Vaccinate WA: The role of leadership in rapid project delivery

Renee Leon

Image license from Adobe Stock

Authored by Susannah Nichols from the Institute of Public Administration Australia (WA), this case study looks into the development of VaccinateWA, its challenges and the critical role of leadership and values in creating a system that delivered for WA’s communities. The full case study is published in the ANZSOG John L Alford Case Library.

In April 2020, the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic radically shifted priorities for Health Support Services, the health service provider that maintains shared services (including ICT) for the Western Australian (WA) public health system.

Health Support Services was required to urgently develop a vaccine administration management system (VaccinateWA) to assist in the delivery of the state’s COVID-19 immunisation program.

It quickly became apparent that to deliver the system the team assigned the task would need to face a demanding workload, overcome an important risk profile, and ensure quality was upheld to achieve a critical outcome for the Western Australian community.

Leadership was key.

Leading through uncertainty

Developing the VaccinateWA system in a short timeframe was a complex and challenging test. In six weeks the VaccinateWA team – led by senior leaders within Health Support Services including executive director Ralph Bates, program director Luella Forbes and program manager Hosam Aly – had to establish the VaccinateWA system. Leading the team to find a solution would be challenging.

Leadership at all levels within Health Support Services proved to be the critical factor in overcoming the high-risk profile within the project and successfully delivering a system that would provide the COVID-19 vaccine to all eligible Western Australians.

Building a productive culture

Senior leaders within Health Support Services worked hard to build a culture that was purpose- driven and values-based. Health Support Services had a clear purpose for its activities: ‘We support our customers to provide excellent health care’ (Health Support Services, 2022).

This purpose was underpinned by the organisation’s clearly stated values: ‘We put our customers at the heart of what we do; We value and care for each other; We promise, we own, we do; We will find a way; We make a difference together’ (Health Support Services, 2022).

Senior leaders within the organisation attributed their success in responding to the government’s demands during the pandemic to a workforce who reflected the organisation’s values.

Accountability and integrity in decision-making

Delivering VaccinateWA meant understanding the requirements of the project and going out to tender to procure the platform and support needed. Procurement processes can be lengthy and require agencies to adhere to procurement rules and practices.

The VaccinateWA leaders were aware that getting across the requirements of the project was critical in enabling the successful development of the system, and ensuring that Western Australians were protected from the COVID-19 virus.

Maintaining morale

During the development of VaccinateWA, effective leadership kept the team motivated and performing despite the challenging conditions and expectations.

Mr Aly explained that being part of the pandemic response provided the team with a purpose that drove their commitment to the project.

The VaccinateWA leaders understood that the project would be demanding of the team and could take its toll on their wellbeing and continuation with the project. As a result, the wellbeing of the team was a priority.

Vaccinating Western Australians

By January 2021, VaccinateWA was developed to enable online bookings and the management of COVID-19 vaccinations in Western Australia.

The VaccinateWA team were the first in Australia to develop a system that allowed for online bookings, that was also integrated with the Commonwealth system (Australian Immunisation Register) and was ready to go for the first vaccines that arrived in WA.

Key lessons

There are some key lessons from this case about the critical role leadership plays in a high-performing public sector agency.

First, leadership at all levels is critical in developing, embedding and maintaining a productive workplace culture.

Teamwork was important in delivering a rapid response to a community need during the pandemic. A positive culture enabled Health Support Services to respond to rapidly shifting priorities while supporting their workforce.

In addition, a strong agency culture, with its values modelled by its leaders, fostered greater accountability and integrity within its workforce.

Mr Aly identified that the team were committed to delivering a quality outcome for the community and following departmental processes was key in achieving this. He said that the culture within Health Support Services fosters teams to work together to achieve shared objectives and this is led from the top by the senior leaders.

Finally, leadership was a core driver in empowering the VaccinateWA team to manage the risks associated with delivering a project within uncertain conditions. With a strong culture underpinning the organisation, the VaccinateWA team were able to draw on the expertise from across Health Support Services as they focussed on outcomes and a ‘one team mindset’.

This case has shown the critical role culture plays in a high performing agency. The COVID-19 pandemic tested the public sector’s capacity to respond in a crisis. Importantly, a broader lesson that the public sector can take from this case is the central role of leaders in demonstrating and embedding the values of its agency at every opportunity – this may be the factor the prepares the public sector to respond to future crises.

View the full case study here.