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‘One APS has been hollow in the past. This time we said…I’m ok for now, but I’ve got 200 people that could really assist you…’

- Amanda Cattermole, the then Chief Operating Officer, Services Australia[36]

The APS has increased collaboration across and outside the public sector to tackle the multi-sector COVID-19 pandemic challenges. In working as a single enterprise the APS has facilitated rapid decision‑making, worked across traditional boundaries, and aligned effort to deliver essential services to the public.

Clarity of purpose

Crisis, by its nature, focuses attention. When people work together with a common aim, complex challenges are better overcome.[37] This past year, a clarity of purpose has helped dissolve silos and change behavioural norms as the APS worked to solve the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

APS priorities simplified to delivering the Government’s crisis support package, and protecting the health and wellbeing of its employees.

‘Amazing what clarity of purpose does—there was no heat in any of this—very matter of fact…everyone was highly collaborative.’

- Charles Wann, A/g Chief Operating Officer, Department of Health[38]

Leaders took action to reprioritise their work and this increased clarity of purpose was felt across all APS levels. Compared to 2019, larger proportions of APS employees were able to identify a clear connection between their job and their agency’s purpose (Figure 1.3).

Figure 1.3: Proportion of APS employees who can identify a clear connection between their job and their agency’s purpose

Source: 2019 APS employee census and 2020 internal APS agency employee surveys (both for the same 12 APS agencies, N=23,000)

Collaboration offers the APS ways to design better solutions, provide stronger policy advice, and deliver better services. Working across portfolio boundaries brings diverse perspectives, multi-disciplinary approaches and system-wide solutions to complex challenges.[39] Further, partnering with other jurisdictions, business leaders and the community has the potential to leverage unique strengths and deliver high quality results for Australians.

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic required governments, agencies and businesses to work together towards shared goals. Governments collaborated together and with the business sector in new ways.

In March 2020, the new National Cabinet was established to better coordinate the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, resetting inter-jurisdictional coordination.

Within the APS, system-wide collaboration supported government to solve complex cross-portfolio problems. The National Coordination Mechanism (NCM) was established on 5 March 2020 to complement existing capabilities and engagement across the Commonwealth.

Its primary focus was to coordinate and facilitate nationally consistent approaches to non-health sector planning and response, consistent with medical advice. Sector-specific consultation in areas of education, supply chains, resources, banking and finance, and vulnerable persons has occurred with non-government organisations and the private sector. As at 22 October 2020, the NCM has coordinated 143 meetings across over 25 sectors.[40]

‘So the good old issue of toilet paper on the shelves was one of the first things that the National Coordination Mechanism worked on. They worked with industry, they worked through supply chains, we had staff who had worked in many different areas, but I don’t think in their entire career they thought they’d be worrying about the supply chain of toilet paper to a Woolworths, Coles or an IGA.’ – Cheryl-anne Moy, Chief Operating Officer, Department of Home Affairs[41]

On 25 March the Prime Minister established the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission to coordinate advice to the Australian Government on actions to anticipate and mitigate the economic and social effects of the pandemic. The Commission was restructured as the National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board (NCAB) on 27 July, reflecting its strategic advisory role in providing a business perspective on Australia’s economic recovery. Based in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Board works with the National Coordination Mechanism, and the Coronavirus Business Liaison Unit in the Treasury.

'We are providing our advice in real time as the response to the pandemic evolves, and working closely with departments, especially the taskforces in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and Treasury…Our role is to maximise the wealth of business experience on our board and provide the breadth of this advice to Government.’ – Neville Power, NCAB Chair[42]

APS officials have also collaborated closely with other countries to manage travel restrictions, help thousands of Australians return home, keep global supply chains open, and re-shape Australia’s international development assistance program to respond to COVID-19.[43] The APS has been sharing lessons with international counterparts across the globe and through fora such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Enterprise coordination

The COO Committee is a sub-committee of the Secretaries Board and includes the Chief Operating Officers from all departments and major agencies. The Committee was established in February 2020 as an outcome of the Independent Review of the APS, with 2 primary roles:

  • managing whole-of-government operational and implementation matters
  • driving delivery of agreed initiatives under the Government’s APS reform agenda, in line with the direction set by the Secretaries Board.

Soon after its establishment the Committee was required to scale up its operations rapidly, and turn its focus to COVID-19. The Committee focused its efforts on the APS workforce, including how the workforce could work together to deliver what was needed to the Australian people, while also ensuring the health and safety of APS employees.

The whole-of-APS nature of the COVID-19 response did not override the workforce management responsibilities of Secretaries and Agency Heads. However, whole-of-workforce issues that emerged through the COVID-19 response were raised and discussed at COO Committee meetings, in close consultation with the Australian Public Service Commission and the Department of Health.

Throughout the pandemic the COO Committee considered a number of APS workforce issues including:

  • APS-wide domestic travel advice
  • arrangements for casual employees who were forced to isolate
  • the impact of unplanned and planned school closures on working arrangements
  • health and safety protocols for APS workplaces.

The COO Committee established working groups to consider emerging issues, including lessons learned from the pandemic response.

It provided an avenue for a consistent understanding of issues and application of workforce measures across the APS. Members were responsible for sharing relevant information and decisions across their portfolio agencies. This allowed rapid dissemination of key messages and information across the APS workforce.

‘[What] we’ve proven to ourselves, secretaries and broader APS is that we can come up with collective decisions that we then all support and adopt across our organisations, in a way that we haven’t achieved as effectively in the past...’ – Katherine Jones, Chair of COO Committee and Associate Secretary, Department of Defence[44]

Case study: National Coordination Mechanism—Centralised engagement on support measures to national crises

The necessary restrictions on Australian businesses and society in order to limit the spread of COVID-19 resulted in non-health consequences that required unprecedented levels of cross-sector, cross-agency and cross-government cooperation.

The speed with which complex and significant issues emerged necessitated swift policy and operational decisions from all levels of government. The NCM supported decision-making by providing a centralised administrative and secretariat support function to connect subject matter experts across jurisdictions to respond directly to emerging and existing issues.

The NCM sector-based meeting model identified and escalated significant non-health priorities including protecting supply chains for critical infrastructure and the movement of freight in the national interest; protecting access to essential services for vulnerable Australians; supporting programs to effectively manage returning Australians; and the manufacture of, and access to, personal protective equipment.

During Victoria’s second wave, the NCM rapidly brought together First Ministers’ Department representatives with key Commonwealth stakeholders to enable jurisdictional information sharing; to support the establishment of the Victorian Aged Care Response Centre; and to ensure that changes to border controls with neighbouring states would not prevent the movement of critical goods and services.

From the 2020-21 financial year, the NCM has been embedded permanently within the Department of Home Affairs. It is an ‘all hazards’ coordination function supporting Emergency Management Australia to enhance Australia’s ability to respond to national crises and critical disruptions.

Learning through change: Robust crisis architecture

At an enterprise level, senior governance bodies adjusted meeting cadence and focus to support APS-wide crisis operations. Disciplined communication flows and information sharing had a practical impact across the APS and into portfolio bodies.

Within departments, established governance mechanisms were adapted to expedite decision-making. There are lessons around how, in business-as-usual settings, making decisions can be done more efficiently with appropriate due diligence.

There are also lessons in when and how to engage existing forums, and how to understand strategic issues quickly. This may include how to dedicate resources to address emerging longer-term risks while dealing with crisis. In DFAT, for example, evaluation teams are embedded within crisis management bodies to support their ongoing effectiveness.

Right-size governance

Agile, ‘right-size’ governance enhanced coordination and consistency in workforce management across the APS, and enabled rapid, risk-based decision-making and collaborative problem solving.

This was critical for effective crisis response. It allowed enterprise-wide identification of key issues, coordinated communication, and accelerated ICT uplift.

Empower teams

Leaders that explicitly and deliberately empowered their staff surfaced relevant skills and expertise more readily to make fast and informed crisis-management decisions. Empowering people also fostered innovation to deliver new products and deeper insights to support Government decision-making.

Integrated scenario planning

Many agency-level business continuity plans were adapted in-flight to account for the complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic. Crisis brings uncertainty and not all possibilities can be planned for, however there is an opportunity to evolve the tools, mechanisms and behaviours employed during recent events. This can be achieved through APS-wide scenario exercises, and by developing the leadership behaviours that enable effective management of cross-cutting issues.

[36] Commonwealth of Australia. (2019). Our Public Service, Our Future. Independent Review of the Australian Public Service

[37] Department of Home Affairs. (2020). National Coordination Mechanism

[38] Cheryl-anne Moy, Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer at the Department of Home Affairs. (2020). IPAA Work with Purpose Podcast Episode #6. 12 May.

[39] Neville Power. (2020). Statement by the Chair to the Senate Select Committee, COVID-19. 4 June.

[40] Senate Select Committee on COVID-19. (2020). Whole-of-Government Submission. 12 May.

[41] COO interview [unpublished]

[42] COO interview [unpublished]

[43] OECD Public Governance Reviews. (2017). Skills for a High Performing Civil Service  

[44] COO interview [unpublished]