Helping people with disability during COVID-19

For Jodi Cassar PSM, public service is all about coming together and working towards a common goal.

“Everything’s about teams and creating good teams,” Cassar told The Mandarin.

“If you can create good teams, you can create good outcomes.”

A branch manager for Australia’s Disability Strategy at Social Services, Cassar was awarded a public service medal as part of this year’s Australia Day honours.

The award was a recognition of her portfolio response within the COVID-19 taskforce. In that role, Cassar focused on supporting people with disability, their workers and carers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The taskforce helped deliver 2.5 million vaccine doses and disability support pensions to NDIS participants and support the distribution of 3.3 million rapid antigen tests.

She was surprised by a genuine willingness across all sectors to achieve a positive outcome for people with disability, even if “things were not always perfect”.

“People were very understanding that, in the time of a pandemic, there were new situations every day that we weren’t necessarily expecting,” Cassar said.

The pandemic was a confusing time with misinformation rampant. Cassar’s task force focused on how that affected people with disability.

They believed having good relationships and communication across sectors helped during a crisis.

A key part of the portfolio response was linking back to the source of truth, referring people to federal or state and territory departments to ensure they had relevant, factual and timely information.

Cassar said collaboration between governments and people with disability was a great experience.

“I’m a big believer in iterative change to make a difference,” she said.

“Really engaging with people that the change will impact on, [by] listening and understanding what it is that that community or that sector or that person needs, you can make sure they are receiving the right services and support.”

Responding to COVID-19 was not the only time in her 20-year public service career Cassar has worked in emergency response: she has worked in bushfire, flood and cyclone responses.

“It’s part of not just the public service culture but just the Australian culture in general — we sincerely do want to help people when they most need,” Cassar said.

“[It’s] the important part of any disaster recovery, not just the immediate response — how do we make sure that post the disaster or the event that those support services are still there?”

Cassar began her public service career in Centrelink’s Maitland office, working there for a dozen years.

She then worked on major transformation projects within what was called the Department of Human Services. She spent four years on the welfare payment infrastructure program before becoming NSW ICT state manager at Social Services in 2019.

While working on a user-centred welfare program, Cassar spent a weekend in Redfern talking to a group of high-school and tertiary First Nations students about changes to ABSTUDY.

“There was one particular participant of the design session, Sam, who was just a fantastic young kid,” Cassar said.

“His parting words to us all were if we could just make some of these changes, and really stir up the dust, that will make a significant difference in the lives of First Nations people.

“His comment has always stuck with me.”

Collaboration and teamwork underscore Cassar’s work. She said “open, frank and honest conversations” helped when dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One person’s idea shouldn’t just be shut down,” she said. “If we can really collaborate, and add layers to a particular idea, you actually end up with a better outcome.

“It really is about those relationships, and how you work together and keep communication open and honest in good times and in more challenging times.”

Cassar said receiving the public service medal is a humbling experience and an honour.

“If I could share the award with all my team and take them on that journey with me, I absolutely will,” she said.

“It wasn’t just me. There were a lot of other people who were part of this response that helped achieve outcomes.”

This belief in teamwork extends to Cassar’s personal life; she was awarded the Netball NSW Dot McHugh OAM Administrator Award in 2022.

“Anything in life is really a team effort.”

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