Opinion article

Public sector agility emerges in response to COVID-19

CEDA Associate Director NSW, David Bowtell, writes that COVID-19 has shown the public sector's ability to act effectively and quickly. He argues that capturing the lessons from this crisis will be critical for its success moving forward.

Australia’s favourite satirical news outlet, The Betoota Advocate, recently published a headline reading “Nation left shocked and confused after public servants serve public”.

The headline reflects the commonplace view that the public service is slow, inefficient and disconnected from the community it serves. While this view is at times understandable, satire aside, the public services’ response to COVID-19 demonstrates that these views are misconceived.

The scale and pace of the response is unfathomable. It’s been just a month since the National Cabinet of Australian and State Government leaders first met and yet in that time terms such as ‘social distancing’ and ‘flattening the curve’ have gone from departmental briefing documents to part of our collective discourse. 

On the economy, the Federal Government has announced $194 billion worth of fiscal assistance to individuals and businesses, representing around 10 per cent of GDP, including a temporary doubling of Newstart (now Jobseeker), free childcare, and the introduction of a JobKeeper wage subsidy. It is fair to say that none of these actions were on the to-do list of any Treasury official at the beginning of March.

Regulators too have demonstrated agility. For example, the ACCC has allowed interim authorisations to a number of sectors to provide essential goods and services. These authorisations allow for conduct that might otherwise raise competition concerns under the normal regulatory regime. The TGA too has expedited the assessment of diagnostic testing to meet the challenge of COVID-19.

State governments have also implemented their own response and stimulus packages, while holding the frontline together in healthcare and public order.

All of this in less than a month. In what has become a cliché statement, the crisis is unprecedented and has been met with measures only equal to what Australians have seen in wartime.   

Importantly, in the face of this unprecedented crisis, people’s confidence in the health system and trust in Government is growing rather than receding.

As recently demonstrated by Newgate Research, Australians have strongly backed the Federal Government’s response to COVID-19, with 81 per cent believing that the coronavirus restrictions are fair and reasonable. At the same time, 77 per cent believe the government is taking appropriate measures to protect Australian businesses, and 73 per cent believe that the government has clearly communicated the things people need to do.

On the back of this sentiment, a recent poll has the Prime Minister’s approval rating at 59 per cent in April, up from 41 per cent last month. While politicians should rightfully get credit for a job well done (they are the ones that are elected and publicly accountable for their decisions), the response would not be possible without the machinery of government.

It is important to note that this is the same public service that is often asked to do more with less. In these times, the public sector has been asked to do more with the same; in an uncertain environment and in unimaginable timeframes given all the checks and balances these decisions require.

So what does this crisis tell us about the community’s relationship with government? In the short term and simply put, it is what is expected. CEDA’s 2018 Community Pulse showed that Australians wanted core services that keep them healthy, comfortable and safe; and that they want Government to provide those services. This is never truer than now.

In coming months the public sector will be judged on how our healthcare system copes when the virus is at its peak, how quickly support payments can get into peoples’ pockets, and the resilience of our social safety net. The public sector will not only need to prove itself to be agile in policy design, but transparent, efficient and effective in service delivery; so often the Achilles heel for the relationship between citizens and their government.

In the longer term, the health, social, and economic impacts of COVID-19 will be with government well beyond forward estimates. Budgets will linger in deficit and resources will be redirected to continue the COVID-19 response. This will define the environment in which the public sector operates for years to come but also elevate its importance as a foundational institution shaping Australia’s prosperity through recovery.

Increasingly, how state and federal public sector organisations interact with one another will be brought into focus. Already, in what demonstrates that the Government response hasn’t been infallible, flashpoints over the ambiguity of schools remaining open and the case of the Ruby Princess demonstrates the need for better cooperation across the federation, and clearer communication with citizens. Our federation is a mix between what issues governments compete on and what they collaborate on – crisis management should be at the top of the latter.

CEDA’s Connecting people with Progress focused attention on the role of institutions in Australia’s continued economic, social and environmental development. The report highlighted the importance of public sector institutions being adaptable in the face challenges that will demand institutional renewal. CEDA suggested that demographic and technological change coupled with rising expectations of service delivery will demand institutional renewal. Based on the performance of the public sector this past month, it’s time to add global viral pandemic to that list game-changing demands.

How replicable the public sector’s newfound agility is outside a time of crisis remains to be seen. A tighter budgetary environment, political realities, and the return of a business-as-usual approach to policy development will no doubt see the public service revert somewhat to the norm.

Yet COVID-19 will leave a lasting impact on the public service and expedite a more capable and connected approach, in line with the expectations of recent reviews.

This crisis has thrust the public sector into the spotlight, demonstrating its potential when forced to display agility, what it is ultimately capable of, and the public’s ability to trust it. Capturing the lessons from this experience and applying them will be fundamental to meeting the economic, social and environmental challenges on the other side of COVID-19.
About the authors

David Bowtell

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David Bowtell is CEDA’s Associate Director in NSW responsible for ensuring CEDA’s policy-based discussions are both timely and topical. In his role he consults widely with members from across CEDA’s broad membership base and engages with all levels of government, the public sector, and Ministerial offices. He has 10 years’ experience working in public policy. Prior to joining CEDA, he worked at Transport for New South Wales and the Federal Department of Industry, Innovation, Science and Research where he led industry capability initiatives and contributed to the Prime Minister’s Taskforce on Manufacturing. David has a background in Law and Government Relations from the University of Newcastle.

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