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Public service risk management gets tick of approval during the pandemic

The Australian National Audit Office has had its work cut out during the pandemic. Major government benefit and procurement programs stress-tested the Australian public service, and the ANAO conducted a series of performance audits to discover if there were systemic problems in planning and risk management.

It came back with reports that provided the public sector with feedback on how it managed stresses in the early days of the pandemic while giving public servants guidance on what to improve when it comes to risk management.

The ANAO conducted four performance audit reports in quick succession in December 2020 that looked at risk management issues managing the pandemic. In one report, “Management of the Australian Public Service’s Workforce Response to COVID-19”, the audit team found the process of implementing pandemic measures was effective, arrangements established to provide oversight of the workforce response were “largely appropriate”, and the provision of staff and advice on workforce measures across the public sector was effective.

It suggested ways to improve coordination across the public sector from a risk-management perspective. One recommendation is to create whole-of-government crisis management frameworks to ensure clarity in what is expected of departments and other entities during a crisis.

Workforce risks were also considered. The ANAO said the board of departmental secretaries and the chief operating officers’ committee were useful mechanisms to ensure shared risks were managed properly. Committees, the ANAO noted, should also ensure that clear directions are given for the scope of work and for outputs and deadlines to be specified.

The ANAO’s ‘key messages’ or recommendations for improved processes also included references to documentation issues. “To effectively monitor actions initiated by governance bodies, secretariats should adopt a disciplined approach to: clearly and comprehensively recording decisions and actions, including deliverables and timeframes; assigning responsibility for actions; following up with responsible parties; and recording reasons for the closure of actions, including when not completed,” the ANAO said.

The ANAO also considered policy implementation. Among matters related to documentation, it suggested the need for clear protocols for the review, clearance and updates of material issued to the public so that community messaging is accurate and consistent. “If staff have moved into different roles in response to a crisis, delineating roles and responsibilities and establishing effective lines of internal communications can reduce the risk of inconsistencies or duplication,” the ANAO noted.

How Services Australia coped during the pandemic

A performance audit of Services Australia looked at how the department coped with the pressures of running aspects of the pandemic economic response. The ANAO found the department was “largely effective” in managing risks related to the speedy implementation of various measures.

Services Australia, however, wasn’t immune from getting some tips from the audit team about what they and other government departments should do to manage risks more effectively. “When implementing new initiatives, the identification and assessment of risks should consider both new risks as well as changes to existing risk profiles,” the ANAO suggested. “In the context of rapid implementation, the frequency of risk review should keep pace with the changing circumstances.” 

Documenting new programs and measures is critical, the ANAO said, but the documentation doesn’t need to be elaborate if developments are moving quickly. However, all critical decisions must be recorded. “It is more important to apply a structured process to review decision-making frameworks to assess whether they are fit for purpose and have arrangements in place to allow for adaptation,” the ANAO observed. It also said that government departments should be fluid when resourcing activities to ensure key functions are fulfilled more readily.

Risk management and elections

Risk management does not just relate to health, education and various economic portfolios. How jurisdictions run elections during health crises and natural disasters must be front of mind for relevant ministers, government departments and authorities such as the Australian Electoral Commission and its state and territory counterparts.

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IIDEA) has more than 30 member countries, including Australia. It’s dedicated to the principle of sustained democratic change, and emphasises the need for effective risk management plans to run elections even during times of crisis. Its November 2020 submission to the joint standing committee on electoral matters was on the future conduct of elections during emergencies.

The IIDEA observed that Australia is an authority on how to conduct elections during the coronavirus pandemic. This knowledge, the IIDEA said, is something Australia should share with other jurisdictions, given future pandemics and other crises are likely. 

“The world is reminded once again of the importance of preparedness for times of emergency,” the IIDEA said. “Much of the focus of emergency planning is often around the kinds of crises that have already occurred. A more difficult challenge is to plan for the unpredictable.”

Risks that should be considered by those planning elections range from political activity such as protests against elections, medical emergencies such as ebola, wars and conflicts, and natural disasters such as fires, floods and volcano eruptions. 

“Electoral risk management is a systematic effort undertaken to improve knowledge about and situational awareness of both internal and external risks to electoral processes to initiate timely preventive and mitigating action,” the IIDEA said.

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