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News, speeches and media

Making good decisions in a time of overload with Frances Adamson

News, speeches and media

IPAA podcast: Work with purpose, episode #5, 4 May 2020

DAVID PEMBROKE: Hello ladies and gentlemen and welcome to Work with Purpose, a podcast about the Australian Public Service. My name's David Pembroke. Thank you for joining me. Today, a programme with a difference. We've brought Studio 19 on the road and today we are recording and filming in IPAA ACT's offices in Barton, a stone's throw from Parliament House here in Canberra. We've also changed it up a little and I'm joined today by my first co-host, Holly Noble, the chair of IPAA's Future Leaders Forum. You will know that in each week we take questions from the Future Leaders. Well, today we will be asking them live. Holly's day job is the director of transformation and education in the Federal Department of Finance. Holly, welcome to you.

HOLLY NOBLE: Thank you.

DAVID PEMBROKE: Our guest today is Frances Adamson, the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Frances is an accomplished public servant, a South Australian and former rower at the Adelaide University Boat Club. She joined the Australian Public Service in 1985. She served Australia twice in the United Kingdom, the second time as Deputy High Commissioner and also in Asia on post in both Taipei and Hong Kong. Between 2011 and 2015, she served as Australia's Ambassador to the People's Republic of China, the first woman appointed to that role, and she was also the first woman to be appointed to her current position as Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and that was back in 2016. Frances has also been a foreign policy advisor to the former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. She joins me in Studio 19. Frances Adamson, welcome to Work with Purpose.

FRANCES ADAMSON: Thanks very much, David. Great to be here and nice to be with you too, Holly.

DAVID PEMBROKE: Frances, I'll begin with a bit of a story about myself because it has to be said that I've admired your sort of competence and composure from afar for many years. It was in fact in this very room, IPAA was hosting a function in your time as president and I remember watching you at that particular event and I was admiring the way that you deftly moved from one conversation to the next. I was pointing this out to my friend Andrew Metcalfe, when all of a sudden you turned and headed my way, and I remember being completely panicked.

You very politely and calmly asked me a question looking straight at me and I had nothing. I bumbled my way through an answer. And you were very polite, but I was crushed. I don't often lose my composure and I still cringe thinking about it. It has to be said that Metcalfe wasn't much help because as you did move on to the next person, he looked at me and he shook his head and it was as if to say, "Not your finest moment, David." Anyway, Frances, welcome to Work with Purpose. Do you have that effect on other people or was it just me?

FRANCES ADAMSON: Well, David, can I just say, that is not what I took away from our interaction. I took away a very pleasant meeting on a very pleasant occasion. So, can I ask you to rethink that in your own mind? It was a pleasure meeting you then. It's a pleasure being with you today.

DAVID PEMBROKE: But you do have that authority and I suppose, where does that come from? You sort of grew up in and around policy, in and around politics, did you? And you joined the APS sort of straight out of university, so was it was a career that you wanted to have and you were practising for from an early age?

FRANCES ADAMSON: Well, I don't know about an early age. I mean, these things start in our own minds at a particular point and sometimes ideas form over a longer period. But like a number of diplomats, I was on a student exchange programme at a certain stage in my life, very early university, and that opened my eyes a bit to the world. And along came an opportunity to come to Canberra. But to your point, because I think this is worth me picking you up on, if I might be so bold, you say I appear confident or I know what I'm doing or whatever. But of course, if that's the case now, that's great. But in my own mind and some things you remember unfailingly, even as long ago as 30 plus years, and I remember on my very first posting in Hong Kong, I'd been doing language training. I hadn't formally started my first posting as a vice-consul. I'd been in the public service for about a year and a half and the consul general asked me if I would represent her at the reception hosted by the Japanese consul general for their national day.

And there I was, a language trainee out in the new territories of Hong Kong. I had to find some suitable clothes, travel by underground into Central Hong Kong, up from the underground into a five star hotel, present myself to the consul general, say, "I'm here representing Australia, congratulations," et cetera. Now, look, my knees were just about quaking. I knew not one person in that room and you realise, it comes back to rooms again, you just have to bowl up to people. And sometimes, after a while your antennae develop, you realise the risk of interrupting something that's really important, so you sort of move on. But after a while you just have to introduce yourself to people, say who you are and that's how you start to meet people and how you develop networks of contacts.

I'm going to come back to IPAA a few times in our conversation because as a former president, I'm a great fan. And one of the things IPAA does really well in normal times, and even now over podcasts, is it brings people together. The act of coming together enables us all to practise, if you like, in a pretty friendly environment, meeting people, understanding what their perspectives are, asking good questions. That whole process, if you like, has been accelerated across the APS as we've worked together so closely with a purpose through this COVID period.

DAVID PEMBROKE: You come to the COVID period and in terms of your reflections on it, and I know a lot of that focus has been domestically around the health crisis and other things, but one of the big challenges was certainly getting Australians home. Can you tell us that story about DFAT?


DAVID PEMBROKE: … and the way it responded, and when you got the advice, and when you acted?

FRANCES ADAMSON: Yes, I can. And I suppose the question is, how long have you got? Because the story is still unfolding, if you like.


FRANCES ADAMSON: I mean, we've had something like 300,000 Australians have come home one way or another since the 13th of March. Early on I think the difficulties, people caught on cruise ships in a wide variety of locations. I remember early on looking at a map of the world on which was a little star for every cruise ship on which Australians were stranded and somehow affected and needing our help. We've brought six and a half thousand Australians home from 51 cruise ships in the period since the 13th of March.

And then none of this has been trivially easy and I absolutely take my hat off to colleagues here in Canberra who've been working night and day, to colleagues around the world, because we've still got 70% of APS staff, if you like, in place overseas serving Australia from a wide variety of departments, but quite a number of my colleagues too, and some of them have been working in very heavily affected by COVID parts of the world. In some cases they've been trying to help Australians from positions of self-isolation and quarantine, whether it's our heads of mission in Nepal.

FRANCES ADAMSON: I saw a fantastic photo the other day of Peter Budd giving a media interview at a social distance from the back of a car, through a car window with local media sort of gathered round because he'd sent vehicles. Somehow he'd collected Australians from across Nepal and brought them to a point where they could get on a flight and get home. There've been the most extraordinary things done and worked on. And of course, part of what's been needed is good information for Australians because in normal times we provide a level of what we call consular assistance, which is fit for purpose and reasonably modest. These have been totally unprecedented times, which have called for an approach that has gone well beyond what's written in our consular charter.

So, one of the things in this social media driven age that we've needed to do is we actually had to encourage, some needed no encouragement, but I had to encourage our Ambassadors, our High Commissioners, our Consuls General to communicate with Australians using social media. Let them know what commercial flights are available? What non-scheduled commercial flights might be able to be arranged? What's the level of interest? Where are people? I mean, a lot of coverage in Peru-

DAVID PEMBROKE: How much certainty though did you have of where all of those people were? So, the cruise lines sound like, "Okay, we might be able to know that quickly."


DAVID PEMBROKE: But there are lots of people in lots of places where you just would not have a clue that they're there.

FRANCES ADAMSON: Yeah. And I think it's probably fair to say you don't know anything quickly. You know there's a cruise ship, but there are hundreds of the things, thousands at any one time around the world. Where are the Australians? Where are Australians on COVID affected ships? What testing arrangements are in place? Where can they land? I mean, we've had some instances of Australians being caught on ships that haven't been able to berth. The Foreign Minister personally had to get engaged, calling counterparts, asking for assistance. In other cases though, we've always worked on the basis, for a decade or more, that at any one time there are about a million Australians overseas, right?


FRANCES ADAMSON: Australians love to travel. Some people like travelling so much that they stay overseas, put down roots and are very happy doing that until a time like this. And for many Australians in those situations, they've had to make pretty difficult calculations. Do they stay or do they go? And of course, our travel advice from the very beginning, we put out our first COVID bulletin in late January to warn Australians of this new thing and what it might mean, and we've kept them very much engaged since then.

Now we think there are still probably well over 10,000 Australians in parts of the world where they're contemplating coming home, wanting to come home, assessing their situation. We're in touch with them, including through our Heads of Mission, making these social media videos. Got half a million views in the first week and up to a million and a half in the second week just showing how much appetite there was to hear, whether it's our Ambassador in Paris talking about the situation there, including actually recently on Anzac Day, whether it was our Ambassador in Peru. A lot of Australians in Peru, including parts of the Amazon that are not so easy to get to.

So intrepid Australians, pretty capable Australians obviously, but some of them are really a long way from home and needing our help because there've been limits in a number of cases to what we've actually been able to do. But we've always wanted to be a calm, friendly voice at the end of a phone. We've taken 38,000 calls through our emergency call unit again since the 13th of March.

DAVID PEMBROKE: I'll throw to Holly in just a second, but can you describe at the moment, is there such a thing as a typical day for you? And can you give people some insight into how you're managing your workload with your team?

FRANCES ADAMSON: Sure. Well, I mean, a lot of things have changed. Let me just talk about change because I think, yeah, most public servants, we like routine, scheduled meetings. A day might have a particular shape, a particular day of the week. And for many of us, for myself included, that's been pretty much upended and we've had to rethink and reshape how we work together including because there's been a very high tempo of, if you like, Prime Ministerial led, Ministerial led meetings and engagements. Of course, the Chief Medical Officer, the Deputy Medical Officer, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, the Minister for Health, they've had a lot of profile, a lot of prominence. They've been central to every meeting.

FRANCES ADAMSON: But in many of the meetings that the Prime Minister's chaired, the Foreign Minister has been present, the Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister has been present. I've been there as well. So in the early stages, I think it's fair to say, if I look back on it, I was trying to do my normal job and this new thing called COVID response. It took me a week or two to actually realise, I remember saying in my office, "I can't do this. It's just not possible."

DAVID PEMBROKE: "I'm good but not that good."

FRANCES ADAMSON: I'm not. Well, apart from anything else, things that I'd planned to do with my diary, like my performance discussions with my 20 direct reports, many of whom are Ambassadors overseas, I had to keep cancelling them because other meetings were being called to attend to COVID. So, there's been a lot of change, a lot of different ways of doing things including, and this will be a constant theme in your discussions, flexible and remote working by staff, including me when I can. Obviously, if I'm dealing with classified material, I have to be in the office. A lot of WebExes, a lot of telephone hook-ups.

What I've seen is, I mean, we've all adjusted. Everyone's adjusted. There's some humour around these things. There's a lot of connection that can come through a screen. I think, yeah, lots of changes of work patterns, changes to the rhythm and the pace is just frenetic. You used the word 'reflect' before and I thought, "I had a couple of minutes to reflect on my way from the RG Casey Building over here, but there's not much other time for that during the day”. I think that's a thing that I, a bit more on weekends, a little bit more on weekends, you get an opportunity to think more deeply. I think it's important that we all find time to do that even while we feel we're working at a fairly cracking pace.

DAVID PEMBROKE: Indeed. All right. Yeah. Well, as I say, we've been taking questions from the Future Leaders and I know you've been a massive supporter of IPAA Young Leaders over the years and it may have even been an initiative of your time here in leadership. But we've got the chair, Holly. So Holly, the microphone is yours.

HOLLY NOBLE: Thank you. Frances, you touched on that there's a lot of change and we're interacting through screens and working a lot more digitally. Have you found that your leadership style and the way that you set culture has had to adapt a little bit, given that most of our interactions are now digital?

FRANCES ADAMSON: Yeah. Two things, but first of all, let me take no credit for the Future Leaders. I mean, they're wonderful.

DAVID PEMBROKE: Just bank it.

FRANCES ADAMSON: They're wonderful. No, no, no. They're wonderful, but all I've done is give encouragement. It was an idea of one of my many distinguished predecessors. Look, I think there's been quite a bit of discussion, Holly, during this period about, what is the right, if you like, leadership style for a crisis? And there's a lot of theory that in a leadership in a crisis you need more directive leadership.

My own leadership style is, I've got to say, normally very, or I like to think very, we all like to think very, but let's just drop the very and say it's inclusive and I'm DFAT's diversity and inclusion champion. I'm a very strong believer in all of this, whether it's women in leadership, or supporting flexible and remote working, or staff with disability. You'll find me putting my hand up on the Secretaries' Equality and Diversity Council often. So, that's my normal style.

There was a point, again, not in the very first days or the first couple of weeks, when it suddenly became apparent though, that we were having to make some really very substantial changes and decisions under a lot of pressure. Not just pressure relating to the safety of Australians overseas generally, but pressure relating to the safety of our staff and their dependence overseas and a whole range of other things as well. But you feel it most acutely because as a Secretary, my number one priority is the safety and welfare of our staff.

So I actually found myself, including with a bit of encouragement, I'd have to say, from my Chief Operating Officer Penny Williams, I needed to be more directive, she said. I understood that. I was able to do it with colleagues. I still wanted to be directive in an inclusive way, if you like, and there is a bit of tension in those things. But I think we adapted as a leadership group and I think we've passed through the peak of, if you like, directive and we're back to pretty focused, inclusive leadership. But to a real, again, I mean, the purpose. I mean, the title of the series is just absolutely spot on, to a purpose in terms of still elements of our crisis response, many of them relating to the safety of Australians obviously, but not solely.

It's about supply chains. It's about assistance to Australian businesses, whether it's through Export Finance Australia, Tourism Australia, Austrade, they're part of the DFAT portfolio. We work very closely with them and they're providing frontline help to Australian businesses. So, whether it's during that phase or whether it's now, and we're putting a lot of effort now into: what does recovery look like? As the prime minister says, "It's about the other side." What does it look like as we continue to help Australians in terms of jobs, in terms of economic growth? What does that look like when the tourism industry, international tourism has completely ground to a halt, when supply chains are broken, when it's very difficult to get your rock lobsters or fresh produce of any kind into the bellies of aircraft because they're not flying?

That's where the International Air Freight Assistance Mechanism has been so useful. There's a sectoral support fund, relief and sectoral support fund, a billion dollars’ worth that colleagues are helping work on as well. So, people often think of us in terms of consulate, a lot of work supporting business, a lot of work also actually on input into domestic policy making. Because, DFAT through our embassies, we're the eyes and ears out there in terms of what's working. Social distancing measures, how do you release restrictions once they've been put in place? What's the experience in relation to schools? What's the experience in relation to testing, apps? All of these things.

There's a vast trove of information coming in from our overseas post, which is going to the Department of Health and across government and they're looking at and saying, "Is this something that we can work with? Do we want to know more about that? Might that be relevant to Australia?" So look, that's the start of an answer. It's not the full answer necessarily, but across the service I think it's fair to say a lot of thought is now going into policy development and thinking around delivery for the other side.

HOLLY NOBLE: So, you've spoken about kind of waves of change and being able to move through that and what recovery looks like.


HOLLY NOBLE: It was very impressive how quickly the APS was able to enact their business continuity planning. We just moved so quickly and we were very adaptable and I was very proud to be a public servant as part of that. What other types of things that you would want to keep from your business continuity planning exercise? Were there anything that worked very well that might see us through the future waves of change? How might we adapt?

FRANCES ADAMSON: Look, that's a really good question, Holly. And of course, you don't start to do business continuity planning on the day you need it. I mean, every department, I think, has been sort of doing it for years and we like to think that we've learnt along the way. But I think one of the reasons it was so successful, I think I've already made mention of my COO, my Chief Operating Officer, but I want to make mention of all COOs and of the COO committee and of our chief risk officers and all the people who contributed to this, but not just people who've been in senior positions. When you're going through a period of change, you really want input from people who think differently, input from young leaders, emerging leaders, future leaders, leaders of any kind, people who can think differently.

I think what that's done is effectively, if you like, almost, I won't say it's totally collapsed the public service in terms of hierarchy, but it's much more around what you can do, what ideas you can bring to the table. How can we make this work? And I think there are lots of things. I mean, we're engaged in a discussion in DFAT at the moment, two main elements. One is, how do we learn lessons as we go? We're very fortunate because just over five years ago that government decided that AusAID should be integrated into DFAT, and AusAID brought with them an Office of Development Effectiveness. And their role is to monitor and evaluate our aid programmes as we go, if you like, and once they're completed at various stages.

So, we've got the Office of Development Effectiveness, if you like. I've got them sitting on my shoulder in a very friendly way, helping us evaluate as we go along: what's the feedback from our staff? What's the feedback from Australians we're serving? How can we adjust this? Have we got our governance mechanisms in place? Because, for public servants it's not just the agility to do things differently. We've got to be accountable as we go. So, part of the discussion is, what are we learning as we go? We really want to learn. But then, what does the future look like? And the way I think of it, this might be a bit extreme, I'm not normally extreme, but I think there's an opportunity now for us almost to start with a blank slate. There's the period that went before COVID. That's how we did things. We've now got an opportunity to rethink, reimagine, not just in a theoretical way but drawing on the very practical experience of the last weeks and months and some more to come.

So, I think that's very much up for discussion. But I wouldn't want to underplay either, I mean, I think the elements of hardship that our staff across the servers are going through in terms of sense of isolation, disruption to normal routines, having to work and home-school children at the same time. I mean, we're enjoying, the three of us, having a face-to-face discussion. I mean, how good is that? We want that. We need it. There's almost a sort of physical response to it. So, I think while there is a lot that is positive and a lot that we, in a way, want to be able to sort of grab hold of and do something with, I think there needs to be a good discussion about all of that. I think we will probably need to, maybe more than we realised, I think the adjustments of a return to work and a return to more normal life, whatever that might look like in a future sense, I think we've just got to be quite thoughtful about that and supportive of staff.

HOLLY NOBLE: You've mentioned, for want of a better word, information overload. There is so much information coming in that there is going to be future change happening. It's not going to stop. We've got social isolation. How do we cope with all of these things that we haven't necessarily had to before? Are there any main adjustments that you think particularly a future leader would need to make in terms of either resilience or being adaptable?

FRANCES ADAMSON: I think resilience is a really important point. I mean, your point about information, let me just touch on that as well too because I think at one stage early on I was receiving about 20 different reports in relation to COVID. Whether it's what's happening in our South Pacific neighbours, numbers of Australians overseas who might want to return, issues around our own staff, welfare checks, supply chains, all sorts of things. You realise at a certain point it becomes too much. So you have to work out, everyone needs to work out, where do you get your information from?

Now, future leaders are really good at that because you've got your own feeds, you've designed the way you absorb information differently. But I think this tells us, including from the smallest human interaction between us to the biggest geopolitical change out there, things are changing in the world around Australia and our pre-COVID assumptions we're going to have to re-examine. So, you've got to be thinking about the tiny, almost an atom-like through to the biggest thing that you can imagine. So part of it is that, but in terms of resilience, how do you build resilience other than through experience? I'm not sure. No one particularly goes out there wanting to get scars on your back or to be toughened up or whatever. I think I've been assisted in helping lead our response on COVID by the fact that I was… you mentioned that I'd had a posting in Taipei. I was there during SARS.



FRANCES ADAMSON: SARS hit Taiwan very, very hard and Taiwan learned enormous lessons from it that it's never forgotten. And I did too. So, I know what it feels like. There was a genuine sense of fear of the unknown early on. What does this mean? How is this virus spread? We still don't really understand it, but I think you build resilience through your own experience. And I think managers need to help staff build resilience too. It's got to be part of a conversation. You want people to grow, to use this opportunity. There's opportunity for tremendous growth at the moment. But you don't want to weigh people down too heavily because then what is otherwise a positive experience becomes a negative.

So I think you have to know yourself and I would say, this might surprise people a bit, I think it helps to be able to somehow look at yourself in a detached way, to just be a bit objective about, what are your signs of stress? Are you snapping at people? Have you got sort of aches and pains that you don't normally have? All of those sorts of things. So, you can become more resilient if you're looking after yourself.

HOLLY NOBLE: And making time for reflection.


DAVID PEMBROKE: So, in terms of the recovery and it's interesting, in the earlier podcasts, Catherine Jones, Elizabeth Kelly, speaking about the role of business and as we move into recovery, into what will be a new economy, the role of business to create employment, to generate tax revenues, et cetera, what's your reflections on that and the role that DFAT will play in the new economy?

FRANCES ADAMSON: Yeah, sure. Well, let me just say there's one thing that we're particularly focused on. We're doing a number of things, but one thing that others may not have mentioned. During this period, and Australia is not dissimilar from other countries, governments have needed to change a number of the ways that they do things in relation to trade policy, if you like. A whole range of measures have been introduced to support business. And that's all good in a crisis, but if those measures were not targeted, if you like, not temporary, not transparent and not consistent with the World Trade Organisation rules, we would find ourselves in a much more, if you like, protected world and that means a protectionist world, and that would not be good for Australia as we seek to rebuild our economy.

We can get a certain amount of growth domestically, a population of 25 million, it's not small. But to really get things going, we need to have those connections to the rest of the world for trade, for investment, for tourism, for international students. And part of the work that we're doing in terms of our policy thinking and advice to government is around the temporary nature of these measures and how they might be undone when the time is right. The prime minister has been active in the G20, for example, the Virtual Leaders' meeting that took place and with other counterparts in saying, "Yes, we need to do this, but we also need to be looking ahead to growth and that protection is going to need to come off if we're going to be able to grow along with others."

And let's remember the Indo-Pacific region before this happened was generating something like 70% of global growth. So, we've got a real interest in our neighbours once they've recovered. There's still a long way to go there, particularly for some of them, being really able to fire up their own economies and generate growth, which will help us as well.

DAVID PEMBROKE: But do you also see that there will be that necessity for Australia to really come out of the blocks as quickly as it possibly can to capitalise on that growth in the Indo-Pacific region and to be present, available, creating value, delivering goods, delivering services?

FRANCES ADAMSON: Yeah. I mean, yes, of course. Services is such a big part of our economy, around about 70% of our GDP. But the Prime Minister from the outset talked about these twin crises, a health crisis and an economic crisis, and the health elements, everything the government's done really has been based on advice from health professionals. Their advice will continue to be very influential, I think. So, I just caught the tail end of the Prime Minister's press conference today. He's already talking about, "We're going to need to keep some of these settings in place for a while yet." So yes, but on the basis of good health-

DAVID PEMBROKE: Good advice.

FRANCES ADAMSON: … advice as well.

DAVID PEMBROKE: So, just a final question and perhaps this is to ask you to reflect on this, this recent period, but what's made you proudest to be a public servant during the response?

FRANCES ADAMSON: Oh look, I mean, really obviously just the amazing work my colleagues have done. I see my colleagues more than I see anybody else. But I know if you had any secretary or head of agency in this chair, they'd probably say the same thing. Just, we all know that we do valuable things in serving the Australian people. We know that in normal times. In normal times though, you don't necessarily get that continued recognition. Normal life is normal life. But when I see the amazing way that they've stepped up, getting those flights out of Wuhan first up, a whole range of ways.

But I have said so very openly and repeatedly, I am incredibly proud of my colleagues. I find myself using adjectives that I don't normally. I mean, epic and intense and the sort of things that my 18 to 28 year old children use because it is, it is beyond normal. People have just risen magnificently to the occasion off the back of bushfires and all of the other things, and air quality and other things in Canberra early in the year. So, I say it about the DFAT portfolio, but I say it more broadly about the public service. Because, it's not that we're beating our own drum or anything particularly. I just think, we've done what we're here to do, what we joined for.

DAVID PEMBROKE: Yep, exactly. Well Frances, thank you to you. And to you, Holly.

HOLLY NOBLE: Thank you.

DAVID PEMBROKE: Thank you for coming along today to ask those questions. And thanks to you, the audience, again for the overwhelming support we've had to this podcast. I think a podcast about the Australian Public Service where we do talk about the public service and the work of the public service is attracting a real audience. So, that's fantastic. So you, the audience, if you would like to review us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen, that will help us to be discovered. So, that would be much appreciated. And indeed, we are going to randomly select one of those reviews, good or bad, I don't care, but we are going to give you a T-shirt. Now, the first recipients of the Work with Purpose T-shirts, which I'm now going to show to the camera there… Frances, one for you.

FRANCES ADAMSON: Oh, fantastic.

DAVID PEMBROKE: And Holly, one for you.

HOLLY NOBLE: Thank you very much.

FRANCES ADAMSON: Thank you, that's great.

DAVID PEMBROKE: Wear those with pride, your Work with Purpose.


DAVID PEMBROKE: The podcast that has it all. So, please leave us a review and we'll randomly select a review and we will send those through. So again, my thanks to Holly Noble and to Frances Adamson, and thank them both for their service. And thanks to you, the audience. We will be back at the same time next week with another distinguished Australian public servant. But for the moment it's bye for now.

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