Public sector boss says COVID vaccine decision keeps her up at night

By Melissa Coade

April 28, 2022

Deidre Mulkerin, second from right
Deidre Mulkerin, second from right. (Joseph Byford /The Mandarin)

The head of Queensland’s Department of Children, Youth Justice and Multicultural Affairs has spoken about how a decision to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine across her workforce was one of the most challenging issues she has had to contend with in her career.

Deidre Mulkerin told a room of more than 800 public sector conference-goers at Brisbane’s BiiG Conference on Wednesday that the decision about imposing a vaccine mandate across her workforce has been one of the most consequential calls she has ever made. But the choice she had to make as a public sector boss during a once-in-100-year pandemic meant leaning into a skill all bureaucrats need to get comfortable doing in the course of their ordinary work.

“Many of us have made decisions about mandating vaccines for our workforce. If it has been by far the most difficult, terrifying decision that I’ve had to make,” Mulkerin said.

“I’ve spent my whole life working in child protection – justice is a very difficult endeavour, and human services [means] making life-changing decisions for children and families. But the weight of the decision [of] mandating vaccines for my colleagues, which meant that some people have lost their jobs – and particularly some First Nations colleagues, who were very fearful of having the vaccine – I had to make a decision about what was the greater good,” she said.

In Queensland, vaccine mandates apply in youth detention facilities and visitors over 16 years must show proof of vaccination or a medical exemption. For eligible children in care over the age of five, the department has also made every effort to ensure they can be vaccinated where possible

Last November the premier announced all public sector employees working in education, early childhood, corrections, youth justice and airport settings must get their COVID-19 vaccine if they wanted to continue with their jobs. Those working in high-risk government settings were expected to be fully vaccinated by the end of January 2022.

“The only way to prevent deaths and protect Queenslanders from new variants of COVID-19 is to ramp up our vaccination rollout,” Annastacia Palaszczuk said.

“These measures are about protecting our most vulnerable. To keep our children safe, we must ensure our teachers and frontline education workers are vaccinated.”

The top Queensland bureaucrat made her remarks as part of a senior leaders’ panel, which considered the theme of ‘people, practice, innovation and performance’. Reflecting on what it meant to be innovative in the public sector context, the department director-general said service delivery in a complex environment necessarily meant making decisions without having all the answers.

“It’s okay to be scared, it’s okay not to know the answers, and it’s okay not to know where [the decision will] go,” she added.

“Did I lose sleep about [the decision]? Absolutely. Do I hope that was the right decision? I sure do. Do I worry about the impact on that every day? Absolutely.”

In Mulkerin’s view, the current operating environment for service delivery where public health risks remain but COVID settings are gradually easing, decisions such as workforce vaccine mandates are a hallmark of what she said was a time of transition. 

“[This period] is about innovation, creativity, and stepping into the decisions that are really difficult, within the public purpose, and good of the public – holding that true,” she said.

Mulkerin is a recognised public sector leader and an inaugural graduate of the NSW Public Service Commission’s leadership academy. She has held a number of senior executive roles responsible for statutory child protection, juvenile justice, housing, homelessness, and domestic and family violence prevention. She is also a former deputy secretary, commissioning, for NSW Family and Community Services. 

Commenting on what transforming public services means to her, Mulkerin highlighted four key issues: Fostering open networks and communication; thinking about building more responsive and trustworthy systems; strengthening the discipline of public administration; and focusing on the values of leadership.

“I think the values lead leadership, and how we actually make all of that implementation and delivery work has to be underpinned by trust, integrity, kindness, and compassion,” she said.


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