As Australia responded to the bushfire crisis in January 2020, a meeting of chief operating officers across government departments discussed the need for the Australian public service to have a standing incident management team to lead the bureaucracy in a major crisis.
Such a team, and a single agency that would take the lead on communicating information consistently, were the lessons that could be learned from the fires, in case a major crisis came along and disrupted the whole public service, not just one or two departments.
Separately, that meeting was briefed by the chief medical officer on a new virus - COVID-19, but it's not clear if a link was made between the bushfire crisis and what was to come. The lessons from the bushfires would be applied much sooner than anyone would realise.
The response of the Australian public service to the COVID-19 pandemic - shifting more than 2000 staff to Services Australia to process claims for unemployment payments, the rush to stock appropriate protective and medical equipment and prepare health systems, closing borders and arranging repatriation flights, has been widely praised.
And now it has the tick of approval from the audit office as well.
In a new report released this week, Auditor-General Grant Hehir found the public service workforce was managed effectively in its response to COVID and oversight was appropriate.
What makes it perhaps a more satisfying outcome for government leaders, is that there was no guidebook to be followed. Mr Hehir found there was no risk assessment for managing the whole public service workforce in a crisis prior to the pandemic, and that risks were managed "in flight," but still effectively.
The audit report goes on to describe in minute detail just how the unwieldy federal government bureaucracy was shifted onto the urgent threat of the pandemic, starting at the first meeting of the secretaries board for 2020 in February. Following a briefing from the Health and Home Affairs secretaries on the new virus and what it could mean for Australia, plans were made to ensure business continuity across the public service.
Then there was the formation of the COO Committee - that's Chief Operating Officer Committee, which had formerly existed as a informal network.
Two taskforces were set up by the Australian Public Service Commission - a COVID-19 taskforce and a workforce management taskforce, which managed the movement of staff across agency lines.
The audit report documents dozens of meetings between secretaries and chief operating officers - sometimes as regularly as twice in one day in late March. It also breaks down meetings between a small group and a tiny group (which is a subset of the small group).
And that's before you get to the 11 different working groups, their roles and their meetings.
It's the kind of stuff that scriptwriters for television comedy Utopia dream of - except there's no punchline, because it worked.
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