Life in the Australian Government

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?”


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 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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