Life in the Australian Government

February 23rd, 2010 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

This article in the National Times by a former departmental speech writer for the Rudd Government is a must read. Some extracts:

Around the same time a section meeting was called. Our boss arrived late, but in the best of moods. ”We’re under budget!” she announced proudly. The old-timers let out whoops of joy.

”What’s going on?” I asked someone quietly.

”We’re under budget,” they replied with a rare smile.

”Oh, so that’s good? You’ve saved money?”

”No, no,” her smile turned to ash as she gave me that pitying look I usually received when I asked a question. ”It means training.”

Our section was under-budget by hundreds of thousands of dollars, necessitating we blow all the unspent money before the end of the financial year. Unfortunately, ”training” did not mean I would finally get some training. ”Training” consisted of hastily booked, dubiously relevant conferences and courses, most of which were conveniently located a long way from Canberra.

Despite my short length of service, I was included in the spending free-for-all. I later found myself in a plush Sydney harbourside hotel with hundreds of dollars in unnecessary travel allowance – everything, including meals, flights and accommodation, was covered by the department. I was attending a conference on Web 2.0, a topic I was mildly interested in but which had nothing to do with my duties.

The rest of the office also enjoyed jetting around the country. Four staff members managed to book into the same four-day public relations event and, reportedly, a great time was had by all.

Unless one things NZ is magically immune from this, I wonder how much training happens here.

We were not the only ones wasting money. Associated with our section were those boffins who create public health campaigns, the ones that appear on television with increasing regularity: nights out turning into nightmares, measure your fat stomach, wash your hands – that kind of thing.

I was surprised to discover the minds behind these campaigns were not health professionals. They had backgrounds and degrees in marketing, communications and advertising, not medicine. Under their watch, the government became the No.1 spender on free-to-air television.

As was the case here with the last Government.

None of these events prepared me for what happened next. After remaining silent on the issue for many months, the Prime Minister suddenly took an interest in the nation’s health. I found out when a grim-faced boss herded us all together. ”The PM is going to make a health announcement and you have to organise it,” we were told.

”When’s it happening?”

”Monday.” (It was Friday afternoon.)

”When did we first learn about it?”

”Now.”

Rudd is infamous for dreaming up ideas and demanding they be implemented within days.

Young suits from the Prime Minister’s office stalked the wings of the announcement, roaring loudly into mobile phones. Their counterparts from the Health Minister’s office hovered in the background, looking miserable.

The Prime Minister’s office staff feared nobody and respected them less. The only time they shut up was when the Prime Minister himself was speaking. Any other speaker, including Roxon and the commission’s spokeswoman, could go to hell. One grabbed my pen from my hand and stormed off with it. I later asked for it back and was laughed at.

My colleagues were always fearful of the Minister’s office, but for the first time I was witnessing the force that terrified the MO staff themselves. Orders came down that all our ministers were to clear their calendars for the next six months – they were to become as visible to the media as possible. They were going on a consultation tour of the country.

Initially, there was little rhyme, reason or co-ordination to the process. A website was thrown up that looked ghastly when it first went live, so ghastly that the Prime Minister refused to promote it as had been planned. A team was banged together to run the site and to put up lots of pretty pictures of the government in consultation mode. The gossip was the Prime Minister’s attention had been caught by the Web 2.0 phenomenon, as had many Western leaders in the wake of Obama’s presidential campaign, and YourHealth.gov.au would be the first to jump on the bandwagon.

A Minister hears of something new and demands it be done – damn the cost.

Along with the tidal wave of events we suddenly had to organise, I was given a new duty: ensuring photographers were always present to capture our ministers nodding gravely as they consulted. There was no limit to the cost. Fortunate photographers around the country suddenly found themselves hired, whatever quote they supplied.

My last days at the department were a cavalcade of new staff, swept up from wherever they could be found amid the chaos generated by the YourHealth steam train. The entire project was developed backwards, necessitating constant adjustments. Money was thrown at local production companies to create sincere-looking website testimonials. Staff were ordered to use the site and vote on the polls to generate hits. I wandered through the disorganisation in a permanent state of bewilderment.

I can almost guarantee this is not the rare exception, but  quite frequent occurrence. It’s like when the PM suddenly decides a sound bite of carbon neutral sounds good, and they generate a workstream around it.

After four months, I walked away and did not bother telling anyone why.

I care about health dollars, although not enough to initially refuse that crazy job. Thanks to an ongoing medical condition, I’ve had need of the health system on occasion. My immediate family contains two doctors and three nurses. I’m anecdotally familiar with the state of our public hospitals and mental health system.

A few months before the department hired me, I spent eight agonising hours in emergency waiting for treatment for a chronic case of food poisoning. I was eventually diagnosed, pumped full of morphine, rehydrated intravenously and strapped to a bed in the emergency ward to recover overnight.

The next time I spend eight hours waiting in emergency, I will be thinking of unused speeches, cancelled events and weeks of wasted organisation and research. I will be thinking of expensive television advertising campaigns and T-shirts and golf balls with little slogans. I will be thinking of websites and a consultation process driven by photography. I will be thinking of ”training”.

Or we can believe the PSA and Labour that there is no savings to be made in Government.

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21 Responses to “Life in the Australian Government”

  1. Whoops (136 comments) says:

    Waste – happens in every large entity where responsibility is vague. Put the thumb screws on. Hard.

    “The Prime Minister’s office staff feared nobody and respected them less. The only time they shut up was when the Prime Minister himself was speaking.”

    Ha! Sound’s like Brownlee! From what i hear the only word to describe him is ‘rampant’. Go Gerry.

    “…the PM suddenly decides a sound bite of carbon neutral sounds good, and they generate a workstream around it.” Tough on crime? Long tail of education?

    Puh-lease, they all do it. Fwiw, I’d prefer you used your intellect and influence to move them beyond the shouting phase. Nats won, Labour lost… get on and fix the damn country.

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  2. ephemera (557 comments) says:

    This branded golfball bollocks sounds like the type of thing which (rightly or wrongly) caught the publics imagination during the final term of the last National government.

    I thought Labour did well to tone down the extravagant spending of Rankin et al.

    While we are pointing our fingers at political parties, that is…

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  3. big bruv (13,899 comments) says:

    And we wonder why MP’s of all political parties develop a sense of entitlement.

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  4. Bevan (3,924 comments) says:

    I thought Labour did well to tone down the extravagant spending of Rankin et al.

    Pity they didnt tone down their own extravagant binges.

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  5. Kimble (4,440 comments) says:

    Yeah ephemera, Labour did a real good job at cutting costs. Just like a doctor that uses a piece of your carotid artery to plug up a bleeding nose.

    Rankins expenditure is more myth than fact, and it was only “extravagant” by the standards of the day. If it had occured during Labours reign (which it did, commonly) it wouldnt have even been newsworthy.

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  6. thomasbeagle (77 comments) says:

    The problem is that this is an example of Ministers wasting public money, not the public service.

    I’m not sure it ties well into the National party rhetoric about cutting fat.

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  7. fredinthegrass (273 comments) says:

    Go get “Yes Minister” and “Yes Prime Minister” out on DVD.
    Both are incredibly funny, but alarmingly accurate.

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  8. Bevan (3,924 comments) says:

    The problem is that this is an example of Ministers wasting public money, not the public service.

    Missed the part about the “training” I guess…

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  9. taranaki (20 comments) says:

    A Minister hears of something new and demands it be done – damn the cost.

    Haha, classic post DPF. Instead of wasting tons of money on a fad of Web 2.0 consultation on health, you can almost find+replace with wasting tons of money on a fad of national testing of school kids.

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  10. Paul Williams (878 comments) says:

    Meh, I’ve worked in the public service in NZ and at both state and federal levels in Australia. I accept there’s some truth in what’s said in this article but it’s not my experience in NZ. Moreover, do the critics here honestly believe that Key’s government is less faddish that Rudd’s? Why?

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  11. Hurf Durf (2,860 comments) says:

    I’d rather be thumped by Gordon Brown tbh.

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  12. kismet (6 comments) says:

    Years ago I worked for a company which supplied several government departments. I commented to the boss the first year that the sales in May and June from several of the departments were hugely high compared to preceding months. He explained that they often did that as they were spending left over budgets before the end of their financial year. At that point in my sheltered existance I was completely shocked.

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  13. willtruth (243 comments) says:

    I have noticed that there definitely is some truth to this in NZ too, in that departments rush to spend their training budget before the end of the year (but nowhere near as bad as in that article). But I was told that one of the reasons that they do this is because – if they don’t spend it – it will be concluded (by Treasury I presume) that they don’t need it and it might be taken off them the following year. Does anyone know if this is true? If it is true then this is a case of Treasury’s policy (cutting budgets that are underspent) having the opposite effect that is intended.

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  14. JiveKitty (778 comments) says:

    @willtruth: While I don’t know if it is true in the case you ask about, it is a practice that is known about in private as well as public entities, and is done for precisely the reason you mention, from what I can remember from accounting and management courses. I don’t take university courses as gospel, but as they are considering problems such as these, it suggests they are not uncommon.

    It does fit with some of the more self-serving behaviour of managers I have observed in the workplace. Simplistically, where underbudget, you work to get your expenditure up so you can maintain the larger budget, and unless your job is on the line, where overbudget you work to get expenditure up so you can get a higher budget the next time around. Trying to incentivise behaviour away from this is a problem, but it is not insurmountable.

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  15. jocko (111 comments) says:

    It gets worse….where pay (and seniority) becomes a function of both budget spend + number of departmental employees reporting to the manager.

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  16. Anthony (796 comments) says:

    The trouble was and maybe still is that Treasury wouldn’t let you roll over any unspent budget. So if you can’t roll it over then there is every incentive to spend it quick smart!

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  17. jackp (668 comments) says:

    Yes, all this is true. It is common knowledge, really. If a department doesn’t spend its budget, then their budget is cut for the next year. Instead of being rewarded, they spend like what the speech writer was talking about. This is a major reason why the government is so inefficient and has grown 50 percent in the last 5 years. Muriel Neuman makes a statement that 66 percent of every dollar that goes to government is wasted. This is why I get very angry when John Key and Bill English are looking for ways to increase taxes when they have so many bureaucrats that truly don’t have a purpose being hired by taxpayers. There are only 4 million people in New Zealand which makes it very easy to be transparent and fix!!

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  18. William J (44 comments) says:

    Yes it happens in every Government Department I have ever worked for (I worked for nearly a dozen different Government Departments under Labour). To use up their budget one General Manger was given a three month study trip to South America (husband included) in her last 3 months of her employment contract and at the same time a party was held at Shed 5 for all staff. This General Manager was made redundant and served her last 3 months in South America so never actually had to present or do anything in exchange for this salary paid ‘study’ time. Out of all the Govt Departments I worked for, the Ministry of Education was the worst – every meeting lasting longer than one hour was catered for. I don’t just mean a few sandwiches – I mean a full on spread. Also the day they introduced the ‘Healthy Eating in Schools’ programme the staff who worked on the project celebrated at the Ministry of Education internal cafe with a big feast of pies (as the only hot food sold at the MoE cafe was pies – not sure if this is still the case – be interesting to find out though). Just before the end of the financial year MoE staff would buy all types of merchandise for themselves and to grease up Teachers. One year they purchased expensive briefcases for 200 principals. Don’t know if all of this happens under National though.

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  19. mavxp (483 comments) says:

    This is why small government is what we want, and desperately need.

    National. Swing that axe.

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  20. cha (4,017 comments) says:

    Golly, I’d better tell my social worker SO that she’s missing out on all this wonderful spending. Shed 5 lunches, trips away, catered pies and all that, because, gosh, if she got all those wonderful perks it might make up for the salary that’s nearly forty percent less than an equivalent position with the Victorian state social services.

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  21. Camryn (543 comments) says:

    cha – Lucky Aussie taxpayers. Public sector salaries in the US are now higher than private sector equivalents.

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