The COVID-19 pandemic, which came into prominence following the bushfires that ravaged Australia’s east coast at the start of 2020, has had significant impacts on the APS.
In response to the pandemic, the Commission established the APS Workforce Management Taskforce (the Taskforce) with a key priority to facilitate the rapid re-deployment of staff from across the APS to support critical Commonwealth functions. In addition, the Taskforce has coordinated information and advice on COVID-19 in the APS, staff mobility across the service to support the response to COVID-19 and remote working.
Following the 26 March 2020 direction from the Prime Minister, the Taskforce’s central focus became facilitating the movement of APS employees to areas of highest need to support Australians during this pandemic.
In April 2020, the Taskforce facilitated the largest mobilisation of staff in working memory with the re-deployment of over 2,000 APS employees from across 15 Commonwealth government portfolios to Services Australia. APS staff have also been deployed to support the National Incident Room at the Department of Health, and the work of the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The Taskforce continues to respond to surge requests across the public sector for assistance.
To support the internal APS response to the pandemic, in mid-March following a decision of the Chief Operating Officers Committee, the Commission established the APSC COVID-19 Taskforce. The COVID-19 Taskforce was made up of 13 staff from the Commission and seconded from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Department of Defence, Department of Finance, and Department of Home Affairs. Intended to act as the single source of truth for APS agencies and employees on the workforce impacts of COVID-19, the taskforce created and disseminated advice on matters such as leave for employees diagnosed with COVID-19 or required to self-isolate, working from home arrangements in response to restrictions, and options for employees no longer able to perform their regular work (for instance, because their workplaces were closed). Between March and June 2020 the APSC COVID-19 Taskforce published 42 guidance products for APS entities and staff, responded to agency inquiries and disseminated a range of other information.
Response within the Commission
Internally, the Commission responded swiftly to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. From mid-March the Commission had identified critical areas of work as well as resources that could be redirected to support the APS wide response. The Commission redirected almost 30% of the workforce to support the APS COVID-19 response – to Services Australia, Department of Health and to the APS Workforce Management Taskforce.
Staff were supported to work flexibly and the Commission provided regular communication to ensure continued business operations. The efficient transition to wide-spread working from home arrangements was supported by the technology solutions provided to staff, and continued productivity was enabled by the protected network provided by PM&C.
The Commission prioritised staff wellbeing, engagement and productivity; through an internal communication response ensuring all staff were provided with clear information and advice. This included the creation of a dedicated COVID-19 intranet page and the establishment of virtual engagement techniques to ensure Commission staff remained engaged and productive during this challenging time.
In anticipation of the incremental lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, in May the Commission commenced preparation to transition its workforce back into the workplace. The Commission continued to prioritise the safety and wellbeing of all staff as well as productivity. The Commission’s Transition Back to Usual Place of Work and COVIDSafe Workplace Action Plan were collaboratively developed, drawing on advice from Department of Health, Safe Work Australia, Comcare, and State and Territory Authorities. The plans endorsed by the Executive Board in June 2020, and the formal return to the workplace commenced the same month. Noting that the Canberra tenancy had remained operational, by early July 2020, 94% of staff had returned to working from the office on either a full-time or part-time basis.
The Transition Back to the Workplace Plan included four phases: Plan, Implement, Monitor and Stabilise. We are now in the Stabilise phase.
The coronavirus challenges and impacts continue to be unpredictable and as such our response and actions require regular iteration, as such these plans continue to be monitored and refreshed.