Only half joking, senior public servants have been commenting on how much better the country has been running during the caretaker period, without an elected government running the show.

That is all about to change. The more nervous department heads will have been into the office since Sunday, double-checking the Labor version of their incoming government brief, making sure that they have not overlooked anything that Kevin Rudd mentioned in his victory speech or press conference.

They know that a change of government, whether or not it means a changed country, certainly means a changed public service.

In their voluminous folders of incoming government briefs, the public service will tell their new Ministers about the work of departments and agencies, alert them to looming problems, and pointedly demonstrate a thorough knowledge of Labor policy. Indeed, if the new Minister was not previously the shadow, he or she may find their department knows more than they do about Labor’s policies in their portfolio.

The senior public service will be desperate to show it can work with the new government after 11 years of Howard. Most of them have a further nervous week waiting for appointment of a Minister; a very few will already be preparing to brief the new Prime Minister.

The priorities flagged by Kevin Rudd – health, education, Kyoto, Iraq, broadband – will be their immediate focus. The Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-13, Bali) starts next week, and runs to 14 December. An Australian Prime Minister and Environment Minister who have just ratified Kyoto will be feted internationally; they won’t pass up the opportunity to attend. What does ratification take? Presumably you can’t just email it in – someone in the Greenhouse Office will be working out what exactly needs to be done.

That’s the only promise with a pressing deadline; other priorities will take more planning, and a detailed Cabinet discussion will be something both government and the public service will want.

The government’s economic advisors will be trying to work out how the election promises can be delivered without fuelling inflation. In the past few years, monetary policy has had to do all the heavy lifting of economic management; Labor’s economic conservatism stance suggests it will want fiscal policy to take some of the strain.

Labor has already said it will make savings in the public sector. It does have time to progress these through the normal budget cycle. The cycle starts with a strategy meeting of the PM and economic Ministers in December at which targets are set.

The public service is then charged with providing options for meeting these targets to an expenditure review committee of Cabinet in February/March. There’s no reason to suppose a Rudd government would change this budget process – it was introduced by Labor, and has worked remarkably effectively for 20 years.

A tough budget process will also help the Rudd government assess its public servants. Initially at least Ministers will have little guide as to how well the public service will be able to deliver on Labor priorities – the public servants they speak with will all be able and eager. It will be the hard work of filling in the detail of Labor policies and working out how to implement – and pay for – them that will show up where the public service has the willingness and capacity to deliver Labor’s agenda.

More fundamentally, the new government will need to consider how it can reshape the underlying drivers of the public sector in Australia; especially, reshaping the entrenched patterns of federalism to more productive ends, and making good on its promises of reduced regulation. Both will be challenging for a public service that has become accustomed to big spending, big government ways under Howard.

Against these larger priorities, recent public service agitation over a one off 2% cut to administrative costs (an additional “efficiency dividend”) is a non-issue. National Museum director Craddock Morton unwisely painted himself in a partisan role when he hit out at the plan in The Canberra Times last week; experienced public servants know that complaining about cuts only reinforces governments’ determination to make them.

For most Canberra departments, cuts may have little real impact on service delivery in any case: in the current labour market they are struggling just to fill positions for which they have been funded.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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