Tā mātou urupare ā-Tari ki te KOWHEORI-19 Our Departmental response to COVID-19
Well before COVID-19 shut Aotearoa’s borders and changed the way most of us lived and worked, Te Tari Taiwhenua was preparing to ensure we were able to continue to deliver for our customers – to connect people, communities and government to make New Zealand better for New Zealanders.
As a Department, our response was a demonstration of our principles and behaviours – we make it easy, we make it work; we are stronger together; and we take pride in what we do.
Some services provided by the Department have been impacted because of COVID-19. This impact is due to the physical restrictions for alert levels 2 to 4, the flow-on effects of resource prioritisation, and the wider impact of COVID-19 on Aotearoa. See ‘Part 4 – Non-Financial Performance Statements’ for more detail on the affected performance measures.
Continuing essential services for New Zealanders
Throughout COVID-19 alert levels 2 to 4, 15% of our people were based in our office buildings delivering essential services, including:
- Issuing of passports, birth and death certificates, and citizenship without ceremonies, including processing urgent requests for Kiwis wanting to return home
- Supporting an 0800 call centre, identifying critical services, issues and supply chain matters with ISP providers and all-of-government ICT support
- Supporting the ongoing operations of Executive Government.
Supporting a system-wide response
The Government Chief Digital Officer (GCDO) had a key system role during COVID-19, and supported government agencies to maintain critical digital services and continue to deliver for New Zealanders during the response.
The GCDO also partnered with other government departments and vendors to ensure that available digital resources were directed to the areas of greatest need across government. Our Digital Public Service branch helped the progression and delivery of digital services for New Zealanders during the COVID-19 response. This included:
- rapidly scaling the infrastructure to support Government’s main Unite Against COVID-19 website using cloud services (Common Web Platform and Amazon Web Services) to ensure it remained up and running even under heavy demand
- contributing to the National Crisis Management Centre’s (NCMC) response and delivering subsequent joint Health/Government Digital Services report back on technology options to improve contact tracing, manage self-isolation, and monitor population movements and disease spread
- prototyping a Bluetooth-enabled ‘COVID card’ together with the Ministry of Health and the COVID-19 Response Public Private Partnership team. These cards use technology to make it easy for authorities to contact trace when needed.
Central and Local Government Partnership
Our Central and Local Government Partnerships group supported the COVID-19 Local Government Response Unit by collaborating with local government to ensure the continued delivery of essential services to all our communities, in alignment with the Government’s COVID-19 national response plan by:
- Integrating the Department of Internal Affairs’ response functions with Local Government New Zealand, Society of Local Government Managers, National Emergency Management Agency, other agencies and national command structures
- Ensuring effective communication between central and local government to enable central government to provide nationally consistent guidance; and assist councils to understand the impact for them and how they can comply with relevant requirements of local government legislation, including any legislative changes or statutory overrides required
- Keeping the Minister of Local Government informed of urgent issues and providing advice on legislative ‘fixes’.
The Office of Ethnic Communities (OEC) stayed close to New Zealand’s ethnic communities throughout the pandemic, ensuring community members’ needs were heard and responded to. This included producing key information in 28 languages and working with community members to help share crucial messages widely. The Ethnic Communities Development Fund was reprioritised to allow funding to support communities through COVID-19.
The Office of Ethnic Communities produced 68 information videos translating important COVID-19 messages to ensure those at risk of being excluded had access to vital information. These videos were well-received by the communities who speak those languages, with a total of 101,696 views. Feedback from the videos highlighted the need and opportunity for more targeted work ensuring critical government information reaches deep into migrant communities in multiple languages.
Significant community advisory support
When the country entered lockdown and the subsequent alert levels because of COVID-19, the mode by which community grant programmes were administered needed to be modified to ensure the impact on communities was minimised. It was vital that community sector organisations were able to continue to apply for and receive funding. Hāpai Hapori (our Community Operations group) ensured community advisory services continued to be offered by:
- Adapting the operating model to provide advisory services via online, teleconferencing and videoconferencing facilities
- Making meaningful changes to simplify the application processes and reduce the volume of supporting documentation
- Approving extensions to grants where they were unable to fully spend funding by the due date
Hāpai Hapori ensured community advisory services continued heavily involved in delivering support within regions and undertook leadership within the welfare work stream with a focus on the homeless. This demonstrated the knowledge and cross-sector relationships that are strong within our team and allowed for fantastic outcomes for some of New Zealand’s most vulnerable.
The impacts of COVID-19
Gambling, Racing, and Community and Voluntary sector
COVID-19 affected the gambling system as all Class 4 (‘pokie machines’) venues and casinos were closed under alert levels 3 and 4, and there was a reduction in applications for gambling licences. This, in turn, will affect grants to New Zealand’s community and voluntary, arts, culture and sporting organisations which rely on the proceeds of gambling to operate. At the same time, there was concern that the number of people accessing unregulated offshore online gambling sites increased during lockdown.
To respond to these issues, the Department is delivering a significant programme of work under an accelerated timeline. The programme crosses three portfolios (Internal Affairs, Racing, and the Community and Voluntary Sector). It builds on the online gambling review that was already underway before the lockdown, and the passing of the Racing Industry Act 2020.
Charities Services demonstrated a flexible and pragmatic approach to supporting charities and entities wanting to become charities during the pandemic. We extended annual reporting dates, made documentation requirements easier to manage, fast-tracked applications from entities wanting to become charities where they were involved in the COVID-19 response or recovery, and provided relevant information to charities through a range of channels – including a webinar attended by 468 individuals and one-on-one virtual meetings for charities with specific needs.
Archives and National Library
Due to physical restrictions in place at COVID-19 alert levels, there was limited access to the physical files held at Archives New Zealand at levels 4 and 3 and access by appointment only at level 2. For National Library there was no access to collections through the public reading rooms at levels 4 and 3 and very limited access at level 2. Throughout COVID-19, access to the digital collections and resources at Archives New Zealand and the National Library through online channels were a primary focus.
We experienced a sharp increase in visitors to the National Library website, with April seeing 274,000 sessions – the busiest month ever. The Archives New Zealand website also saw a significant increase in visits, with almost 72,000 sessions. The most searched item related to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and the Archives YouTube channel experienced viewing hours of 10,000 more than April and May in 2019.
Our Ministerial and Secretariat Services group worked to maintain critical services to support the ongoing operations of Ministers and their offices during the COVID-19 response. This included ensuring Ministers and staff had the capability and tools to work remotely, and VIP Transport services were available to support Executive Government’s priorities.
Aotearoa’s travel restrictions
COVID-19 restrictions on Aotearoa’s border has seen less travel available to New Zealanders, contributing to lower demand for New Zealand passports, with 540,059 provided in 2019/20, down from 736,208 in 2018/19.
These border restrictions, and restrictions on mass gatherings during alert levels 2 to 4, have also resulted in fewer Guests of Government visits to New Zealand, and changes to the delivery of those national commemorative events which have been held since restrictions began.
This reduced demand for passports and support for official guests and events is expected to continue into 2020/21 as the world continues to respond to COVID-19.
Keep It Real Online digital safety campaign
The Department ran Phase 1 of Keep It Real Online, our public awareness campaign from early-May to mid-July 2020 to help create safer online experiences for children and young people. Under alert levels 3 and 4, New Zealanders had more time at home and it became clear that children and young people were spending increased time online. Government recognised the need for parents and caregivers to have greater awareness of the harms that exist for children and young people in the online world. We needed to equip parents and carers to manage these risks – for example, by paying more attention to what their children are doing online and having proactive conversations with their children about the importance of online safety and how to keep themselves safe. Cabinet approved funding of $1.5 million to develop and implement the first phase of the campaign.
Keep It Real Online featured four videos that used humour to promote important messages about online risks and online safety. The Department also launched www.keepitrealonline.govt.nz as a channel providing more information. The four promotional videos identified common online risks, such as children watching age-inappropriate content and pornography, and threats like online grooming and online bullying. These videos and the campaign went viral, and by 15 July 2020 had been viewed over 30 million times. New Zealand received international recognition for the campaign, due to the important messages being delivered in a way that resonated with people all over the world.
The Department received a further $1.5 million for phase two of the campaign, which will be developed and rolled out over the next 12 months. This phase will create specific messaging and resources for children and young people. The Department will again work collaboratively across the public sector, including with the Ministry of Education and the Office of Film and Literature Classification, and with non-government organisations.
Supporting the Department to respond to COVID-19
During alert levels 3 and 4, approximately 85 percent of our 2,400 people were working from home. Under alert level 2, many staff continued to work from home and a graduated approach for staff to return to the office commenced on 18 May 2020.
We scaled up support for our people during the COVID-19 lockdown period by providing additional guidance, equipment and information to staff. We delivered office IT equipment and chairs to more than 600 of our people, allowing them to work safely and comfortably from home.
A programme is currently underway to understand the variety of ways we can work and how we might adapt as an organisation to embrace them, so arrangements work for the people we serve, as well as for our people and the Department.