‘The thing that's been really different this year is how long it's been busy for and how long we've had to adapt to the circumstances…The pandemic is just a constant sort of uncertainty and unknown scenarios if you like.’

– Dr Steven Kennedy PSM, Secretary of The Treasury[45]

The COVID-19 pandemic has required the APS to adapt rapidly and at scale. Some areas were scaled up, some work was temporarily paused, and people were moved to focus on new priorities.

Almost every agency stood up crisis management teams or COVID-19 specific taskforces to manage both their response and execute their portfolio responsibilities. Many agencies also stood up internal taskforces to manage workforce impacts.

Many agencies reorganised internal structures and employees around emerging priorities. For example, the Department of Health re-tasked nearly every area of the department and the ATO moved more than 3,500 employees internally.[46]

With new priorities, many agencies reshaped teams and structures to support critical work.

Supporting businesses and individuals

Developed in the second half of March 2020, JobKeeper Payment will be the largest labour market and fiscal stimulus program in Australian history. Supporting over 1 million businesses and 3.8 million individuals, JobKeeper provided much needed economic support as well as supporting consumer and business confidence. The JobMaker Hiring Credit was also developed, focusing on workforce participation and reducing the scarring effects of long-term unemployment on younger Australians.

Treasury stood up a new area, bringing together a mix of staff with policy, implementation, data analytics and reporting, and project and risk management skills. Their work continues—to monitor the policy landscape and adjust policy responses as Australia transitions out of the initial COVID-19 response.

‘…we wondered whether our systems would cope, we wondered whether employees and managers would adapt. We wondered whether there were things that just couldn’t be done remotely or wouldn’t work as well as usual, but we made it work. We adapted, and we learned on the fly.’

– Marco Spaccavento, Group Manager, APSC COVID-19 Taskforce[47]

New ways of partnering with industry, small business and other jurisdictions has ensured continuity in critical areas and has been a litmus test for how risk-tolerant relationships built around shared outcomes can deliver results.

See also: Marco Spaccavento speaking at the Australian Public Sector Innovation Show, YouTube.

The APS delivered services to businesses and people in new ways. For example, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs adapted their counselling service to enable clients to access services using teleconferencing technology, where clinically appropriate. The wider uptake of telehealth services was also significant. Data from 13 to 31 March 2020 shows an average of 1,100 telehealth services accessed per day, for just under 1,000 unique clients per day. In April this increased to around 2,500 services for around 2,400 unique clients per day.[48]

Government regulators worked closely with industry to innovate and deliver practical solutions to emerging problems.

Case study: Priority lane for supermarkets during COVID-19

Caption: Brett Lindquist, biosecurity officer at the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, conducting an imported food inspection near Melbourne, Victoria.

Panic-buying at the beginning of the pandemic fuelled perceptions that Australia could run out of food, while unprecedented demand for personal protective equipment and medical supplies led to domestic shortages.

To combat this, the Australian Government, in consultation with industry established the Border Clearance Supermarket Taskforce. The Taskforce considered options to help streamline the border clearance for an expected increase in food and grocery imports into the Australian market. Biosecurity Operations Division within the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment was appointed to lead the engagement with industry on behalf of the Taskforce.

The department developed a priority border clearance pathway arrangement that was agreed through close consultation with the 6 major retail chains. This arrangement ensured the department met its regulatory requirements under the Biosecurity Act 2015 and the Imported Food Control Act 1992 while enabling priority import clearances of essential grocery and medical supplies required through the COVID-19 pandemic.

The arrangement demonstrated the strong relationship between the APS and industry. Industry committed to providing specifically-formatted, advance notification of individual import consignments to support the prioritisation process, while the Department placed dedicated resources to ensure immediate turnaround of document assessment, booking and inspection functions.

To speed up the process without compromising regulatory requirements, the department also trained additional imported food inspection officers, and trialled smart technology for remote visual assessments of labels.

An internal working group was established within the department to manage the arrangements and ensure the processes were working, with support and maintenance functions rapidly stood up.

The Biosecurity Operations Division expedited Imported Food accreditation training for an additional 41 officers; used dedicated email system rules to manage industry import notifications; scheduled internal performance monitoring and reporting mechanisms; enhanced IT workflow systems to improve visibility and management of identified imports; and ensured responsive reporting via enhanced data visualisations.

The division also deployed dedicated employees to manage and prioritise workloads 7 days per week, armed with specific instructional materials to help expedite urgent COVID-19 supplies.

The arrangement succeeded in ensuring the department had the capacity and capability to manage the clearance of critical grocery and medical supplies into Australia. The success of the Department and industry working together demonstrates the benefits of Government-Industry partnerships and is a repeatable model that could be implemented again if the need arises.

Delivering differently

‘…we saw Australians in need. And that meant we had to be able to respond to that. We had to do different things, we had to put in different options…So we worked with Services Australia and the ministers very closely to do innovative approaches, things that were a little bit different to what we had done in the past.’

– Kathryn Campbell AO CSC, Secretary, Department of Social Services[49]

The dual crises of 2019-20 have presented numerous opportunities to challenge the way the APS collectively thinks and responds to problems.

Rapid shifts in societal and working environments, uncertainty, and a need to hypothesise and plan for different scenarios have required the APS to think expansively.

Research undertaken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic suggests public servants are eager to embrace innovation but face blockers around silo mentalities, risk aversion, and training in innovation skills.[50] However, interim data and case studies from 2020 suggest a positive change is underway.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, internal APS agency employee surveys comprising 23,000 responses across 12 agencies point to a workforce feeling more empowered to try new ways of doing things (Figure 1.4). 

Figure 1.4: Proportion of APS employees who feel their agency inspires them to come up with new or better ways of doing things

View the text alternative for Figure 1.4

Source: Analysis of 12 agencies across the 2019 APS employee census and 2020 internal APS agency employee surveys (N=23,000)

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted new approaches to risk as new and heightened risks emerged. These range from risks associated with policy decisions and rapid roll-out of programs, to enterprise risks such as WHS and cyber security. Working across traditional boundaries has enabled officers to come together on common and shared risks to deliver outcomes. This includes formal structures such as the COO Committee and informal networks to test ideas and challenges.

In some cases, risk tolerances were adjusted, leading to more efficient and effective outcomes that should not be lost, for example, the expansion of Telehealth. In other cases, it will be appropriate to return to previous arrangements.

The APS can leverage these experiences to accelerate the shift to a more innovative culture, enabling staff to solve problems through creative, data-driven and participatory methods, and mature risk engagement.

Case study: Innovation supporting stronger cargo biosecurity

Caption: Douglas Manhani, a Price & Speed employee, undertaking a rural tailgate inspection activity at the Price & Speed depot, Sydney.

‘The opportunities are endless with the “Smartglasses” application, and we hope this technology can be utilised in a number of approved arrangement inspections and treatment activities.’ – ANJ representative

Increased volumes of cargo and more complex global pathways puts significant pressure on managing biosecurity risks. To meet this challenge, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment is partnering with industry to create innovative solutions.

In early 2020 the department’s Biosecurity Innovation Branch began trialling RealWare’s hands-free Smartglasses to test whether inspection and audit activities can be conducted remotely via live-stream.

Employees at these facilities wore the device while a biosecurity officer watched the live feed from a remote location, such as a regional office or their home. During the test, the biosecurity officer directs the employee around the facility through an audio function. This live exchange also gives the facility employee the opportunity to manage any urgent biosecurity risk matters that the biosecurity officer could see during the inspection.

Greater uptake in technology like Smartglasses will potentially enable industry and the department to benefit from reductions in inspection-related costs, a stronger understanding of biosecurity risks managed through inspections, and the ability to shift resources to other inspection activities.

‘We believe there is potential to increase quarantine inspection hours by utilising other states' or countries' time zones, which is something the industry has been craving for years.’ – ANJ representative

While the pilot is still in its early stages, industry feedback is positive and the team is now considering how the Smartglasses technology could be applied to other areas of inspections and to the department more broadly.

Industry representatives from Price & Speed and ANJ Container Services participated in the department’s Smartglasses pilot for rural tailgate inspections. Participants have spoken positively about the trial:

 ‘This will prove to be a benchmark future development in delivering a service to the industry that ensures our biosecurity is not compromised without hindering the flow of imported goods.’ – Kevin Malouf, Managing Director, Price & Speed.

Co-designed pilots and partnerships between the APS and industry helps drive innovation and business improvements. These types of innovation pilots will help to improve and modernise Australia’s biosecurity operations into the future.

[45] Dr Steven Kennedy PSM, Secretary of the Department of Treasury. (2020). IPAA Work with Purpose Podcast Episode #23. 21 September.

[46] Internal APS data [unpublished]

[47] Public Sector Network. (2020). Adapting to new ways of working in challenging times. 11 August.

[48] Department of Veterans’ Affairs internal data [unpublished]

[49] Kathryn Campbell AO CSC, Secretary, Department of Social Services. (2020). IPAA Work with Purpose Podcast Episode #4. 28 April.

[50] ANZSOG. (2019). Today’s Problems, Yesterday’s Toolkit