The expertise of Defence operations’ analysts helped make the Vaccine Operations Centre (VOC) more efficient as it faced the challenges of rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine nationally.
As the rollout was ramping up earlier this year, the analysts provided advice to the federal Department of Health.
The request from the health department came about as a result of the efforts of Brendan Pell, who was working as the science and technology adviser to Joint Task Force 629, which is responsible for all domestic ADF operations, including Operation COVID-19 Assist.
Dr Pell heard about the challenges the VOC was facing and realised that Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG) could apply its operations’ analysis expertise to help.
He visited the centre and met key staff to understand their problems.
A team of analysts, led by Cameron Bowles, was tasked with investigating how the VOC’s performance could be improved.
Dr Bowles visited the centre for the first time in late March.
“That visit was to scope out information about the Vaccine Operations Centre and what challenges they were having,” Dr Bowles said.
“This included understanding their mission, assets, C2 [command and control] structure, enterprise solutions, business processes, and then to try to identify what their challenges were.
“Then following that data-collection and scoping effort, I had to come up with a proposal of what DSTG could achieve that would add value for the VOC.”
The team had just three weeks to complete their system-wide review, which included two weeks collecting data at the centre and analysing it, and a week to write up their findings.
Based on their early observations, it was decided that more Defence experts should be brought in for the second week of the project to focus on data visualisation and human factors.
“When we talk about systems approaches for businesses, we often talk about the golden triangle of humans, technology and processes,” Dr Bowles said.
“You want humans to run technology and processes, but if there is a flaw in technology or a weakness in the processes, often humans will overcome those through ad hoc solutions and human-to-human interactions.
“There was a lot of that going on at the Vaccine Operations Centre.
“They were overcoming the shortfalls in the technology support systems and the lack of defined processes, and that made the cognitive load quite immense for the staff, which increased the risk of them missing something really important.”
Dr Bowles said his team’s unique operations’ analysis skills were being leveraged to enhance Defence capability through DSTG’s role in designing future C2 systems.
“The ADF is looking to implement the next generation of C2 systems using hierarchical command and agile control,” he said.
“DSTG is supporting Headquarters Joint Operations Command in this endeavour through their implementation of Plan MURA, which is their modernisation effort.”
The team approached the VOC in the same way, breaking down the C2 system to determine what was working well and what wasn’t.
“I think it was a combination of factors: the Department of Health lacked a bit of experience in running operational campaigns, but they also lacked the capacity to actually do a mission pause and adjust,” Dr Bowles said.
“What we would do in the ADF if things were not going as we had hoped is we would call an operational pause and do an assessment of where we are, where we need to get to, and then make those changes to pivot and redirect.
“But with an ongoing activity such as the vaccine rollout, there’s not capacity to pause, take stock and re-focus, and then get after the problem in a more systematic fashion.
“So we were brought in because we were independent, we had the expertise and we were adding capacity that Health didn’t have.”
The team from Defence provided a list of recommendations to the Department of Health on how to create a framework for efficient business processes and sustainable work practices for the centre’s staff that would enable the VOC to concentrate on its mission.
The department accepted the recommendations and brought in a consultancy to assist with implementing them.