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The changing boundaries of border protection

Edition: 6

The Australian Border Force (ABF) is another government agency that’s been hugely impacted by change due to COVID-19. As international travel remains severely limited (with Sydney airport seeing a drop from 30,000 passengers per day to a few hundred), the task of managing Australia’s borders has changed significantly.

‘The impact of COVID-19 and the government response has been unprecedented,’ said Justine Saunders, head of Operations at the ABF. ‘It’s thrown up a raft of challenges for us.’

But if there’s anyone capable of guiding a large agency through operational challenges, it’s Justine. With a career in public service spanning more than 30 years, Justine has worked in roles across operations, governance, strategic policy, media and government relations. She’s particularly passionate about the role HR policies and strategies can play in supporting people and the delivery of high-quality services.

Justine currently serves as the ABF’s Deputy Commissioner of Operations, which means she’s responsible for high-level strategic direction across all border operations activities. This means her role can include anything from the management of travellers, goods and cargo through to maritime and enforcement operations.

The duties of the job speak to Justine’s core values that have motivated her throughout her career. Having spent the majority of her professional life with the Australian Federal Police (AFP), she moved to ABF when she saw that it ‘aligned with my values and mission to actively contribute to keeping Australia safe.’

And while ABF’s operations might have changed significantly in response to COVID-19, it seems that emphasis on keeping Australians safe is still at the forefront. As Justine put it: ‘The ABF’s role in protecting Australia’s borders and facilitating travel and trade has remained – but it looks starkly different.’

Australia’s borders have been a key battleground in the fight against the virus, and Justine described how the ABF has had to ‘support the development and implementation of a range of related government border measures, such as incoming and outgoing travel bans, cruise ship bans and additional cargo screening of exports.’ Sometimes these important protective measures include compliance activities, like ‘enforcement aimed at ensuring personal protective equipment (PPE) stocks are not exported when they are required here.’

Beyond actually protecting against the virus itself, the complicated and far-reaching impacts of the pandemic have also resulted in new responsibilities for the ABF. For example, Justine pointed to the ABF’s role ‘overseeing an exemption regime for foreign nationals with critical skills or compassionate reasons to travel’, as well as ‘coordinating with Commonwealth and state partners to facilitate the return of Australian nationals’.

These new responsibilities have meant the team at the ABF have had to adapt to changing priorities and transform their approach – and fast.

‘We are constantly required to implement policy quickly,’ said Justine. ‘In the case of COVID-19, we were required to close the border to foreign nationals within 24 hours, and introduced an exemption regime overnight.’ The rapid acceleration of the situation meant the ABF had to ‘pivot to new issues’ while balancing that with their ongoing responsibilities: ‘Our workforce has had to respond to multiple threats and risks with immediacy, while maintaining a regular operating posture in key operational areas,’ said Justine.

Added to the challenge is the need to protect staff – not an easy task, Justine explained, when a large proportion of your workforce need to be on the front line. While she listed physical distancing and work from home as two of the ways many workplaces are protecting the wellbeing of staff, she added the caveat that it’s very challenging, and in some cases impossible, for the frontline, essential staff at the ABF. This has meant they’ve needed to implement additional measures such as adaptation of the workplace (implementing equipment such as sneeze screens) and early adoption of PPE, supported by regular communications and training.

There’s no doubt the task Justine and her team have been faced with is a difficult one. But the diverse and evolving nature of the ABF’s regular operations has meant that the agency is well positioned to cope with fast-moving and complex policy changes. As Justine put it: ‘From an HR perspective there are unique challenges when supporting a law enforcement organisation… our officers work in different and often dangerous environments.’ Justine further described how the need to be flexible and adaptable means that ‘maintaining operational continuity – ensuring the work gets done in varying and sometimes difficult circumstances – is a long-standing challenge in operational agencies such as the ABF.’

So how do they address that challenge? Justine’s advice is to be strategic and stay focused on outcomes. ‘To deliver on our goals and vision we cannot lose sight of the strategic intent,’ she emphasised. ‘The underpinning principle of HR must be providing an environment in which the workforce is best positioned to deliver outcomes.

‘If it doesn’t add value and directly support the workforce, then is it fit for purpose?’

What this looks like on the ground is putting our people first and building HR solutions around their needs. ‘When people feel listened to, they are more empowered to work with you to find innovative, customised solutions,’ Justine explained. ‘Our people know our business better than anyone – they have the answers if given a voice.’ That’s why for her, ‘taking our people along the journey is key’.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that when asked about what lessons can be taken from COVID-19, Justine was quick to shout out to ABF staff: ‘Our people have truly shone during this period.’ She highlighted as a key take-away understanding the importance of adaptability and the need to continue building a workforce that is adaptive to change, to different work environments and activities. She pointed out the limitations of traditional approaches in difficult situations like these, and commented that policy cannot cover all eventualities. ‘We have had to adapt to unprecedented conditions and circumstances.’

That need to adapt has become familiar to all of us across the APS, so it’s encouraging to hear how the ABF has tackled the challenge and played a crucial role in Australia’s COVID-19 response. It’s a testament to the power of HR professionals to position our agencies to make a real difference.

Last reviewed: 
17 November 2020