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Streamlining the vaccine rollout

3 December 2021
ADF members working with Department of Health staff at the Vaccine Operations Centre
ADF members working with Department of Health staff at the Vaccine Operations Centre

Defence analysts leveraged their operations analysis expertise to help the Vaccine Operations Centre run more efficiently.

It would be hard to overstate the magnitude of the logistical challenge facing the Vaccine Operations Centre (VOC), which is responsible for co-ordinating the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines across the nation.

As the rollout was ramping up earlier this year, analysts from Defence stepped up to provide advice to the federal Department of Health on streamlining the Canberra-based centre’s processes, helping to make this highly complex and fast-paced operation more efficient.

A formal request for assistance from Health came about as a result of the efforts of Dr Brendan Pell, who was working as the science-and-technology advisor to Joint Task Force 629, which is responsible for all domestic Australian Defence Force (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 the centre run more smoothly. He visited the centre and met key staff to scope the work and understand their problems, which confirmed his initial assessment.

A team of analysts led by Dr 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,” he explains. “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.”

Humans, technology and processes

The team had just three weeks to complete their system-wide review: two weeks to collect data at the centre and analyse it, and the third 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 says. “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.”

Command-and-control expertise

Dr Bowles explains that his team’s unique operations analysis skills are 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 says. “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 concludes.

“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 refocus, 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 themselves.”

The team from Defence provided a list of recommendations to 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. Health accepted the recommendations and brought in a consultancy to assist with implementing them.