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All for a better, bigger picture ...

By Sandra Bilson - posted Friday, 10 August 2007

“Very bad” publicity - full spreads across the front of the tabloids or rants by morning shock jocks put the minister in a “very bad mood”. This generally occurs in the morning although this is changing (thanks to modern technology like the Internet).

The minister yells at the young staffers (whose mum, dad or grandfather or all the above were in “the Party”, or are distant family relatives of the minister), most of whom are just out of university but know everything. The staffers yell at nervous senior executive service (SES) bureaucrats all on short-term contracts (“it’s just like the private sector now”) for a “Response”. It is very urgent and very stressful.

The SES bureaucrats scramble to develop the “Response” on a single sheet (otherwise it is too much to read) of whatever colour paper the minister decreed is “appropriate” (usually pink, often blue, never white) with the correct signature blocks. Developing the “Response” ranges from a quick brainstorm of anyone hovering in or near their office, or (if time permits), getting their policy analysts to Google options (also known as “benchmarking” if they search outside Australia).


Desperate staffers also use this process just after their Party wins an election to develop a “Party Platform” for the department: any idea is good if it sounds new, has measures that no one understands, can fit on a PowerPoint, can be “considered” by whole-of-government committees, and cannot be construed as either right or left - politically speaking that is.

The “Party Platform” is also published on the department’s website for the public to see what they are doing and is frequently referenced in the “Response”.

A policy analyst, usually on a temporary contract (because of public service staff freezes), writes the “Response” for the SES bureaucrat following a meeting (or series of meetings) and a written directive (which comes on a different coloured piece of paper from the minister). Numerous minor amendments and departmental signatures later, the “Response” is submitted to the staffer.

This policy process can take an hour or a year - depending on the media coverage. One oft-repeated departmental record is 6.03 minutes (but it was a “cut and paste” with concurrent meetings and directives).

The staffer hacks at the “Response” with a red pen, on the basis of a “higher knowledge” arising from closer proximity to the minister, and demands a re-write with their signature block.

The “Response” finally goes to the minister who yells at the staffer. The staffer yells back (the proximity issue again). Compromise is reached, usually before the press deadline. The “Response” is re-written by the media person, on the basis of a “higher knowledge” of what the media will “run with” and then - Wow - policy.


Considered government thinking is now out in the public domain.

Occasionally this process leads to new legislation (ministers have competitions about who has the most legislation to “manage” and who got the most “up” in parliament, something betting agencies have yet to pick up on). Legislation takes a little longer (more meetings, more speeches, some debate, occasionally “community consultation”, and so on) and then - Wow - new laws.

On any weekday, this occurs across the country, with most Australians completely oblivious to the process.

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About the Author

Sandra Bilson is a freelance writer with long involvement in state and federal law enforcement, security, project management, intelligence and policy. She was the Operations Manager at Macquarie University’s Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism. Previous positions include the Manager of the former National Crime Authority and New South Wales Police Strategic Criminal Intelligence teams, responsible for criminal threat assessments, as well as serving as a Federal Police Officer. She taught criminology at the University of Western Sydney while also working as a senior policy advisor at the New South Wales Ministry for Police. Currently a member of the Australian Institute of Project Management, the Australian Institute of Professional Intelligence Officers, and the NSW Writers Centre. Qualifications include a Masters in Social Science (Criminology) (CSU) and Bachelor of Arts (Government / Education) (Syd).

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