Onwards for the APS: Leaders make the case for a faster more connected public service post-pandemic

By Matthew Elmas

Friday December 18, 2020

Department of Agriculture Secretary Andrew Metcalfe (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

In our final feature for 2020, The Mandarin explores how APS leaders are reflecting on the most extraordinary and taxiing year for public administrators in a generation, and what priorities those leaders are already setting for what is shaping up to be an immensely consequential 2021. 

It’s been a full on year across the public service, but consider the challenge faced by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, which has been navigating the creation of a new and complex department among the huge inflow of responsibilities that came alongside the COVID-19 pandemic.

As secretary Andrew Metcalfe explains, the job has involved everything from supporting agricultural producers in bushfire ravaged areas to playing an integral role in ensuring the Antarctic remains the only continent in the world without a COVID-19 case.

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But in each case AWE—as did departments and agencies across the public service — rose to the occasion, demonstrating, Metcalfe tells The Mandarin, its true worth.

“The public service has shown its true worth during 2020. We have demonstrated that we can work as a single APS and that we are agile and flexible,” Metcalfe says.

“For those not required to be in the office or on the frontline, working from home was not only possible, but proved to be highly productive.”

In our final feature for 2020, today we’re exploring how leaders across the APS are reflecting on the most extraordinary and taxiing year for public administrators in a generation, and what priorities those leaders are already setting for what is shaping up to be an immensely consequential 2021.

There is a central overriding theme to commentary from secretaries, assistants and ministers in recent weeks about the performance of the public service this year. For better or worse, the pandemic has sharply accelerated the shift to a ‘one APS’ mentality, flattening silos like never before and de-gumming the gears of government so that they’re now moving at unprecedented pace.

“We are not post-COVID”: Murphy’s reality check

Moving into next year, department of health secretary Brendan Murphy has a prescient reminder for public servants: the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over yet, and probably won’t be for at least another year.

“We are not post-COVID,” Murphy told the IPAA’s end of year event in Canberra this week. “Just looking at the Republic of Korea, which is just one of the most successful countries that has just gone wild again … we are in a sort of precariously wonderful position now that we have to maintain.”

As the department of health moves forward on its COVID-19 vaccination rollout in the first quarter of next year, Murphy said the priority is to assist states and territories with avoiding a reversion in coronavirus restrictions, while transferring pandemic reforms into business-as-usual changes.

Department of Health secretary Brendan Murphy (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

“We have to then also look at what we did in the COVID environment in some of those initiatives that we brought about really quickly without any of the normal scrutiny of process, such as telehealth and many of the other initiatives,” Murphy explained. “We’ve got to mainstream all of those, and continue to deliver the very extensive reform agenda of our highly energetic minister [Greg Hunt].”

Forward, not backwards for the APS  

Murphy said the pandemic had brought the best out of the department of health and the broader public service, with traditional approaches swiftly disrupted in favour of getting things done.

But the key will be to ensure this progress is fostered and maintained. In other words, that the public service doesn’t fall back into old habits in 2021 and beyond.

“One of the things to do is to embrace the desire of the national cabinet to destroy a lot of the bureaucratic structures that used to exist,” he said.

“… We’ve got to learn not to revert to a normal bureaucratic process, or let’s set up an IDC or let’s let’s go through this committee to their committee—why not just get on the phone and sort something out or get a small group together for a video conference which we can now do so easily.”

Department of Prime Minister * Cabinet secretary Phillip Gaetjens agreed, saying that forward progress in favor of backwards reversion will be a top priority and challenge for the APS next year.

“COVID has been an accelerant of existing trends,” he told the IPAA event. “What we have to use is the leverage off that accelerant so that we can use in fact I think some of the more levers that we have, so that we can do our work more flexibly.”

“It’s like riding a push bike with brakes where you can’t pedal backwards.”

Slow, deliberative government here to stay

But Marty Bortz, an honorary senior fellow at the Melbourne School of Government, says governments have needed to move faster in response to the pandemic, but this doesn’t necessarily mean slow, deliberative processes are going anywhere.

“COVID is a particular set of circumstances that requires a particular governance response, but that doesn’t automatically mean that every single thing we try and deal with should be dealt with in the same way,” Bortz tells The Mandarin.

“In some cases you absolutely want to have very slow, deliberative processes … moving faster is great, but that’s not going to be the entire operating model of the public sector.”

Philip Gaetjens. Photo: IPAA ACT

One of the key barriers facing the public service as it becomes more collaborative and faster moving is digital capability. Bortz explains information technology remains a perennial problem for governments that will need to be addressed to unlock many of the ambitions of senior leaders.

“Governments need to recognise that technology is very much embedded in the social, its not as though you’re going to put in an IT system on its own and then its going to solve the problem,” Bortz said.

“Its not just the technology itself its how people interpret those systems and use them in real life.”

Area for improvement: solving IT challenges

Metcalfe singled out IT as an area for improvement for the public sector, saying issues within his own department in this area proved challenging during the pandemic.

“Our department was, and still is, on two IT platforms. Because of this, as most of us moved to work out of the office, we were unable to video conference between ourselves, we had inconsistent information across two legacy intranet sites and our email distribution lists were still not reliable,” Metcalfe says.

“I am infinitely proud of the work of our IT Division staff who worked relentlessly under unprecedented circumstances, but it was definitely challenging … single systems across the APS, including IT, HR and finance, is where we need to be (and indeed, it is where we are headed).”

Speaking to IPAA on Wednesday, Gaetjens noted the need for the public service to continue adopting a citizen focus in its work.

“Provide simple and clear information. Do what we say we will and deliver reliable services, these are key to the satisfaction with interesting public services. They are also consistent with the Prime Minister’s focus for us to be citizen centric in the APS,” he said.

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