24 January 2022

Where has the public service and risk management been in the pandemic?

| Ian Bushnell
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Testing times. Faith in public administration has suffered. Photo: Madeleine Mackenzie.

If there is one thing that the pandemic has highlighted, it is a lack of risk management from government, something you would expect from the body charged with national security in all its forms.

The list of fails is long and growing, from all-the-eggs-in-one-basket approach to acquiring vaccines to the stroll out (“it’s not a race”), and more recently, the testing services and hospitals being overwhelmed, the unofficial lockdown hurting the economy, the empty shelves and staff shortages, and even the embarrassing Novak Djokovic visa debacle.

This follows the bushfires disaster where the federal government seemed slow to comprehend what it needed to do.

We can blame the politicians, and probably will come election time, but there seems to have been no thinking through on a practical administrative level of the consequences of taking certain decisions, such as reopening the economy, eschewing lockdowns as the Omicron wave approached our shores and living with COVID.

READ MORE Getting Omicron has been way worse than I expected

Governments, having exhausted the financial resources needed to sustain a lockdown, or at least not wanting to spend any more than necessary, can be forgiven for not wanting to shut everything down, something few really wanted to hear anyway.

But they, and we’re talking mainly NSW and the Feds here, were too keen to believe their own propaganda. Scott Morrison said this week the government underestimated the severity of Omicron and was taken by surprise.

Really? Nobody in the room raised any red flags? Despite plenty of warnings from the WHO, industry, unions, those at the health coal face?

Getting by on hope and prayer is not risk management.

READ MORE Services Australia calls on surge capacity to meet rising demand for welfare

Is there an ideological blind spot here that mainly afflicts conservative governments, but has been not confined to them, that sees private sector good, public sector bad, leading to a general running down of public service capability – in practical capacity, corporate knowledge and the will to insist that its advice be heeded?

Has the last few years been the culmination of a now ingrained resistance to committing government resources to a mounting crisis until it is too late?

Public sector chiefs will say this is nonsense and that the APS, in particular, has achieved remarkable feats in its COVID response over the past few years, but the questions remain over its ability or willingness to anticipate known risks and this can be extended to climate change as well.

They will deny capability has been eroded at the same time as the Australian Public Service Commission embarks on an overhaul of training, creating a new central Academy to grow skills across the APS.

They will argue government does not need to do everything as consultancies and private companies grow fat off outsourcing contracts and policy is executed in a fragmented, short-term way without regard to the whole picture or the long-term consequences.

In an emergency, people do not look to the private sector or entrepreneurs for answers. They want government to be on the job, and when it fails to deliver, what follows is a crisis of confidence in our society and each other.

In short, people get frightened when they see government failing.

Mr Morrison may deflect by saying how well Australia has done compared to the rest of the world, but that can’t deny the reality of what is happening around us.

READ MORE Djokovic saga highlights the dangers of putting sportspeople on a pedestal

The past few years should be a wake-up call to those who believe in good government and a public sector that can deliver the independent policy work and services that Australians deserve.

If Anthony Albanese manages to get Labor back into government, reasserting the notion of the public good and the machinery to make it happen would be a worthy goal.

A constructive inquiry into the pandemic response would be a good way for the public sector to learn the lessons of these testing times. If Tony Abbott can get away with setting up a Royal Commission into an insulation scheme, then one for an event like the COVID-19 pandemic should be a no-brainer.

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Most senior level public servants do not have the skills to cope with change.

They tend to have little empathy, because, having gone to Public Schools they just know they are better than the rest of us.

HiddenDragon8:21 pm 24 Jan 22

Boiled down, that sounds like an argument for more people on the public payroll in Canberra – good luck with that when the Australian public sector debt bomb encounters the reality of rising global interest rates, while trying to deal with rapidly rising costs for current programs such as the NDIS.

A more realistic outcome would be a sharper delineation of the roles of the federal and state/territory governments, with administrative savings from that put towards dealing with some of the shortcomings which have been highlighted by the pandemic.

Tom Worthington3:54 pm 24 Jan 22

Australian Governments have done reasonably well in an extended emergency with COVID-19. It should be kept in mind what other counties have experienced, and can happen in a pandemic.

The Australian Government funded one Australian vaccine, while ordering another overseas, which could be manufactured in Australia. Unfortunately both vaccines had problems.

The ACT Government had an emergency field hospital built in a few weeks in Woden. Fortunately this has not been needed so far.

Unfortunately there would be few working in government with training and experience dealing with disasters. Those of us who did, tried to help our colleagues as best we could. https://blog.highereducationwhisperer.com/2020/04/responding-to-coronavirus-emergency.html

ChrisinTurner1:42 pm 24 Jan 22

You quote “public service chiefs” without reminding people they are all political appointments.

Actually I think there needs to be a Royal Commission into the State and Federal response to the pandemic. There are an enormous number of lessons to be learned.

Canberra is a pretty hard audience for this message since so many of us work for the APS and have been working our butts off to achieve Government outcomes during the pandemic. However, I think he is right. I have lived the failure of the federal and state public sectors to be able to mobilise resources ahead of risks before they become politically acute, a failure to maintain a professional corps able to ‘war-game’ scenarios to inform risk management, and a failure to be able to protect the technical basis of emergency responses from the daily intrusions of MOs, media advisors and assorted sorcerers of perception. Mainly we sign checks and brief, but in a pandemic or any other emergency we actually have to know what to do before others, we have to be able to do it, and we have to be able to keep doing it. Frankly, nothing has made me more depressed for climate change policy than the pandemic response and nothing has made be more convinced we need a statutory federal emergency management agency or at least a CDC.

Perhaps the author could have interviewed some of the practitioners and theorists in risk management in order to get some informed commentary. Maybe he tried and they wouldn’t elaborate, though I find that doubtful.

The reality is the APS leadership has pretty much adopted a risk denial stance, which has resulted in a long trail of epic policy failures. I personally noticed it was the chaotic Rudd years that really entrenched the negative changes, with Howard actually having good governance as one of his strengths. The chaos since goes without saying.

Was recently discussing risk management culture with a newly retired NSW senior executive, who observed “I don’t know anyone in leadership who has any interest in that crap”. I can see no reason to dispute this observation.

I now just expect that anything this author writes will just be mindless drivel written with one eye open.

Sure just neglect the fact that the various governments were forthright when they indicated that when the borders began to reopen and restrictions were eased late last year that there would be a spike in cases as they were moving to a living with and managing the risk. Omricon was coming no matter what, the evidence indicated it is not as severe and an approach used to manage that. The risks responded to with changes along the way.. this is risk management.

Stop making wild claims about risk management when it’s clear that you have no idea about what risk management is. Risk management isn’t about identifying every possible risk that exists nor always about eliminating the risk.

Particularly so when cases have now peaked with the health system actually holding up extremely well, despite the constant bleating from certain sectors.

It’s actually an example of successful risk management rather than failure.

While the health system had in totality coped fairly well, I’m not convinced it has held up as well as it may appear.

A not significant contributor to that outcome has been because those people working in the health system have gone way above and beyond what should be expected of them to achieve that outcome – i.e. significant parts of the system have only continued to function effectively because staff have had to operate at levels way above reasonable workloads/hours etc for an extended period of time. I have friends and family that work in 5 different health systems across Oz, and all have told me relatively similar stories – of remarkable resilience and ability to ‘keep the lights on’, but at substantial human and personal cost to do so.

There is eeking out extra from people given the extraordinary times, and then there is flogging a workforce to the edge of collapse. And I suspect the current circumstance in Australia is not too far from the latter in some areas – which to me may potentially deliver the short term outcomes wanted, but at what longer term cost.

This article shows so much of a lack of understanding of what the public service has achieved through the Pandemic and the decisions that have been made, it’s hard to believe it was written with a straight face.

Whilst there has no doubt been mistakes made, most of them were around over governance rather than under governance. And most of the problems were caused by state government’s rather than the Federal one.

The public service has achieved remarkable feats, including some that the author thinks were problems or errors.

I’m sure most people would welcome a royal commission into the pandemic response. It will show how truly well we’ve done despite the ideological whingers who aren’t happy because they don’t like the political party that’s in charge.

I think the challenge in considering how successful the responses have been is to try and separate the low profile elements where governments at all levels have done really well to keep things going/deliver what is needed (driven by the Public Service primarily) from the loud noisy bits where things have gone wrong and it gets a lot of media attention.

A lot of those bits where its gone wrong have just been the fact we are dealing with lots of unknown unknowns and wicked problems. But there has been some noteworthy high profile failings along the way too – where plenty of rational, independent critical thinkers (i.e. beyond people with strong vested interests) could see the express train coming over the hill, but there was very slow or in some cases very little in the way of government responses. Some of that perhaps driven by outside constraints, but certainly some of it driven by leaders who seemingly thought they could almost ‘will’ the problems away by trying to sweep them under the carpet.

The RAT mess for example is one, previous issues around slow rollout of vaccination (also impacted by mixed messaging between politicians and health officials/experts as well), significant virus outbreaks where governments didn’t listen to experts when they should have.

My take is the key failing out of all this is National Cabinet. I’ve seen precious little to suggest it is in any way an improvement on what came before, in terms of effective interjurisdictional co-operation. I suspect part of that is the voices in the room and personalities rather then necessary failings with the model – but I’m not convinced the approach has really addressed the issues it was meant to.

When you have a circumstance that the current state of play for most jurisdictions was effectively decided by a unilateral decision taken by one state premier, without proper consultation with interjurisdictional colleagues – then that tells me the model is not working.

Where I think all governments have handled it poorly in trying to points score with what is a public health crisis. There is zero doubting they’ve all been guilty of this at various times, and when that drives decision making, you get very much sub-optimal outcomes.

Stephen Saunders8:18 am 24 Jan 22

Risk management has been reduced to a single number – sustaining the little Aussie miracle of endless quarters of economic “growth”. Nothing else matters.

Right now, the little Aussie miracle requires the frantic restoration of record levels of mass immigration, COVID or no COVID. Nothing else matters.

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