Public service experts have a mix of hope and doubts about whether skills acquired from the past 20 months favouring risk-taking and efficiency among agencies and departments are here to stay.
Speaking at a UNSW Canberra’s Public Service Research Group event reflecting on major shifts in 2021, the academics said the jury was still out on what legacies the COVID-19 pandemic would create.
But Associate Professor Sue Williamson said a review of crisis literature showed for transformation to embed in organisations there “had to be a big shock” for lasting change.
“My question really is, has COVID been a big enough shock to have widespread changes? And I’ve tended to say yes, it was,” Williamson said.
Williamson’s research has focused on departments and agencies transitioning back to a COVID-norm after months of working from home, with one of her concerns being a return to hybrid or activity-based office arrangements entrenching inequalities.
“We may find fewer women are going back [to offices], that’s something organisations need to be aware of,” she said.
“Research also found people with disability like working from home because it enables them to manage their conditions … the workforce could end up with white, able-bodied men.”
Professor Helen Dickinson said literature on inter-agency collaboration showed organisations were able to achieve goals in a “timely way” which could have lasting impact from COVID-19.
“While we see some organisations who are starting to embrace change, there is a remarkable ability to go back to what we were doing before,” she warned.
Dickinson has focused her research on governments responding to people with disability during the pandemic. She found, backed by findings in the Disability Royal Commission, that groups had been de-prioritised at crucial stages, such as the vaccination rollout.
Dickinson also raised concerns with proposed National Disability Insurance Agency changes, currently before the senate, giving the agency’s head “unprecedented” powers to cut funding packages.
“There are some changes that have been released at the moment, with a really short consultation period, and that have certainly not been co-designed,” she said.
The research group’s Dr Adrian Bazbauers said one pessimistic indicator from 2020-21 was that among the world’s 31 multilateral development banks, gender-based projects tapered off.
“A lot of organisations revert back to the bread and butter of infrastructure,” Bazbauers said.
While a number of MDBs continued to finance gender-based projects during 2020 and 2021, Bazbauers said the World Bank appeared not to have any gender-focused projects in 2020 and up to July 2021.
Bazbauers work has centred around whether the developmental banks worked together in a network, and he’s found that although a “follow the leader” model exists, smaller banks are changing to satisfy borrowing members.
Dr Megan Evans, a lecturer in public sector management, had not researched the impact of the pandemic on the public service, but said funding to follow the earlier Black Summer bushfires crisis hadn’t been proportionate to the event.
Her research, focused on private investment in biodiversity conservation, has found private initiatives are less likely to support causes without clear financial return.
“It would make more sense to invest in a fast growing, fairly certain investment … whereas something that is highly threatened or grows very slowly isn’t particularly amenable to private investment,” Evans said.
“That points to why there is a clear role to the state or the government to invest in these assets that are largely public goods.”
She pointed to a new threatened species plan targeting 100 species with $10 million, but pointed out the $100,000 per species “isn’t going to go that far”.
“There has been work done on how much money would be needed to recover all of our threatened species. That stands at about $1.7 billion a year,” Evans said.