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‘…you've got very good public servants who are competent, multi-skilled who can then be diverted on to other challenges.’

– Michael Pezzullo AO, Secretary, Department of Home Affairs[51]

Increased levels of mobility across APS agencies, and into other jurisdictions and sectors, has the capacity to build capability, diversify perspectives, and strengthen the work of the APS.[52]

The APS mobilised capability at record levels for the COVID-19 pandemic response.[53]

On 26 March 2020, the Prime Minister directed agencies to identify employees who could temporarily assist other APS agencies, state and territory government agencies, and community organisations.[54] The Australian Public Service Commissioner established the Workforce Management Taskforce to manage the movement of APS employees across all agencies. Agencies advised the Taskforce of their critical functions and identified employees who could postpone their work to move to critical functions.

The APS estimated that 87% of employees were occupied with delivering critical services to the Australian public and supporting Government. The remainder of employees were available to support surges in demand where required across the APS. 

Within weeks, agencies identified 5,350 employees who could be deployed to frontline agencies on a temporary basis.[55] By mid‑May, more than 8,900 employees were redeployed within their own agencies, and more than 2,000 into other agencies.[56] By early September, more than 2,300 APS employees had moved to other APS agencies temporarily.

Meeting the demand

The 2020 APS Agency Survey found:

  • 22 agencies reported that more than half of their employees were directly supporting the COVID-19 response, including central agencies and those leading service delivery.[57]
  • 31 agencies had between 10% and 50% of employees directly supporting the COVID-19 response.
  • 42 agencies had fewer than 10% of employees directly supporting the COVID-19 response. Many agencies in this group, like the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, continued essential functions of government.

Most employees mobilised through the Workforce Management Taskforce assisted Services Australia (2,165), with others moving across the service to assist with COVID-19 response work. Other agencies, such as the Treasury, took a portfolio approach, moving employees within their portfolio to leverage specialist skillsets. Seventy-seven Victorian-based APS employees were deployed to support the Victorian public sector.

Most employees assisting Services Australia were deployed to a call or processing centre, and most of these employees (80%) had no prior experience in these roles.[58] This cohort began telephoning Australian citizens directly, entering new customers into unfamiliar systems, responding to enquiries, and processing applications. Many in the community had never received income support payments before and were navigating these systems for the first time. This presented a steep learning curve for people on both sides of the transaction.

The surge experience

‘We need to look at ways in which we can put service delivery into people's careers because it does connect policy creation with implementation. It gives us all an understanding of what citizens really need from the services that we provide.’

- Rebecca Skinner, CEO, Services Australia[59]

The benefits of mobility go beyond meeting increased demand.

Employees take what they have learned back to their home agencies. New skills, expanded networks, and an acute understanding of how APS work directly impacts the public is able to be applied to their usual work.

Of the surge workforce, most survey respondents took the opportunity in order to help serve Australians (59%). Most respondents identified one or more positive elements from their experience (65%), with the most common being the opportunity to help serve Australian citizens (84%), to try different work (70%), broaden professional networks (65%) and learn new skills (61%) (Figure 1.5).  Around two-thirds would volunteer again for a temporary assignment in another agency to support critical government functions (64%).[60]

Figure 1.5: What were the positives of the temporary mobility opportunity?

View the text alternative for figure 1.5

Source: APS surge workforce survey results[61]

Case study: Supporting the community through mobility

‘I am proud of the work we have been doing in Services Australia and just knowing that we are helping Australians in need is keeping me energised.’ – Sebastian Ward

Many 2020 APS graduate employees were mere weeks into their new jobs when COVID-19 forced APS-wide changes.

Madeleine Antrum and Connor Deegan moved from the National Indigenous Australians Agency to Services Australia to help Australians in need by processing JobSeeker claims. While initially uncertain about redeployment, it was a positive experience for both.

‘It’s a rare opportunity to see how different departments and agencies work, and to contribute to the COVID-19 response’, Madeleine said. For Connor, speaking directly with customers and putting a voice to a claim has been valuable, ‘You can tell the person really needs the money, is keen to get it and we are able to help get it to them.’

Holly White, a Department of Defence graduate, was also deployed to Services Australia. ‘It has given me an incredible opportunity to experience first-hand how APS staff directly support the Australian community,’ said Holly.

See also: Tay Zastrow, talks about her redeployment to Services Australia, YouTube.

Breaking down barriers

Before the pandemic, mobility in the APS was predominantly internal, with 2% of the workforce moving between Commonwealth agencies and less than 1% from their home agency to a non‑Commonwealth organisation. Data as at 30 June 2019 shows most (70.1%) ongoing employees had only ever been employed in one agency.[62]

In 2019, more than half of APS employees (56%) indicated they would consider a mobility opportunity if one was available. Of the 29% who identified barriers to seeking a mobility opportunity, the most common included a lack of opportunities due to geographical location (34%), opportunities not being effectively communicated (32%) or employees not knowing how to find out about them (21%), and workplaces having difficulty justifying release (19%) or replacing skills (17%).[63]

Clear prioritisation through the crisis helped reduce the impact of barriers such as justifying release and replacing skills to enable the movement of employees.

In the 2020 APS Agency Survey, just under half of agencies reported no challenges in identifying the capability and roles of employees who could be deployed (44%). However, rapid mobilisation called on new information, systems and introduced new challenges.

Many were addressed through the work of the Workforce Management Taskforce and COO Committee as the surge workforce was identified and mobilised. The challenges most common among agencies were meeting their own essential and critical functions (23%), a lack of centralised data on employees’ skills and job roles (17%), employee availability or willingness (9%).

Figure 1.6: Challenges for agencies in identifying the capability and roles of employees for deployment for the COVID-19 surge response

View the text alternative for figure 1.6

Source: 2020 Agency Survey[64]

Case study: Casual employees at Questacon

One focus of APS mobility during COVID-19 has been to facilitate continued employment for casual APS employees where possible. Some casual employees were reassigned to other roles within their existing agencies, while others were mobilised to critical functions within other agencies.

Questacon employees Annabelle Fife and Gabrielle Magyary were mobilised to Services Australia:

‘What I have enjoyed about redeployment is the fact I am given the opportunity to help those in need in such an unprecedented and difficult time.’ - Annabelle Fife

‘I’ve really enjoyed redeployment, it’s been clear how important the work I’m doing is beneficial to the community during this time of crisis.’ – Gabrielle Magyary

Questacon closed its doors to the public during the pandemic, and redeployed 35 casual team members to Services Australia to support the COVID-19 response.

Questacon’s team was able to apply their skills such as explaining exhibits, performing live science shows and managing the centre’s information desk, to their new support roles at Services Australia. For some, it was an opportunity to develop skills in managing complicated situations, and to broaden their networks to progress their careers.

The mobility process provided casual employees the opportunity to support the COVID-19 response, and to gain a better understanding of whole-of-government priorities. It also reduced the economic impact of COVID-19 restrictions on casual APS employees.

Learning through change: Mobilising to need

Activating large-scale mobility with little lead time is challenging, however, overall the surge experience during the COVID-19 pandemic was positive: meeting service demand for Australians in need, and creating a long-term effect of service delivery experience being taken back into policy development and other roles.

It has emphasised the value of whole-of-APS mobility and has informed how to better prepare for future surge efforts. In a survey of COVID-19 surge employees, clear communication of processes and working arrangements, and improved training and inductions were identified as areas for greater focus.

Lessons will be drawn on to support the planned permanent APS Surge Reserve.

APS volunteers

The pandemic put unexpected pressures on the APS, with demand concentrated more heavily on some agencies. By taking a whole-of-service approach, the APS was able to respond more effectively than if the response was handled by just one or two agencies.

To ensure the same resilience regardless of the crisis faced, the APS Surge Reserve will draw on APS volunteers from across the service and in every state and territory. This will maximise APS readiness for future crises.

Preparing for deployment

During the pandemic, the administration required to identify employees for release threatened to slow the response during a time requiring rapid action. Further, COVID-19 health considerations meant that some employees thought to be available, were not.

The APS Surge Reserve membership will be kept up-to-date to ensure the APS is ready and available when a call‑out occurs.

Maintaining momentum

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a live pilot of the governance, cultural shifts and logistical mechanisms required to identify and allocate APS capability and capacity as circumstances demand.

National Framework for Public Sector Mobility

Recognising the ongoing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and the significant benefits of a mobile workforce, Commonwealth, state and territory Public Service Commissioners endorsed the National Framework for Public Sector Mobility on 30 July 2020.

The Framework facilitates rapid movement of employees between public sector jurisdictions. It enables the public sector across Australia to respond to current and future challenges, and ensures that critical services can be delivered to the community, when it needs them most.

It will help agencies across jurisdictions broach barriers to mobility and to support their employees on the move, ensuring clear communication between all parties and logistical support. The Framework will be reviewed in early 2021 to determine the practicality of its use to mobilise employees in response to any crisis situation, or to increase mobility between jurisdictions.

APS Surge Reserve

The APS recognises the ongoing importance of being able to mobilise in response to a crisis. The positive impact of mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic response has led to the development of a permanent APS Surge Reserve. The APS Surge Reserve will provide the Government with the capacity to rapidly mobilise APS volunteers in large numbers. Surge Reservists will deploy for short periods (initial terms of up to 8 weeks) to help APS colleagues.

Surge Reservists will be drawn from public servants from across the Commonwealth willing to set aside their day-to-day work in a crisis. The work they do will differ based on the reason for the call-out.

The Reserve will be supported by a Surge Reserve Coordinator function in the Australian Public Service Commission. The Coordinator function will work with agencies to develop training and skills development, work through deployment arrangements, and prepare the Surge Reserve to respond to future crises.

The Surge Reserve adds to, rather than replaces, other arrangements such as internal surge pools, profession-specific arrangements, and temporary registers.

[51] Michael Pezzullo AO. In Shannon Jenkins. (2020). The world wins at that struggle’: Mike Pezzullo on embracing uncertainty

[52] Commonwealth of Australia. (2019). Independent Review of the Australian Public Service

[53] Mobility is the temporary movement of capability (skills and experiences, as represented by people) within and between APS agencies, other jurisdictions, and the private and not-for-profit sectors. Mobility can happen through the initiative of an agency or an individual.

[54] Prime Minister. (2020). Prime Minister’s direction under subsection 21(1) – 2020 (No. 1)

[55] PM&C. (2020). Whole-of-government submission to the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19.

[56] Workforce Management Taskforce data

[57] Representing 59% of workforce

[58] APS surge workforce survey results as at 14 September 2020

[59] Rebecca Skinner, CEO, Services Australia. (2020). IPAA Work with Purpose Podcast Episode #15. 13 July.

[60] APS surge workforce survey results as at 14 September 2020

[61] Note: As employees could select multiple options, percentages do not sum to 100%.

[62] APSED

[63] 2019 APS employee census

[64] Note: As agencies could provide multiple responses, percentages do not sum to 100%.