New figures give the clearest picture yet of the federal public service's unprecedented response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Government agencies have answered calls from the public in the millions, processed hundreds of thousands of applications for financial help, and redeployed hundreds of staff.
The figures released by the Australian Public Service also show federal bureaucrats are working from home on a scale never previously encountered.
COVID-19 has posed two challenges for the bureaucracy: implementing the government's response to the crisis while delivering its usual services, and keeping staff safe from the coronavirus.
Public policy experts say the APS has been flexible and adaptable in handling the tasks, despite previous criticisms it lacks these qualities.
However they warn Australia's success in overcoming COVID-19 depends on the government nurturing and listening to expertise in the public service.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade urged Australians to reconsider their need to travel to Wuhan, where the virus first emerged, on January 23.
DFAT established its Emergency Call Unit three days later as the coronavirus spread through Hubei province and beyond.
Within a few more days, its travel advisory in relation to China was "do not travel".
The pressure on DFAT's consular services escalated after it issued an unprecedented advisory on March 13 urging Australians to reconsider their need to travel anywhere overseas.
Since the emergency call unit was activated, it has been flooded with calls from Australians and permanent residents trying to return home amid coronavirus restrictions.
DFAT public servant and call unit volunteer Sandra Tam said the pandemic's global spread distinguished it from previous crises for the emergency service.
When the unit had opened on previous occasions, calls had come from fewer countries.
Volunteers were now speaking to people travelling in all corners of the world: South America, the Middle East, the United States, and elsewhere.
"It was just the sheer volume of calls we'd get, and where people were calling from," Ms Tam said.
"And it was busy all the time because it's always 9 o'clock somewhere in the world."
Both the emergency call unit and the department's regular Consular Emergency Centre have answered more than 70,000 calls since March 13.
By comparison, the department answered 48,000 emergency calls in the 12 months to June 30 last year.
Ms Tam has joined 240 other staff volunteering to work shifts at all hours answering questions and directing people to Australia's embassies and Smartraveller website.
"Each call is different. It's going to be challenging because people are caught up in really difficult situations, but my job isn't to judge, it's to give the best advice, to have empathy and listen," she said.
"Most people just want to feel supported and they just want to hear an Aussie voice at the end. So most people hopefully after the call felt reassured and they know they can call us any time because we're there 24/7."
The tens of thousands of calls show only part of what DFAT secretary Frances Adamson says is a response well beyond the department's consular charter.
It has made 1700 updates to travel advice on its Smartraveller website since January 21. The figure is more than triple that of the 2018-19 financial year, when DFAT made 475 updates.
The department has helped bring 20,000 Australians and permanent residents home via 50 unscheduled commercial flights, and 120 additional flights, since March 28.
More than 80 per cent of DFAT staff are involved in the COVID-19 response.
Diplomacy expert Professor Jan Melissen said the pandemic had made assistance to nationals in large crises the most visible 21st century role of foreign affairs ministries.
Professor Melissen, a senior fellow at Leiden University's Institute of Security and Global Affairs in the Netherlands, said the challenge in consular assistance to nationals abroad was to think ahead.
"We are not nearly close to the end of this pandemic and governments must try to anticipate citizen behaviour," he said.
"What if holiday destination countries with negative travel advice become increasingly irresistible for Australian travellers?
"After all the efforts that have been made to fly Australians back home, there is little appetite for a second wave, new virus outbreaks, new lockdowns affecting nationals abroad."
The public service's delivery of the government's health, economic and consular response to the coronavirus has coincided with a mass movement of its staff to home offices around the country.
Despite resistance to the transition from some managers, the APS appears to have embraced the change as a way to manage the workplace safety threat posed by COVID-19.
The move has tested the IT systems of workplaces unused to large numbers of staff logging into networks remotely.
More than half of the federal bureaucracy is now working from home, avoiding potential coronavirus infections at the workplace and allowing social distancing.
Results of a recent public service commission survey show 57 per cent of the staff at the 89 per cent of agencies that responded were working at home during the pandemic.
At the Health Department, whose bureaucrats are central to the government's public health response, about 2000-3000 staff are working from home.
By comparison, far fewer of its public servants worked remotely in February and early March, before Australia's coronavirus restrictions emerged.
The department recorded on average 350 staff logging onto IT systems remotely per day in that period, a figure including staff travelling and those working from home or outside the office.
The Australian Taxation Office has 11,000 staff, more than half its workforce, working from home as it delivers billions of dollars in measures against the economic shock of COVID-19.
They are not sitting around watching Netflix in their PJs. It may, and I only say may, start an evolution in how we work.- Janine O'Flynn
Honorary professor of public policy at the Australian National University Andrew Podger said the number of public servants working remotely was unprecedented.
"One of the things that will come out of this is have we got sufficient system support to be able to do that better into the future, and how much we can rely on that for ongoing work arrangements?," Professor Podger, a former public service commissioner, said.
"But certainly that 57 per cent is an extraordinary number to keep programs still moving reasonably well."
Public management expert Janine O'Flynn was surprised the number of staff working from home was not higher.
"We have entire industries now working remotely," Professor O'Flynn, from the Australia and New Zealand School of Government, said.
"This is also a point in time where many leaders who may have been sceptical about the notion of remote or home working have seen that people remain productive and working towards organisational goals," she said.
"They are not sitting around watching Netflix in their PJs. It may, and I only say may, start an evolution in how we work."
The sharp rise in joblessness following Australia's COVID-19 restrictions initially overwhelmed the agency in charge of the nation's social safety net.
Services Australia's response to the economic shock has since drawn on 1800 public servants redeployed from more than 30 agencies across the APS.
About 5300 of the public service's 147,000 staff are available to be redeployed to areas of need in the bureaucracy during the pandemic.
The mass mobilisation of bureaucrats has helped Services Australia process one million welfare claims from job seekers since mid-March, about double the number last financial year.
In the same period, it has answered nearly 2.5 million calls about welfare.
ANU's Crawford School of Public Policy director Professor Helen Sullivan said the redeployment of public servants showed an "extraordinary" level of flexibility in the APS.
The mobilisation effort was impressive not only because of the initiative of individual public servants volunteering to be redeployed to Services Australia.
"The whole public service system appears to have allowed that kind of creativity and innovation to flourish, so it's been quite heartening," she said.
Professor O'Flynn said the redeployment demonstrated the agility and flexibility often desired of the bureaucracy.
"It's not that this capacity to adapt and be flexible is not there, but it takes particular events or conditions for it to activate," she said.
"I'm often asked why we don't take lessons from crisis into 'business-as-usual' or why we can work together so effectively when a crisis hits but not on a day-to-day basis," she said.
"But these are extraordinarily different settings; in crisis purpose becomes crystal clear and we often activate clear chains of command and allow for an innovative and more flexible deployment of resources.
"This is exactly what we are seeing now."
The public service has used its board of departmental chiefs, and a committee of chief operating officers, among other bodies to co-ordinate its response to the crisis.
Professor Podger said the ability to manage crises and co-ordinate across the APS was a strength of the Australian system.
But co-ordination alone didn't explain the public service's response to the coronavirus.
"You do need to have the skills within each department, so they wouldn't have had the success if you didn't have within the Health Department very strong capacity in public health expertise," Professor Podger said.
"Similarly Services Australia has their systems and people can know how to manage big systems that come under heavy responses on occasions."
The public service has sustained decades of the efficiency dividend, or annual cuts to budgets. Its workforce has shrunk by thousands under the Coalition government, which has also overseen major growth in outsourcing.
Professor Podger said cuts to resources seemed not to have hindered the public service's handling of the pandemic.
"One of my concerns has been that some of the pressures the public service has been under has reduced those areas of expertise and I think fortunately that hasn't proven to be too much of a problem on this occasion," he said.
"But I have seen some deterioration for example in some of the expertise in places like social security."
Public policy experts said the APS had prepared for COVID-19, forming pandemic and emergency management plans, and running large scale exercises.
However the bureaucracy would need to learn from mistakes during the crisis, they said.
The public service's response to COVID-19 should not be forgotten in discussions of Australia's handling of the crisis to date, Professor O'Flynn said.
The government's willingness to listen to and act on the federal bureaucracy's expertise had also helped.
"We have seen that in this country in a way that has been extremely important," she said.
"In other nations where expertise has been sidelined, or where critical capabilities have not been protected or maintained, we have seen, and will continue to see, catastrophic effects."
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