APS urges reservists to support Services Australia amid Omicron outbreak

By on 30/01/2022 | Updated on 03/02/2022
The APSC's first assistant commissioner Patrick Hetherington has explained the challenges government faces, which include the pressures of an increasingly competitive job market at a time of multiple crises

A reserve dispatch of Australian public servants has been called upon to support Services Australia, the government’s payments and services arm, in an effort to alleviate staff pressures amid the latest Omicron outbreak.

The Australian Public Service (APS) confirmed it has activated the use of the APS surge reserve on 21 January to help amid increasing pressures. The APS had initially gathered a reserve pool of staff to tackle crises such as the wildfires of 2019 and 2020, before formally establishing the reserve in 2021.

Australia’s reservist public servants are generally sourced from agencies across government, and according to the Australian Public Service Commission, surge reservists could be asked to do “almost any kind of work carried out in government, depending on the need”.

Under the latest plans, hundreds of staff have signed up to offer help to Services Australia for an initial period of up to eight weeks, starting from 24 January this year. Many are expected to process government service payments in addition to other duties.

According to a report by The Canberra Times, Ben Morton, Australia’s public service minister, said that secretaries, chief operating officers and agency heads would be expected to “comb through their department and seek nominations from people who are able to assist in this search”.

“If people are reluctant to nominate because they feel that their work will need to be in a call centre, Services Australia has worked hard to increase their ability for people to do this work from home as well, and I think that fact encourage further nominations,” he said.

Although around 500 nominations have already been received, Morton said without more people coming forward, the APS would have to rely on labour-hire firms and contractors to adequately meet demand, a challenge that the Australian government was recently urged to address.

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A long-term challenge

Last year, the APSC published a five-year workforce development strategy aimed at bolstering the public service’s capacity to respond to challenges both immediate and long-term.

As reported by Global Government Forum, the strategy paper, entitled ‘Delivering for tomorrow: APS Workforce Strategy 2025’, responded to a review published in 2019. The review had said that APS was underprepared for future unknowns due to its hierarchical structure and inward-looking culture, as well as its under-investment in people and digital services.

Read more: Australian Public Service Commission launches new workforce strategy

However, a 2020 survey into APS employees’ experience of the agency’s COVID-19 pandemic response produced several positive insights into its workforce management, later leading to the creation of the surge reserve.

The survey found that 49% of APS employees felt that their productivity had improved that year, with 89% agreeing that their team had successfully adapted to new ways of working during the same period. Around 65% agreed meanwhile that their team’s approach to work had improved during the pandemic.

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“In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian Public Service completed the largest mobilisation of employees in living memory, deploying more than 2,500 APS employees moving across the service employees into areas of critical need,” the Australian Public Service Commission said in a statement, referring to its initial efforts to tackle the pandemic. “While we cannot know the precise nature of the next crisis, establishing the APS surge reserve allows the APS to be better placed to respond quickly and support Australians during future crises.”

About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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