Public sector players on how to retain the ‘COVID dividend’

By Shannon Jenkins

February 18, 2021

(Image: The Mandarin)

The events of the past 12 months have posed previously unimaginable challenges for public servants across Australia and the world. Despite the disruption, the coronavirus pandemic has also shown the public service that it is capable of rapidly responding to problems, adapting to new situations, and finding innovative solutions under pressure.

This week, public servants gathered at the 2021 BiiG conference in Brisbane to explore ways to preserve the ‘COVID dividend’ — the useful lessons that have been learned and practices that have been adapted over the past year.

Below, see what three current and former public sector leaders, as well as The Mandarin’s managing editor Chris Johnson, believe should be done to ensure that Australia doesn’t lose the dividends that it has gained during the pandemic.

Deidre Mulkerin, director general of the Queensland Department of Children, Youth Justice and Multicultural Affairs

Deidre Mulkerin

Mulkerin hopes that governments can continue to embrace the flexible working arrangements that came into place during COVID.

“I think that it has been a disruptor in how we do our work. I think it has been painful, it has been annoying. Those Zoom meetings — dear Lord — how many of those can you do in one day? But on the flip side, what it’s also told us, is that it is possible to build even greater trust with our colleagues and allow them the flexibility to work from home,” she said.

“It’s perfectly okay to get up in the morning, do a bit of work, drop your kids to school, come back home, do some more work, go for a walk around the block, come back and do some more work, be present for your kids when they come home from school, and then if you want to log back on later in the day to finish stuff up, fine.”

Mulkerin is a “big champion” of flexible work arrangements because it has proven to be extremely valuable to many employees, particularly young women, as it has enabled them to find the right balance between family, work and life.

“And I always say at my place, family must always come first. I don’t care what job you’re in, family comes first. And if we can find a way to build work that supports that, then I think every day of the week, that’s the place I want to work.”

Ian Stewart, president of IPAA Queensland

Ian Stewart

Stewart argued that there are two things which need to be done, based on the successes of the past year.

The first is investing and co-investing in the public service in order for employees to feel supported and to enable the continuation of innovative conversations.

The second thing which needs to be done is a rethinking of structures to better suit the goals of the public service.

“I’ve argued long and hard — and this was while I was still in the public service — that it’s quite interesting when you take ministerial silos and departments and the way that our government is structured, and then preach collaboration and partnerships, because it takes effort. The structure actually works against you,” he said.

Stewart proposed that having alternate structures, such as research areas in universities that can collaborate across public sector agencies, is a way forward to “protect that dividend”.

Angela Barney-Leitch, pro vice-chancellor (Indigenous Strategy) at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), and the former director of Indigenous policy and strategic innovation at the Queensland Department of Education.

Angela Barney-Leitch

For Barney-Leitch, one of the dividends of the pandemic was that the public and the decision makers listened to the key health experts rather than any person with an opinion.

“In the beginning, it was a bit of a worry when we were going to people who are economists, and asking them for a health response. That was kind of scary — very scary,” she said.

“But then, slowly, people started asking people who work in immunology, and worked in disease and how diseases work, and it was like, oh my god, we’re starting to ask not only the expert but the correct expert — not someone who is just generally in that area, and not someone who just has an opinion. And for me, that is what has kept Queensland safe … that is what kept Australia overall safe.”

She argued that public servants must continue to listen to the experts — even on non-health issues — as it “can help us in a lot of areas going forward”.

Chris Johnson, managing editor, The Mandarin

Chris Johnson

The events of COVID have shown that Australia can — and should — learn from other countries’ successes and mistakes, according to Johnson.

“One thing I think we can really take out of this past year and the experience we’ve had is to really look at best and worst practice beyond our borders. Instead of just blindly saying ‘hey the Americans have done that we should adopt that’, the Brits have done that…’ What we’ve learned is, they’re getting it wrong,” he said.

“And I know we always have looked at what other countries are doing but let’s not just blindly take it on board. We can actually say ‘well, that doesn’t apply to us’. We should take a more forensic look.”

He referred to Advance Queensland’s deputy director-general of innovation Dr Sarah Pearson, who also spoke at BiiG, and urged public servants to look at how developing countries have coped with disruption.

“Some great things, great innovation, are actually born out of desperation,” Johnson said.

Read more: Public service should look to developing nations to cope with transitions sparked by COVID-19, says Queensland’s innovation head


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