What to do when fatigue sets into your agency during times of crisis

By Melissa Coade

March 15, 2022

Kirsten Fish
Kirsten Fish (Supplied)

Finding opportunities to innovate as a service provider during a pandemic has been a taxing experience for everybody – including the citizens whose needs ultimately need to be served – but leading through uncertain times is what public service is all about, according to an ATO leader.

Kirsten Fish, a second commissioner for the Australian Tax Office’s (ATO) law design and practice group, says the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic makes her hopeful for what the agency can achieve in the future. 

Speaking to The Mandarin for a series profiling public sector leaders for International Women’s Day (March 8) this year, Fish explained that the collective workforce experience tested how the ATO handled uncertainty. What emerged was the example of a lot of adaptability as staff were redeployed to focus on priority areas and switched to work from home arrangements almost overnight in 2020.

“There’s no question that ATO staff have demonstrated an extraordinary ability to be flexible and to cope with immense change,” Fish says. 

“ATO staff worked tirelessly to deliver the government’s stimulus measures such as JobKeeper, JobMaker, the cash flow boost and early release of super.”

In the case of the government’s JobKeeper scheme, which was announced on 30 March 2020, Fish says the first payments were being made to eligible people by the first week of May. She notes that to deliver a new policy within a week required speed, organisational agility, personal dedication, commitment, hard work and sacrifice.

“It also required an understanding in our people of why they were doing what they were doing – how important it was to the community we serve – as well as an appreciation of the importance of integrity in the systems we manage for their benefit,” Fish says. 

The last few years have been challenging for the whole community. The pandemic, natural disasters and the events unfolding now mean many people are feeling fatigued. It is not just our staff here at the ATO but also everyone we interact with. Businesses have been impacted, people and their families facing or have gone through difficult times, and the tax and legal professions have also faced significant and unique challenges [in recent times].

During times of change, especially when the workload and pressure to deliver is heightened, Fish says leaders have an important role to play in ensuring public servants are supported to respond in the best way. Having the right skills and resources are essential to meeting challenges head-on but culture is also a crucial ingredient for success, she adds. 

“Part of this is embracing flexibility and empowering others. It’s also about making sure you and your team are keeping up to date with the skills and tools you need to be able to take on new priorities as they emerge,” Fish says.

“Most importantly, you need to continue to build and support a positive team culture around a mindset of agility or flexibility and acceptance of, and readiness for, change. 

“Personally, I try and do this by embracing, pursuing and taking up opportunities as they arise, really thinking about how I can contribute even more or something different by taking on a new challenge and also really thinking about how I want to grow in the process,” she says. 

An important part of the law design and practice group’s remit at the tax office is to maintain a professional and productive working relationship with the Inspector-General of Taxation and Taxation Ombud and with the Board of Tax.

Fish is regularly briefed by her team on emerging legal developments in the courts and key dispute resolution matters. The team also keeps across new public advice and guidance products, as well as working with Treasury on law design and policy projects. 

“[Doing] this positions me to lead the development of the law and influence other participants in the tax system,” Fish says. 

“Staying on top of current issues is [also] a key part of my role. Each day we keep an eye on the media issues of the day, this is a key source of information about community expectations and needs and informs our service delivery or responses.”

The idea that the whole team is only as strong as its individual parts is one that the ATO’s executive takes to heart. A good team is best placed to succeed – either by program delivery, policy design, or stakeholder engagement – when it knows its leaders will have their back, Fish says. 

“As second commissioner I, alongside of the other members of the ATO executive team, also have a key role to play in the leading the whole of the ATO which means I also need to stay on top of issues that are impacting the broader ATO and the APS. 

“I can only do this well when I have a good team around me and that is what I have both with the ATO executive and with the staff here at the ATO and in the other agencies we work with.”

So what exactly does the second commissioner love so much about her career in the public service? Fish says it is the opportunity to be constantly learning, working with talented colleagues, and sponsoring and championing the amazing work of others.

“I have the privilege of being in a position to shape our tax system, to influence the development of the law and administration, in order to support future generations of Australians. And in doing so I have the benefit and joy of working with incredibly intelligent, talented and dedicated leaders and public servants, each of them here to do something that is in the best interest of our country.”


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