How COVID accelerated the uptake of technology for the benefit of Victoria’s child protection bureaucrats

By Melissa Coade

March 24, 2022

Most public servants spent years playing around the edges with technology. (Adobe/Jason Bennee)

According to a leader of Victoria’s Department of Families, Fairness and Housing (DFFH), most public servants spent years playing around the edges with technology until working from home arrangements imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic made the full benefits of hybrid work apparent. 

It may be trite to say, but it was certainly true for Anne Congleton, the DFFH north division deputy secretary: those who have spent decades working in the public service may have never realised the full potential of digital solutions to achieve work-life balance, until the pandemic. 

Speaking at a panel event hosted by IPAA Victoria and PwC this week, Congleton said the way digital platforms have been able to help her manage her work and time has been invaluable. It was never something she realised could be possible, with so much emphasis before the times of COVID-19 on more rudimentary tech offerings (such as email management) that hardly made a dent in her time management.

“I have really adopted technology much more so than I did before,” Congleton said, noting she had never previously cooked so many homemade dinners. 

“On the home front, it’s enabled me to get a greater mix in the time I spend at home, online, but also then to take advantage of flexible work, to be able to do some things for me. 

“I think with the stresses and strains for all of us, the chance to say, ‘I’ve got a bit of a break here, I’m going to do some walking’.”

The services DFFH provide to the community did not come to a grinding halt during the pandemic — and in Victoria, where the experience of public health lockdowns and other restrictions were more frequent than in other parts of the country, the way child-protection services were able to maintain the level and quality of service provision was critical. Congleton said communication was maintained with tech-savvy young people digitally, and contact visits shifted to take place in the department’s own offices.

“We really needed to do that and enable those visits to occur [or] in people’s homes where they were comfortable. That was one piece,” Congleton said, explaining that some operational flexibility the department has shown during the course of the pandemic will stay because the community it serves wants more of the same.

“The other piece around how we engaged it was pretty incredible with engaging the communities in the Yarra Estates via digital means. We have continued with that, but also make sure that we connect and also how we can have that physical presence again and support people on the ground. They are some real key things that we want to hold on to because that’s what our communities want and that’s what our staff want,” she said. 

In service-delivery terms, Congleton observed that while the blend of digital and face-to-face offerings should be preserved — there were really critical aspects of connection and understanding among clients and colleagues that should occur in person.

“Obviously, in terms of child-protection staff, it was important they were able to go out to look and to see what risks were happening for children, young people and their families.

“More broadly, I think about the way we connect with people, the incidental contact that really helps to build and further those relationships, are really important,” Congleton said.

“[For staff in the office], the standing, the walking around the floor, to say ‘G’day’ to check in with people, that’s the incidental contact that has been lost. So I think to build that sense of team is a real ingredient for the [value of] face-to-face [work],” she said.


Focusing on the ‘fundamental shift’: What is Victoria’s future of work plan for the public sector?

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