Report reveals mass redeployment of public servants during COVID

More than 2,200 public servants were redeployed to meet surging demand for government services during the commonwealth’s COVID-19 response, an audit reveals.

Auditor-General Grant Hehir

And the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) has been given a tick of approval by the the Auditor General for its efforts.

A report from the ANAO says the APSC’s workforce management taskforce effectively managed the deployment 2,165 staff to Services Australia and 75 to three other agencies.

Auditor General Grant Hehir says much of the planning was conducted “in flight”.

The APS was forced to quickly adapt workplace practices and deploy resources to to support COVID-19 priorities, all while continuing to deliver business-as-usual activities.

However, Mr Hehir concludes that “arrangements established to oversee and monitor the APS’s workforce response to COVID-19 were appropriate”.

“The APSC established largely appropriate arrangements to oversee, monitor and report on the work of its cross-agency taskforces,” the report says.

“Further, the Chief Operating Officers Committee provided appropriate oversight for the response, including appropriate monitoring of actions it initiated.”

Challenges and issues

But while the report says the deployment was effective, it notes the process was affected by the absence of an existing framework for large-scale APS deployments as well as the challenges of identifying and available staff in the middle of a crisis.

The deployment process encountered a number of communication and operational issues, including some confusion about roles and responsibilities, information sharing, and communication about details such as the length of deployments.

Staff were sometimes given very short notice of redeployment, with some being told the day prior to commencement.

There was also conflicting information about issues such as overtime and allowances or flex-time arrangements, as well as workplace health and safety relating to COVID.

“For future APS surge arrangements, there would be benefit in APSC developing protocols for managing competing surge requests from different agencies,” the report says.

Taskforce set up

The nine-member Workforce Management Taskforce was established by APS Commissioner Peter Woolcott on March 24 to coordinate the deployment of APS staff to critical functions.

Two days later Prime Minister Scott Morrison told agency heads to provide the taskforce with information about staff available for deployment.

Peter Woolcott

More than 4,000 staff had been identified for potential deployment by September 30, of which 2,165 commenced at Services Australia between 30 March and 22 June 2020.

 Large scale deployment of APS staff ended from May 2020 after Services Australia’s needs were met.

The Workforce Management Taskforce hasn’t put a figure on the cost of deployments to Services Australia, the report says.

The APS has welcomed the report.

“The Australian Public Service has made a significant contribution to the COVID-19 pandemic response and it is pleasing to receive confirmation that the management of the workforce during this challenging period was effective,” Mr Woolcott said.

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