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16 June 2020

One of the toughest things about responding to a massive crisis is the massiveness.

Your responses and reactions have to scale up, suddenly and effectively. Business as usual just isn’t going to cut it.

As COVID-19 began and restrictions came in, Services Australia were looking at a gigantic jump in the number of people they would need to help.

We spoke to Acting Director of the Operational Planning Branch in the Operations Management Division, Wendy Thompson. We asked how their team skilled-up over 15,000 people in nine weeks to process over a million claims in that period.

To give you an idea of how impressive this is, Services Australia normally process around 530,000 payments in a whole year.

Key innovation principles

  • Scale requires simplicity
  • Shared purpose drives collaboration
  • Support your key staff to get results

Pause to project

To respond to this major crisis, they put together a multidisciplinary team. The team  needed to get a realistic understanding of how extensive the task actually was, so they did some projection modelling. This continued throughout to help the decision-making.

The projections didn’t just look at numbers, but drilled down into the potential flow-on effects of so many people not being able to work.

‘We put some science behind what we thought was coming our way. We knew there were going to be a lot of different types of payments and we needed trained staff in each of those areas,’ says Wendy.

‘We sort of had some understanding but we didn’t know the full scale of it until we did some forecasting.’

Wendy’s team had worked on crisis responses before, but COVID-19 was beyond any scale they’d previously known.

‘We‘ve managed emergencies in the past, like bushfires, North QLD floods, that involved reskilling about 3,000 people — and we thought that was big!’ exclaims Wendy.

‘In the first week someone said, “We’re going to have to train about 15,000 staff,” and I said, “Don’t be silly,”’ laughs Wendy. ‘Turns out that person knew what they were talking about.’

So, where did they get them? People from within Services Australia, new recruited staff, short term labour hire, and people from across the Australian Public Service from approximately 30 different agencies came to the rescue. They came from lots of different areas, and many of them had no customer service experience.

‘We talk about collaboration, but with this, there are so many different examples of collaboration, so many stakeholders, and everyone was willing to do what was necessary to get people the help they needed. We had a really strong shared purpose,’ says Wendy.

Keep it simple

To skill up such a large number of people quickly, Wendy says it was vital to have things centralised, consistent and simple.

‘Centralising the whole reskilling project to two multi-disciplinary teams was definitely the key to its success because it meant we could have a consistent approach.’

The teams kept as many communication channels open as possible, so everyone involved knew what they needed to know.

Each work stream had daily email updates, scrum meetings (an agile project management technique), a centralised Sharepoint page and a special training page with the resources and other relevant content.

Wendy said that giving people as much context as possible was super helpful.

‘A lot of people asked, “How long am I going to do this work for?” and we couldn’t really give them a clear answer because things changed every day. But we made sure that they always knew what was happening.’

Accept risk to get results

Another necessary simplification was streamlining the training itself. While this was a risk, the normal length of classes would have meant unacceptable delays in helping those in need.

Class lengths were reduced from five weeks to one week, and staff were given practical experience with the systems a lot earlier than usual.

It wasn’t all technical though — they also had to provide soft skills training to raise awareness of how to deal with sensitive issues like domestic violence.

Support your support staff

The lead teams focussed on supporting their training facilitators. While procedures and guides helped, it was the training facilitators who made the training effective.

‘We used about 350 skilled facilitators, working together with technical leads who hadn’t delivered training before but had the subject matter expertise,’ says Wendy.

The direct effects of the pandemic also meant that the normal ways of training weren’t available, so they had to be open to doing things differently.

‘The social distancing requirements meant training couldn’t be delivered face-to-face so we needed to support our facilitators to make online training as engaging as possible. We set up daily meetings and regular Skype chats to advise and talk through issues, and we created an online resource centre.

‘We had a lot of people working from home. We offered what we call “office-in-a-box” to provide redeployed staff with what they needed — a Surface Pro, a screen, and a mobile phone.’

Her team is now looking at how they can extend these ideas to other training programs as the need for social distancing continues.

‘I’m really keen to leverage off what we’ve learnt in the last few months about simplifying learning, taking it online and also opening up to different technologies, like voice biometrics and interactive voice recognition,’ says Wendy.

‘As challenging as it’s been, it’s definitely been an amazing experience.’

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