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The wheels falling off - trust gone, leaks, relations toxic between ministers and bureaucrats

This article by Chris Johnson in the Canberra Times will ring true to anyone who has worked in a bureaucracy where the leaders are in it for themselves.

Trust 'gone' for ministers and PS

Date February 14, 2013
Chris Johnson

Chris Johnson

Chief Political Correspondent for The Canberra Times.

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The federal government's dealings with the public service are at an all-time low, according to senior bureaucrats who say a culture of distrust has been thrust on them.

High-level public servants across several departments have told The Canberra Times they believe the government to be in ''bunker mode'' and fearful of leaks against it.

''Trust with the bureaucracy has evaporated and relations between ministers and departments are at their lowest since Labor came to office,'' one said.

''There is zero consultation on policy and announcements, which means there is a last-minute scramble to do their bidding once they've decided on a course of action.''


Another said departments were often ''given orders at a drop of a hat'' and were being more frequently blindsided by announcements the government was making.

''It feels like there is a kind of fear in ministers' offices right now,'' the source said.

''I know as far as my department goes it seems like the minister thinks we're the enemy.'' But a government source said some ministers in recent times believed the bureaucracy had not been advising them as well as they could have.

The senior public servants said the mood appeared to worsen in the second half of last year and had deteriorated markedly this year.

''The release of the September 14 election date has only served to elevate the level of panic within government,'' one said.

''Staff in ministers' offices are just being outright rude to staff in the departments. And some of the ministers are just as bad, if not worse.''

Others spoke of workloads becoming ''ridiculous'', ''over the top'' and ''unsustainable''.

''They want it yesterday and they want more of it than ever before,'' one said. ''We get no notice and then suddenly, wham bam, they are screaming for things that we had no preparation for.''

Another senior bureaucrat said life was difficult under Labor but the greater fear was that the Coalition would slash public sector numbers and still demand the same output.

''Maybe Labor is counting on us wanting to help them get returned to office to avoid what Tony Abbott is going to do to the public sector,'' the source said.

Asked to respond, the government praised the public service and suggested relations between ministers and departments were good.

A spokesman for Special Minister of State Gary Gray said the government believed, and the OECD had acknowledged, that Australia's public service was one of the best in the world. ''The government worked closely with the public service to deliver important reforms such as the National Broadband Network, carbon pricing and the National Disability Insurance Scheme and will continue to do so,'' he said.