After decades of ebbing public trust, cynicism and apathy towards government, a solid 12 months of crisis-mode has the Australian public, and its policymakers, necessarily re-evaluating what’s worked, what hasn’t and how to make government and public services resilient to potential future shocks.
Just 18 months ago, the idea of lasting cross-jurisdictional collaboration and reform was often laughed-off as a beautiful but lofty ideal better suited to the TV comedy Utopia than real life.
Yet, as Christmas rolls around and people liberated from their homes opt to physically shop to support retail jobs, the level of functional policy partnership between Canberra, the states, local councils and key stakeholders has, arguably, never been higher.
That’s a good thing. But will it last?
Resilient leadership means listening
“It’s been interesting to observe both resilience and resourcefulness over the year as we’ve moved from bushfires, to the public health crisis of COVID-19 and now the economic recovery,” says Corrina Bertram Partner, Management Consulting at KPMG Australia.
“We’ve seen that government can be agile and resources can move quickly to respond to an emergency. The challenge now is sustaining people dealing with multiple crises simultaneously over a protracted period and continuing to enable agility to respond to emerging priorities.”
It’s a very live question too, with public sector leadership at all levels now compelled by circumstance to evaluate what not just what counts as a win or outcome, but the way in which it lands, with empathy in service delivery now elevated from a ‘best practice’ to a very visceral ‘must’.
The need to replace human adrenalin with organisational stamina, and guarding against fatigue while keeping pace, is also becoming clear.
“The public sector is committed to supporting the community and has gone above and beyond,” Bertram says.
“The challenge is continuing to work at this pace, in an increasingly complex and dynamic environment. That requires capacity for the public service to renew itself, build capability and leadership models and empowering staff is a key learning from this time.”
Learning to trust again? Show me the data
It almost goes without saying that Australians want policymakers, public servants and health leaders to avoid the savage COVID-19 re-infection waves now hitting the US, Europe and Britain.
Bertram – a Melburnian – by no means takes Australia’s relative COVID containment success for granted, but points to the ability of organisations and their leadership to adjust quickly and listen to what’s happening on the ground, rather than going to a command-and-control model.
“There’s the need to balance the risk in terms of the impact of decisions on people’s lives, both in health, economic and social terms. Government needs to keep trialling and testing and evaluating different approaches in real time, because we’re in new terrain here,” Bertram says.
That has whet a new appetite, at a collective level, to try different things to find out what works best … or just works. In plain terms, a faster, more iterative approach that’s referred to as ‘agile’ in today’s corporate and tech vernacular.
In many cases that means being able to trial new ideas fast and then move on quickly if they don’t.
Fewer boundaries, better buy-in
At a ‘COAG’ level (Council of Australian Governments), this has often meant sharing what works at a grass-roots level across boundaries without worrying if another project will be upstaged.
For all the apps, big tech and promises of IoT, it’s been hard-nosed nous, coupled with human forbearance and rigorous process that’s defined highly effective contact tracing and pertinent transmission data that has quickly arrested outbreaks.
“Coming out of COVID, there is an extraordinary opportunity to engage directly with citizens, and to explain government decisions on the basis of data and insight,” Bertram says. “We’ve never seen such a display of transparency as government’s announced the ‘numbers’ [of COVID-19 cases] every day and communicated that directly with the public.”
“Data-driven insight and enabling the digital citizen experience is key to meeting many of the challenges faced by governments in the new reality.” Bertram says this is evidenced by the use of data to drive the public health policy response during COVID, and the resultant public scrutiny of the evidence base behind the decisions.
Better government capability in this area could be a silver lining from COVID.
“Data is the new fuel. Real-time information can improve not only the operations of government, but government data is invaluable for citizens making day-to-day decisions, such as is my next train service full and do I therefore feel safe taking that train?”
Policy by numbers? Bet your life on it.
In ‘politics-as-usual’ the blurring of unpalatable numbers has been par for the course for many decades. But when global pandemic hits, the need for policymakers and bureaucrats to pass a crash course in public transparency can make or break public order and civility.
Dr Sanjay Mazumdar, Chief Data Officer at KPMG Australia, argues there has been a recent “reinforcement of the importance of data and aligning it to purpose”.
“Prior to this situation, what people and organisations often did was just collect data, and collate data for the sake of data and then say; well, what can I do with that data?”
“What the COVID situation has forced people to do is to say ‘well, what is the actual insight that we need’”, Dr Mazumdar offers. “For example, do we need to understand how long it’s going to take for the numbers to fall? Do we need to understand where the hotspots are?”.
Clarity of purpose goes a long way, Dr Mazumdar says.
“What we’ve always advocated for is to understand what outcomes you are trying to achieve, or what questions are you trying to answer. This helps to identify what insights you need and therefore what data you need to collect to support that.”
Changed perspectives, new solutions
The sheer urgency of people and organisations being able to adapt to challenging new circumstances has left its mark on behaviour and problem solving, according to Dr Mazumdar, with self-awareness of how information is interpreted rising.
“What’s happened is people and organisations have flipped their thinking,” Dr Mazumdar says, with leaders shifting from asking what insights they can derive from the data they hold, to asking what they actually need to know.
“They have also realised that sometimes not all the data you need is actually within your own organisational control. Some of that data is actually out there, [but] it might be open source, or it might be data on someone else’s website.,” Dr Mazumdar says.
A key example of this is mapping how and when people moved, to predict potential COVID spread, issue warnings and allocate resources.
“[If] you’re in the Health Department, you haven’t traditionally thought about ‘Oh I need to source train transport data’. But now people realise they need to track where potential cases might be travelling, that data has become important.”
“So, it’s changing the mindset of people and getting them to think outside of their own organisational boundaries, because they need that data to solve that problem,” Dr Mazumdar says.
Acknowledgement from the top
Being able to bridge those organisational boundaries is now a national priority according to Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
“In 2020 we witnessed strong implementation and execution by the APS during the most difficult crisis we’ve faced in certainly in my lifetime and in many generations. Silos fell. They dissolved, real substantive and fast collaboration occurred,” the Prime Minister said in a speech to the APS200 Virtual Forum in late November.
“There was no rulebook. There was no set of procedures for the broader actions that were undertaken by our public service, certainly when it related to our pandemic plan that was implemented. But the broader activity of the public service and what I saw occur, you’ve written that book now about how it should be done, through your actions.”
The big question now for the public sector is how to sustain such momentum, both at an economic and broader policy level.
Even though national effort to pull together swiftly for a common cause has arguably been a success in Australia, the challenge ahead will be reviving and restructuring the economy.
Many sectors, especially travel, tourism and higher education have been hit hard and will only recover gradually in line with global influences beyond Australia’s control.
While targeted measures for specific industries are warmly welcomed, Corrina Bertram believes that lasting social and economic improvements will flow if stimulus and structural reforms are applied.
“There’s an opportunity, which KPMG has been talking about publicly, to reform the workforce so we can increase productivity. And the main lever we have for that is getting women back into the workforce,” Bertram argues.
“Women have been the most significantly impacted by COVID on every measure. So, we’re currently positioning that childcare should be virtually free to get women back into the workforce. Reform like that would have a multi-generational effect.”
Bertram says public expenditure on childcare is money well spent because it delivers women the agency to forge careers and develop skills that create both economic uplift and a more diverse and flexible labour pool.
A big problem for women has been that the high cost of childcare often eats away any economic benefits from working, in turn creating a cycle where women drop out of work, often subsequently finding it difficult to renter the workforce, and sacrificing earning capacity along the way.
“The [composition] of the workforce needs to be looked at,” Bertram says, pointing out the mis-match of many roles deemed ‘essential’ that often aren’t appreciated in terms of compensation or conditions.
“Women are often in caring roles, and they are not valued to the same extent, which I think is a realisation that’s come out of this time,” Bertram says, noting the trend extended to aged care that has recently been put under the spotlight.
However, with many services industries disrupted, Bertram sees an opportunity for industry, workers and government to all work together to reskill and re-allocate people looking for work to where there is demand.
“There is an opportunity to reskill some of those workers, and to value them differently, and that would actually have a significant impact on the services sector,” Bertram says.
If Australia transforms to become a more caring and considerate place in the process of economic recovery, so much the better.