Exhaustion, confusion, clarity, excitement, resentment: it is hard to generalise about the public service’s response to the new government because it is so mixed.
Some agencies have been hard pressed because they always are when there is a change of government – the Prime Minister’s department in particular, but also the sections in departments charged with servicing the influx of new members or paying out the departed.
Others are hard pressed simply because of the volume of policy and program work to be done, and the relentless pace that the new government has set. It seems that Kevin Rudd’s quip to Ministers that they were only allowed Christmas and Boxing Day off was actually serious – and the workload is flowing through to the public service. The challenges of making deep cuts to provide savings in the forthcoming budget process, together with restructuring of programs and polices, will be massive undertaking.
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Added to this are the surprises – calling an unexpected COAG is not just a pressure on the agencies organising it, but also those who will need to take action on whatever the PM and Premiers decide.
Not that the agencies that are high on the Rudd agenda are complaining. Treasury is hard put to contain its pleasure at being publicly elevated to a more influential position in the new government, and is relishing its enhanced role. When Julia Gillard paid a surprise visit to her department, she was treated to a rock star’s welcome, with enough chants and hollering to shake anyone’s preconceptions of a staid public service. There’s nothing like being given greater influence to bring out the enthusiasm in public servants.
For others, the idea that a new government means change is hard to take. Some agencies have determined that “business as usual” is the best strategy, and are bunkering down for the hard work of training their Ministers to accept departmental policy instead of Labor policy.
It is tempting to suggest that the key influence is the Prime Minister, and the workload of public servants depends on how close they are to his agenda. That’s not entirely true. Yes, he sets a fast pace – among the public service he is now known as Kevin 24/7 – and has already predicted reduced holiday business for Bateman’s Bay (a favourite south coast holiday spot for Canberrans). But a large number of other Ministers are equally keen: faced with a choice between taking a rest after a hard campaign and taking the wheel after 11 years in Opposition, it seems most prefer to get straight down to business.