Under a brilliant Canberra sky in May 2021, several hundred staff from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) gathered on the lawns of Australia’s Parliament House for a commemorative photograph to celebrate PM&C’s 50th anniversary.
The founding purpose of PM&C was to support the Government’s use of ‘the expert knowledge and experience within individual portfolios’. Standing with my colleagues and friends, I reflected that 2020–21 made an unprecedented call on that collective wisdom. I consider that PM&C has been, at every level, responsive, purposeful and anticipatory in answer to that call.
The Department's 2020–21 operating context was shaped by the ongoing impacts of a global pandemic. Our response was crafted with the clear understanding that our work makes an enormous difference to the lives and wellbeing of all Australians. In a year of heavy workloads, our staff brought their best effort and intellect to dealing with the full range of issues for which PM&C is responsible.
The Government’s priorities for 2020–21 were the foundation for our annual program of work. They encompassed suppression of the virus and delivery of the vaccine, an economic recovery with a focus on job creation, and continuing to guarantee the essential services that Australians rely on.
Within that program, PM&C delivered its responsibilities in policy and implementation across the range of Government priorities, including deregulation, national security, digital and data policies, women’s economic security and social impact investing. We also supported the logistics and administration of Cabinet and its committees, to manage the complexities of COVID-safe working and virtual meetings.
We provided high-quality operational support to facilitate the Prime Minister’s relationships and engagement with other leaders, including through virtual summits and official visits.
Australians increasingly expect a high level of interaction on matters that affect them and seek timely responses to their correspondence from the Prime Minister and portfolio ministers. PM&C worked hard throughout the reporting period to support the provision of accurate and unambiguous information to all Australians.
Among the changes and additions to PM&C’s structure throughout 2020–21 was the delivery of a Vaccine Strategy Integration team. This was established to assure, underwrite and advise on the many moving parts in the vaccine rollout space. In the context of a deteriorating COVID-19 pandemic situation impacting parts of our region, the team’s remit addressed vaccine allocation and supply from Australia to many of our Indo-Pacific neighbours.
The pandemic was a stark example of how our increasingly interconnected world presents challenges and opportunities in shaping an informed and timely national response. The lessons that we learned from the vaccine rollout will contribute to our resilience and recovery in the face of future crises. Vital regional and global engagement also informed PM&C’s support for the Government’s response to the complex strategic, security and humanitarian context of the Indo-Pacific region. To this end, PM&C enabled and contributed to the Prime Minister’s participation in the virtual ASEAN and G20 summits in November 2020 and the inaugural Quad Leaders’ Meeting in March 2021.
The pandemic’s profound impact on international engagement included restrictions on travel and a rapidly changing domestic environment. PM&C was adaptable and technologically adept in supporting the Government to meet our national obligations on the global stage. The number, diversity and regularity of virtual engagements added enormous value to the brief international visits supported in the period – to Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, the United Kingdom and France.
The Australian Public Service (APS) workforce response to COVID-19, supported by the excellent work of the Chief Operating Officers Committee, was a high point in the government response to the pandemic. Throughout 2020–21 we continued to foster a One APS approach by supporting the Secretaries Board to drive enterprise-wide improvements in the delivery of government priorities, the transformation and uplift of APS digital capability and data, and the evolution of a high-performing and responsive workforce. We focused on providing the delivery of services and support throughout the pandemic and if necessary through different channels e.g. telehealth. We also created productive APS–business partnerships. We established and leveraged productive APS–business partnerships to ensure the Government’s COVID-19 response was properly calibrated to both the public and private sectors and was informed by a variety of relevant perspectives. We stayed connected and engaged with our workforce through regular open letters to the APS and newsletters bringing stories of hard work and determination, and we brought together our senior leaders through regular APS200 events.
Inside PM&C, our COVIDSafe Plan for keeping our workplaces healthy, safe and virus-free was developed to ensure we had the most up-to-date safety measures in place. We continued to support the National Cabinet through the 43 meetings it held during 2020-21 as the primary intergovernmental forum for managing a national response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the year, its role evolved from one with a health and response management focus to one of driving Australia’s economic recovery and jobs creation. The principles of responsiveness, planning and anticipation also shaped the newly formed National Recovery and Resilience Agency within PM&C’s portfolio, which brought together functions of the former National Bushfire Recovery Agency and National Drought and North Queensland Flood Response and Recovery Agency.
The Government’s focus on preparedness and recovery continued in May 2021 with the creation of the Office for Supply Chain Resilience within PM&C. The office is responsible for coordinating whole-of-government advice on measures and opportunities for resilience within global supply chains.
The Office of the Climate Coordinator was added to PM&C’s portfolio. It coordinates whole-of-government delivery of a strong and well-integrated Australian climate strategy, through a technology-led approach to reducing emissions and meeting our targets.
The 2021–22 May Budget further advanced the Government’s focus on building resilience and responsiveness nationally. In May 2021, the Government also released its Digital Economy Strategy, designed to deliver a modern and digital economy to drive Australia’s future prosperity. The Government regards the digital economy as important to securing our economic future and recovery from COVID-19.
The Digital Technology Taskforce within PM&C will implement the strategy to support the digital transformation across the economy, through enhanced digital business capability and improving government service delivery.
The Budget gave similar impetus to the Office for Women’s ongoing priority to advance gender equality. In the context of the ongoing debate around women’s safety and economic security, the Office for Women provided advice, implemented policy and rolled out programs to improve the lives of Australian women.
Results from the Citizen Experience Surveys in 2020-21 showed that increased satisfaction with Australia’s public services was maintained from the height reached in June 2020. The data demonstrated that, in the midst of a global crisis, the APS maintained its focus on providing essential services to Australians, securing our national interests, and working to protect and preserve the health of our environment. PM&C and the APS can be rightly proud of this assessment of our progress and achievement throughout 2020–21.
The year ahead
The virus remains with us, but Australia’s health and economic scorecards give us reason to be confident. We can look back on 2020-21 as a period that brought out the best in PM&C and right across the APS. The year ahead will provide its own challenges but will also provide the opportunity to capitalise on what has been achieved and draw upon the wisdom and experience acquired throughout 2020–21.