Australian workplaces have been told to prepare for staff return as governments ease Coronavirus restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of the disease. The staged approach aims to have Australia ‘working again’ by July 2020.
What will this mean for the public service who has largely transitioned, ready or not, to working from home and online?
For the public service, returning to work will align with a shift out of crisis mode towards implementing change for economic recovery. There will be pressure on governments to fast-track prioritisation, accelerate investment into the economy and keep people in jobs. The success of this will depend on how leaders drive prioritisation, manage complex interfaces and stakeholder relationships, and transform ways of working.
As leaders reflect on the impact of Covid-19 on the economy, government initiatives and their own lives, there will be some significant challenges and opportunities ahead. Iceni recently spoke to a number of leaders in the public service about their experience of Covid-19 on their projects, teams and agencies. We asked what leaders, in their position, needed to consider when building resilience and preparing for ongoing change and rapid recovery in the face of coronavirus. Here is what they said…
We will need to continue to operate in uncertainty and respond quickly and flexibly for many more months.
The public service operates under long-standing legislative requirements with set governance, planning and delivery cycles. In the face of Covid-19, these cycles have largely been delayed. Ministers, senior executives and stakeholders focusing on the crisis means that direction or approvals are also delayed.
Most respondents were focused on immediate priorities and working to a 3-6-month short-term plan. They observed that while some projects continued business as usual, there was uncertainty regarding the longer-term project impacts of Covid-19 in areas such as industry supply chains or wider government priorities.
Questions for public service leaders to reflect on: With the continued uncertainty, which areas of your program or project do you see as being exposed to the greatest risk? What are some ways of managing those risks?
If we haven’t done so already, we must start planning how we will effectively re-start and re-prioritise projects.
Leaders must rapidly re-connect in a purposeful way and seek diverse opinions to realign project direction and priorities. How they manage the resumption of projects, including the engagement of staff and partners will impact the perception and success of the project or organisation. Close and constant communication is key, even when projects are paused. There must be a focus on both short-term recovery as well as building a better future.
The pandemic has significantly changed the community’s behaviours and needs. Previous initiatives may no longer be a priority for the government. This will require public servant leaders to take stock of their understanding of their customers and review their focus. For example, transport and movement patterns are already seeing changes as people continue to work from home and those travelling to their workplace less inclined to take public transport. This is seeing significant changes in areas such as demand on the road networks and parking ripple effects on interdependent activities. Government will need to put new mechanisms in place to re-connect with their customers and understand what they value in a post-Covid world.
Questions for public service leaders to reflect on: What do you see as the barriers to reconnecting to staff and partners in a meaningful way in the coming months? What are some ways of progressing this?
We should think about and plan for the longer-term future.
The public service will need to balance the mandate to drive economic growth and deliver more investment and jobs while also finding internal savings. Leaders must prepare to adapt for a range of financial scenarios and the recovery of debt.
This climate will place greater emphasis on the importance of cross-team (and agency) collaboration to enable growth and accelerate implementation for the future. The public service is best positioned to bring an holistic approach to collaboration and recovery, one that includes all parts of the system from industry, education, non-government organisations and customers. This approach will be built on trust, not only on transactions. There will also be a shift towards a greater social agenda for economic growth and the need to build resilience in the face of future pandemics. For example, this could include a shift towards understanding the supply chain of public projects and prioritising local suppliers. Building social and sustainable responsibilities into practice will become a part of the new social contract.
Most respondents were very aware that the long-term financial situation will be challenging for government and that this may impact programs, services and the public service as a whole.
Questions for public service leaders to reflect on: What will the long-term future look like for your program, project or area of the organisation? Where do you most need to consider greater cross team and agency collaboration?
We will continue to support, enhance and optimise flexible working practices which have now become the norm
Flexible working is here to stay. It has been clearly demonstrated that the public sector can work and deliver from home. There is opportunity for the public service to maximise on the experiences of working from home and accelerate the transition to agile working. Leaders will need to review, adjust and improve traditional working structures for the longer term. This includes adopting flatter, more flexible and faster decision-making structures and designing the right teams.
Greater flexibility and accessibility will also bring a more diverse, capable and healthier workforce that the traditional structures may have been a barrier to. For example, allowing single parents, caregivers or people living in regional towns the flexibility to work with certain projects and teams.
As remote working becomes the norm, leaders must start thinking about how to re-organise work for distributed teams. Organisations will need to adjust how they interact, monitor outcomes and deliver training. A greater emphasis on staff health and well-being will require leaders to re-think how their teams work best. This does not only include the immediate team, but re-thinking how to create opportunities for cross-team collaboration and interaction. It will demand new ways of working, such as use of ‘random video pairings’ to create informal encounters or bringing mixed teams together in virtual spaces to create cross-team encounters.
Question for public service leaders to reflect on: How can you and your teams adjust to the evolving ways of working and maximise sound communication and decision-making?
We have to accelerate the digital delivery of government services
The experience of the pandemic has demonstrated government’s ability to accelerate digital initiatives and services in short timeframes. It is likely that these initiatives will continue to increase connectivity and services for customers and prepare for future disruptive events. Yes, this will mean more contact-free activities. For example, this could include greater use of Telehealth, the movement of large public hearings and meetings to video forums and walk-throughs.
Embracing and investing in digital change can offer government significant benefits in productivity, quality and customer experience. There is already a supply of new and ever-improving digital and analytical tools that can be used to maximise operations. Governments must prepare for the path to greater digitalisation, including understanding what is required and the capability gap. Lessons from the experience of Covid-19 provide foundations for improving how governments invest in and implement digital initiatives and services.
Questions for public service leaders to reflect on: What are the capability gaps in your program or project which may affect the introduction and adoption of current and future digital initiatives? What are some ways of addressing these?
We are currently working with a number of public service leaders to prepare their organisations, teams and projects for the next phase of their Covid-19 response. Our clients have come to us seeking support to help accelerate their projects and assess the responsiveness of their strategy and operating models. We would love to share our insights and strategies from these projects and the opportunity to leverage the experience of Covid-19. If you would like to hear more, please reach out and contact us.