Before COVID-19, the department had refined its business continuity planning to ensure essential business functions in the event of a major disruption. We prioritised consular and passport services to ensure ongoing support to Australians. This positioned us strongly as COVID-19 disrupted every aspect of our business operations in different ways and at different times.
Enterprise business continuity
The department activated its Enterprise Pandemic Plan on 18 March, with three priorities driving business continuity across the network:
Ensuring the welfare of staff, including measures to manage the risks of COVID-19 infection, and of psychosocial injury resulting from prolonged, high-tempo operations.
Continuing services for Australians, including meeting the increased level of consular demand.
Supporting the whole-of-government response to the pandemic, including:
supporting regional and global partners in managing the pandemic
working to keep supply chains open and supporting Australian businesses
providing government assessments of management of the pandemic across the world and the potential security, trade and economic implications for Australia.
We redirected resources and changed structures to ensure operational agility. We redeployed staff internally to focus on immediate priorities and deployed 326 staff and contractors to contribute to the whole-of-government COVID-19 response, and to help the Australian public.
Our Enterprise Pandemic Plan supported effective decision-making through the department’s governance structure, with a live COVID-19 Management Enterprise Risk Register monitoring business continuity measures. We continued to revise our plan in response to changing circumstances in Australia and internationally.
We conducted real-time evaluations and embedded lessons learnt in annual business performance assessment processes, assisted by innovative data visualisation tools delivered by a dedicated COVID-19 Data Analytics Unit.
Business continuity in the overseas network
Business continuity for posts is managed through crisis action plans. Plans were updated in early 2020 to include a COVID-19 annex. All posts activated their plans in March.
All Australian posts remained operational to deliver essential services. Post-by-post decisions on physical access and face-to-face services were based on risk assessments for staff and visitors. In some cases, dedicated teams in Australia provided additional support, including surge support for telephone switchboards, consular services and administration. Posts also used remote work arrangements and virtual communication channels to support continuity of operations.
Almost 300 departmental staff and 800 dependants temporarily returned from posts to manage medical, welfare and safety risks, although more than 70 per cent of our overseas staff remained at post to deliver essential services. Rotation plans provided staff respite and mitigated work health and safety risks. This included through temporary backfill with staff from Australia. Where travel safety and individual circumstances allowed, some staff and dependants were able to return to posts. As the lead agency managing the government’s presence overseas, we worked closely with partner agencies to align our approaches in protecting staff and families overseas.
Business continuity for Australian-based operations
We managed Australia-based operations in line with the direction of the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) and local state and territory health authorities.
Business continuity arrangements commenced in Canberra on 18 March. In line with APSC direction, on 30 March the department directed all staff who were able to work from home to do so, and put measures in place in offices to meet social distancing requirements. At the highest point, more than 3,400 staff were working remotely in Australia and overseas. We issued an unprecedented 3,041 remote access permissions in March and April to enable this.
The department commenced a phased return to usual workplaces for Australian-based operations on 8 May in line with the APSC’s direction and with clear structures and guidelines to maintain a COVIDsafe workplace. We continued to monitor and adjust arrangements to the local situation at each office.