It has been an eventful few years in the life of Dr Sumit Sinha-Roy. As well as becoming a father for the first time, and completing ANZSOG’s Executive Master of Public Administration, last March saw him play a key role in assisting the Western Australia’s COVID-19 operations.
Dr Sinha-Roy studied and graduated as a doctor in the UK, before moving to WA in 2013, and later taking an opportunity to work for the Department of Health, as both a public manager and a practicing clinician.
He says he loved the challenge of combining the two roles and using his clinical experience to improve the way the WA health system worked.
“When you are doing purely clinical work, day in and day out, you can forget you are part of a bigger entity – the public service fabric,” he said.
“This gave me an opportunity to pause and say ‘what is it that we do in health’?” and a chance to be a conduit between the clinical and non-clinical setting. I think of myself as a public servant who happens to be a doctor, rather than just a doctor.”
Dr Sinha-Roy wanted to do more study and in 2019 he began an EMPA to improve his understanding of the public sector and the broader environment he was working in.
“I am incredibly grateful to the WA Public Sector Commission who provided me with a scholarship for the EMPA and my workplace for supporting me,” he said.
“This was an opportunity because everything I do is about public value – but only in the sense of ‘I am trying to make society better’. In the EMPA you learn to ask ‘Is this delivering public value?’ That’s not a simple Yes/No question, it’s another way of thinking about what you are doing.”
He said the experience provided him with more ‘toolkits’ to think about his work, and the great opportunity to work with a motivated and talented cohort of public managers from across Australia and New Zealand.
All of this came in handy when he, and his colleagues, were forced to adapt to the presence of COVID-19 in WA, and to cooperate and communicate in new ways to fight the pandemic.
“A lot of the benefit of the EMPA comes through the collegiality you build with your cohort. There are some amazing minds in the public sector that we should be proud of. You are going to meet people who think like you do – but you are also going to meet people who don’t which is important, because you want a diverse team of people who challenge what you do, to help you know the reasons behind your own thinking.”
“It’s important to learn the unwritten things – because if I want to go back to the written material it’s there – but just those conversations about how people are thinking and feeling and how to draw on that in the workplace.
He said that the EMPA’s Work-Based Project - which sees teams of EMPA students work on a real-life project for a government agency - was a great experience in team-building.
“For the six of us our objective was very clear – provide a product for Services Australia that would be used and useful. Coming up with good outcomes relied on teamwork, and the WBP was a great experience, showing me how to build teams. I’d be happy if I could build teams that work at 65-70% of that capacity.
When COVID-19 hit WA in March 2020, Dr Sinha-Roy’s work changed overnight. Western Australia was highly successful in stopping community spread of COVID-19, something which was built on a rapid response and implementation of testing and isolation.
“In early March I was doing a week on call, and begun to receive calls from the Emergency Department, saying they had people who had been through Wuhan with respiratory symptoms, and what should they do?” That was when the reality kicked in. This thing was here in Perth and that no matter how isolated you are, a pandemic will still reach you,” he said.
He said that while WA had a pandemic plan, and agencies such as the Health Department, police and the State Health Incident Coordination Centre were able to cooperate effectively, the plan had to be iterated from the beginning due to the specific features of COVID-19 as a contagious disease.
“The first month was really a blur, working 14-hour days, sometimes in full PPE. We had to put together a team and set up COVID clinics in the three main teaching hospitals in 48 hours, and later extend that to secondary hospitals. We had to look at everything from infection control, to how we collected and shared data because that was how we were going to win this battle.
They also had to set up capacity for ‘surge testing’ and be able to safely and rapidly deploy staff to areas of high-risk, including becoming a semi-permanent presence at the airport’
“Taking testing out to the community is great, but you are moving from a controlled to an uncontrolled environment, so you need to have really good risk plans. You can’t expect to have everything covered the first time, but you need to learn from your mistakes.”
His team was also part of the WA’s hotel quarantine system, a role where the Health Department was required to work with a range of agencies.
“We have a health team that guides guests through their quarantine journey, including nurses and GPs. We are clear and open with guests and we talk about the potential issues and what we can do about them. They recognise the challenges of quarantining and do an amazing job and we have processes in place to limit transfer risks.”
He said that the biggest challenge early was communications, both within government and between government and the public, because information kept changing so quickly.
“How do you disseminate information quickly? That’s a challenge that has continued through the pandemic – how do you ensure it’s the right public messaging when one word can make a difference, e.g.. ensuring targeting the right people to come in for testing.”
“Information agility was really important. Finding out what is the right message for each medium – for example, what can work well in tweets or text messages might not work in other contexts. You also can’t use the same language in each medium, but the core of the message must remain the same.”
“The public service often gets a bad rap for being clunky, slow and bureaucratic – but we are actually very agile and able to adapt to the needs of the community now and going forward.
“We’ve got some really skilled people with the capability to deliver public value. Greatness in the public sector comes from collaboration, and the public sector needs to create that learning environment.
Dr Sinha-Roy is now serving as, East Metropolitan Health Service (EMHS) Vaccination Lead, overseeing part of the WA Health Department’s vaccine rollout.
“The challenges of this role are multi-faceted: the different vaccines have different requirements. We also need to build a vaccination workforce that is separate from that of managing COVID patients and regular health service functions.
He said that the EMPA had helped him to grapple with the difficulties of combatting COVID and helped him navigate the fast-changing environment and have more impact on how things were done.
“One of my EMPA learnings is that there is always a solution to a problem, it just hasn’t been found yet. The EMPA helped me to develop my confidence and my ability to influence up. It’s given me a better understanding of the overall environment, the language of the public service and the vocabulary you need to be influential.”