Every Body Counts: Computers, conversations and change in the Australian Department of Finance and Administration (DoFA)

Paper presented at the Conference of the International Public Management Network, Macquarie University, March 2000

Dr. Karin Geiselhart, [then Visiting Research Associate in Communication, University of Canberra]

This paper is based on a case study conducted between 1996 and 1998. The title reflects the complexity and ambiguity of the department. As the agency charged with keeping the government accounts, DoFA has a strong interest in using information technology cost effectively and efficiently to perform their ‘bean counting’ function. The sense of valuing people comes from the corporate plan’s commitment to good staff relations and excellence in human resource management. The contradictions between these positive concepts and the reality of a diminished and demoralised workplace provide a third reading of the title. This paper examines the interplay between these principles, departmental use of computer-mediated communication, and the impacts on staff. The wider perspective of the research was the role of interactive technologies in democratic policy processes, and the interdependence of internal and external processes and accountabilities. Often, the story of public sector reform is heard as ‘the view from the top’. This study provides a view from within, in an agency whose executive proudly considered itself to be an ambitious and successful example of the new public management and neo-liberal reform.

This paper outlines the events and activities covered in the departmental study, and their contribution to the author’s propositions about interactive technologies and democratic forms of dialogue. The author suggests certain normative protocols as conductive to organisational adaptation. It is further suggested that the absence of such openness within government inhibits wider democratic processes. 

Introduction: place and time

As Australia’s capital city, Canberra reflects its planned origins. The Parliamentary Triangle occupies a few dozen hectares of national, formal buildings, old and new. The National Library and the National Gallery look out on the constructed lake, along with various government departments. These cultural and administrative buildings are respectable, never majestic, set amid generous lawns, as befits a ‘bush capital’. There are no monuments to long-dead human heroes. More importantly, there are no slums just out of the line of sight. This information is conveyed silently, even to the passing observer. The expansive new home for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade sits beside buildings owned by industry lobby groups. The new Parliament House looks down on its predecessor. Within these buildings, flash or drab, lie the cables and wires and fibres that carry the new heartbeat of government. Tirelessly connecting individuals, agencies, they relay the information that provides instantaneous and relentless reminder that Australia is no longer an isolated pioneer colony. The make-do inventiveness and mateship that guided early Australian governments are no longer considered appropriate at the start of the third millennium. Even-handed egalitarianism is not the message pouring in from the overseas networks and their Australian affiliates. The information on currency fluctuations and international trade agreements convey a different agenda. The bright bureaucrats in the big buildings understand the messages. One of the dusty coloured stone buildings near the lake announces itself in brass capitals as the Department of Finance and Administration.

Finance manages the accounts for the Commonwealth. As one of the central coordinating agencies, Finance is obliged to take a ‘whole of government view’. It is their job not just to rob Peter to pay Paul, but to help decide which programs, in this budget cycle, will be Peter or Paul. The federal budget is the yearly event which dominates Finance. During the peak period of budget preparation, Finance’s many other complex activities take a back seat. Paying all Commonwealth bills and employees, advising on policy proposals, overseeing financial transactions such as selling Commonwealth assets - these responsibilities justify a description of Finance as ‘one big policy factory’. They also make it attractive to some of the most talented and ambitious public servants. ‘I see cabinet submissions like confetti,’ one boasted. Finance has been a proud agency, committed to both its people and parsimony. Casual comments reinforce the stereotype: ‘Of course the lift is slow. This is Finance. We don’t spend money.’ The talk in the cafeteria is of redundancy packages and certified agreements, accrual budgeting systems and outsourcing contracts. It is the contemporary jargon of the public service, but the voices also reveal sadness, confusion and regret. It is a time of great change, and many farewells. Every week it becomes easier to park in the lot across the street. One woman expresses what many hint: ‘I feel like I’m in mourning’. It seems their stories are linked in some way to the messages on the global electronic nervous system.

Semi-ethnographic method and points of contact

Involvement with the department began in March 1996 with queries about departmental electronic bulletin boards. The researcher was told that these were used for internal information sharing and participation in departmental decision making. Initial contact with the Information Group led to many other people and areas of the department, nearly all of which changed substantially during the course of the study. Areas of contact included the Information Technology Branch, which was outsourced towards the end of the second year; the Future of Finance Group, which disbanded with the release of the Corporate Plan at the end of the first year; the Information Management Project Team, which flourished briefly in the second year; the Desktop Implementation Team, whose main work occurred in the second year; the Knowledge Networks, which gradually disappeared; and the Budget Policy Coordination Group, which remained in place.

Data collection was primarily through interviews, but was supplemented by several surveys and extensive document study. The researcher was a member of the Information Management Project Team during its brief existence, and ran several surveys at the request of executive officers. During most of the period of study, a pass to the building facilitated hundreds of hours onsite and extensive contact with the scores of staff who provided material, and also close up observation of organisational culture and events.

The research tapered off in early 1998, having tracked two years of change. While the focus remained on how interactive technologies contributed to internal policies and decision making, it became necessary to consider many other issues which influenced this, including the pace of change itself. The research period was one of intense change for the department, and included election of the Howard Government, a new corporate plan and secretary, several restructures, outsourcing of information technology functions, a new desktop computer system and intranet, notable down-sizing, absorption of the Department of Administrative Services, and revised industrial relations arrangements. Events reinforced the observation that technological change and oganizational change are increasingly indistinguishable (Boddy and Gunson 1996:189).

The remainder of this paper provides an overview of the findings of the case study, and the direction of change during the period of observation. The department became markedly less open and internally accountable. Staff widely believed these processes were not just counter to principles of industrial democracy, but also undermined the concept of public service in democratic governance.


It is only possible here to present the results of two aspects of the two year study. The key areas of information technology which related strongly to organisational and cultural change were the bulletin boards, the information management project team, the knowledge networks, and the outsourcing of IT. Only the first two are discussed below.

The bulletin boards were strongly valued for internal dialogue at the start of the study, as indicated by some of the quotes provided as part of the survey:

Like any worthwhile means of communication, they can be abused.

Soap Box and Suggestions BBs act as safety valves for staff.

It’s a procrastination tool. People should only have access to the Soap Box and Classifieds and other less important BBs (identified from this survey) at lunchtimes and after core hours.

I think people get a tad excited about certain issues, but if voicing their opinions avoids a good old fashioned fist fight, then it may be a useful tool.

They get hijacked by some loonies sometimes, Could be a good way that they vent though!

Staff understood the bulletin boards were part of a culture of openness, but that this facility could have a negative side. All respondents believed they contributed to staff morale and social cohesion, and most felt they meant a lot or were vital in this area. The most popular (oft-visited) bulletin boards were clearly those with the highest social, rather than technical or instrumental value, as shown in this chart:

Towards the end of the study, this situation had turned around. Several staff noted that the Soap Box bulletin board had gone quiet, and that there was little internal discussion about non-work matters:

People who’ve done anything controversial have lost their jobs, and thus people are less likely to post, particularly if it’s controversial.

Discussions on Soap Box are mainly by two people who are destined to go. Everything that matters here is verbal.

It’s a by-product of change: Soap Box used to have 20-30 messages per day, even criticism and debate happened. Now there’s not much discussion, even in the CPSU [union ] folder.

Information Management Project Team

This group flourished briefly in early 1997, and the researcher was part of the internal team. While information management was widely acknowledged as one of the key areas for improvement, the ambitious plans to implement it did not come to fruition. This might have been partly because of the countervailing internal issues, including the impending outsourcing of most IT functions, the down-sizing of the department, and several restructures.

Many other activities within the department impacted on the development and implementation of an information management plan. The project to introduce accrual budgeting, the gradual development of the intranet, the plans to introduce a new desk top suite, and the management initiative to outsource most information technology functions were all proceeding, with little indication of interaction with the information management project or each other. In addition, changes to the corporate structure affecting staff and functions since the arrival of the new secretary in early 1997 had not yet settled in. Some of the players believed they had a direct personal influence on the direction for information technology in the department:

I’m talking directly to the secretary, and the IM [information management] Committee. This department lives or dies on its ability to manage information. I’m finally getting this message home to the fifth floor [executive suite].

Several officers voiced a belief that the project was not supported at the highest levels and that management lacked commitment to resolving information management problems. Another information technology manager hinted that the information management plan might not be a main determiner of technology direction for the department:

The information management plan is one thing, but a number of things along the way are another, for example the intranet and the desk top review aren’t waiting for the information management plan…and the knowledge networks are already happening…

Ultimately, the knowledge management plans were incorporated in a new desk top suite, with little attention to the underlying organisational or cultural issues. The emphasis was on instrumental activities, narrowly defined, which overlooked the people management aspects. This is a common approach in both government and private enterprise approaches (Fletcher and Foy 1994, Caudle 1997).

Another attempt to ‘leverage’ staff information, the Knowledge Networks, also yielded only instrumental, short term benefits. Overall, it appeared that the increased centralisation of control in the executive and the spiralling downwards of staff morale made developmental participation unlikely and, ultimately, unwelcome. A last quote, a poem provided by a departing officer who was a long term employee with high commitment to the department in the first year of the study, concludes this brief presentation of results:

Ode To Finance

Ode to finance as we once knew,

Remember the days of the typing pool.

Kay and Vick and all the girls not many left amongst us at all.

The days of Pat and McPhee are gone,

To another Family, they’ve left us behind.

Then Neil and all the boys shut shop,

Was this where the buck was gunna stop.

It happened again to the Task Force mix,

Was there hidden dirty tricks.

Big John is gone a sad day for all,

You could hear the whispers in the halls.

Then IT told it’s time to go we’re outsourcing you all you know.

The parties at xmas used to be a blast now people say you can stick it up your arse.

With CBS left they excessed them too,

No more Carl, Pam and Jimbo just to name a few.

Change is good we are all told,

But our hearts and spirits have been sold.

People don’t smile like they used to do,

Still not knowing what to do.

Some still trust and always will,

Others feel they cannot still.

Finance cries in many ways,

--Just remembering the good old days.


These specific areas of human-computer interaction were just part of a wider picture that emerged during the course of study. The development of a certified agreement was accompanied by great staff insecurity and developing mistrust of senior management. Executive saw it as a key element which would place Finance in the forefront of public sector reform. There was a wide staff perception that senior management had an ideological commitment to the outsourcing of IT and to shaping the certified agreement, and that there had been little meaningful internal dialogue. The timing of these events, which coincided with down-sizing, further inhibited staff willingness to speak out or challenge either assumptions or procedures.

This study documents public sector changes that few would brag about: democracy is being hollowed out from within, the public sector is no longer a place for professional development, and those who challenge this dynamic are not welcome. Supplementary data from several other case studies confirms that this enervating trend is pervasive in the Commonwealth public sector. The result is often frenetic yet mindless activity, and a perhaps irreversible loss of internal social capital.

In some ways this study provides an update of Pusey (1991), nearly 15 years later. Pusey’s book was sub-titled, ‘a nation building state changes its mind’, reflecting his concerns that the public service was increasingly acquiescing to ‘internationalising’ pressures (globalisation wasn’t a common term yet), at the expense of the public good. The current situation in the APS could be sub-titled: ‘a professional public service loses its mind’, as deprofessionalisation and the absence of reason are noticeable outcomes.

Pusey’s study has been called an outsider’s view because he was not part of the culture he analysed. The research described here offers an insider’s view: as a local with a background in the service, it was easier to gain acceptance and be a sounding board for my peers.

The focus of the Finance study was on information technology, and the identification of its democratic dividend – that is, to see if and how interactive communications might yield not just efficiency, but better internal governance. Along the way it became clear, as others have found, that computerisation can only reflect an organisational culture, not transform it (Boddy and Gunson 1996). The computer systems become, as one informant succinctly put it, a metaphor for the organisation. Information technology is increasingly a nervous system that transmits and records both vital and trivial information (Geiselhart 1999a).

The same holds true on a national, or even global scale, and these scales are clearly interrelated. They can be described as fractal patterns (Geiselhart 1999). Indeed, part of the essence of globalisation is to percolate its driving values to every level and realm of activity. It was this shift in values, towards individualistic, short term economic approaches that deny the bigger picture of participation in direction setting, that emerged from the Finance study. A study of the role of computerisation in the policy process in OECD countries found little benefit, due to both lack of political will and lack of public engagement (Gualtieri 1998).

Most academic studies of public sector reform overlook the impacts on the organisational level. The public outcomes are considered the important features, the public servants just human instruments. This is consistent with the Westminster system which emerged some centuries ago, when both communication technology and levels of education precluded widespread participation or policy deliberation. The rhetoric still maintains that authority and accountability flow upwards and out the Minister’s head. This view obviates serious consideration of industrial democracy. Indeed, this term has fallen into disuse, in favour of the less political term ‘governance’, which implies a system of control without implications of participation.

A wider systemic analysis requires recognition of the pressures which also affect academic study of the public sector. The mantras of the market and managerialism lead to an unbalanced emphasis on individuals. The happy face of the secretary on the ‘Five Behaviours’ listed on the DoFA home page might give the impression of a highly desirably workplace, where creativity is rewarded. However, rather than increased effectiveness, interviews with staff and study of the internal electronic conversations revealed enervation and deprofessionalisation. Informants say that little has changed since the study described here. At the end of 1998, software which supposedly measures performance had been brought in, accompanied by sunny posters saying ‘Smile if you’re performing.’ In terms of instrumental approaches, and self-surveillance, this would be sure to bring a smile to Foucault (see Foucault on governmentality, in Burchell, Gordon and Miller 1991).

One hypothesis supported in my research was the link between internal democratic process and wider public accountability. It is not sufficient to view the internal workings of public sector agencies as a ‘black box’. Below are some suggested protocols suitable for democratic process, and their relation to the data from the case study of Finance:

Protocols for democratic information infrastructure/evidence from major case study


Evidence from major case study

Universal access

Universal access to desk top

Appropriate training

Training inadequate for developmental participation

Transparency of information, including feedback and agenda setting, strong freedom of information provisions. All major decisions fully textualised.

Little availability of corporate minutes, decision processes, no internal FOI provisions

Deliberate creation and maintenance of a public space for communication, protected from commercial pressures

Limited public space available but not fully supported, no further development

Strong interactivity (open ended input)

Moves towards narrow inputs

Broadest and earliest possible participation in agenda setting and internal policy development

Participation in agenda setting and internal policy decreased

Minimisation of commercial in confidence protection

High levels of commercial in confidence protection

Freedom from direct or indirect censorship

Signs that surveillance and censorship were increasing

Maximisation of privacy protection

Possibility of anonymous communication removed

Equity in rights of transmission

Theoretically available, in practice upwards communication restricted to practical tasks

Provision for lateral and anonymous communication and ballots

Lateral communication widespread, ballots only for certified agreement

Availability of alternative forms and sources of information

Some availability of alternative views, information increasingly managed from above

Provision for localised information and dialogue

Local discussion possible, dialogue on non work specific tasks dampened.

Mechanisms for reflective deliberation about the information system

Little such provision


Far from creating a more cohesive, effective public service, the effects of these shifts in organisational culture contributed to the wider de-professionalisation that is apparent in Canberra. For example, due process is still observed by many at the action level, but is often subverted by the haste or implicit impunity of executives who have run into someone’s friend at an airport lounge, and quickly done a deal outside of normal procedures. This is a consequence of a crisis management mentality. How many public servants can say they have been involved with a process that went along smoothly, without major dramas, in a reasonable time frame? In a truly professional public service, this should be the norm. Who could run a household in continual crisis mode? Crisis management means no management. And many of these crises are precipitated because the information that went to the Minister in the first place had pulled punches. One informant said the quality of policy advice had gone from ‘frank and fearless’ to ‘fear and favour’.

This sloppiness is exacerbated by the growth of commercial in confidence arrangements, which are now the norm in an outsourced public sector. The Institution of Engineers, Australia has identified the loss of specialist knowledge, particularly in relation to contract management, as sources of some public disasters, such as the implosion of the Canberra Hospital. It is not clear whether the $8 million fraud revealed in the Department of Finance and Administration last year comes into that category. Certainly, the misuse of outsourcing can contribute to deprofessionalisation, if staff are denied a learning, participatory role in the process. My research showed internal communication processes are of equal importance, as they affect professionals’ ability to manage their tasks. This inevitably impacts on public accountabilities.

The problem of deprofessionalisation is more extensive than a loss of corporate memory or expertise. Even when there are specialists in-house, such as lawyers or public affairs officers, their advice is often neither asked for nor heeded when it is offered. Such specialists, even at the senior officer level, often function as clerks, performing trivial but ‘urgent’ tasks. Senior executives have little time or inclination to consider staff development, or even whether they are getting ‘value for money’ from them. Rather, they maintain the pretence of being ‘outcomes focussed’, another managerialist mantra. Those who request work appropriate to their skills, or who express a desire to be more involved in the actual decision making, are fed the mantra of ‘team playing’. One agency’s legal officer said their boss is very good at processing documents, but not at all interested in the law in the wider sense, but there is no engagement with the work as policy or public responsibility. Another agency’s specialist officer said that there has been a shift over the last five years especially, towards a perception that high level scientific or specialist skills are no longer sought after. ‘What’s wanted is someone who can do the Minister’s bidding on 15 minutes notices, and who is compliant enough to smooth out anything that goes against the political flow.’

Compliance is encouraged through ‘flexibility’, another mantra which is often code for maintaining a fleet of staff in acting positions, often for extended periods. Crisis management necessitates long hours, another common test of suitability. Showing awareness of what the Minister wants to hear is now the hallmark of ‘professionalism’. Questioning internal processes, or enquiring about industrial democracy procedures, is considered inappropriate behaviour. A parallel development is the allocation of privileges to the inner circle. In some departments, certain benefits which were once seen as entitlements are now dealt out at executive whim. Those in the ‘good books’ might be granted leave without pay or have their study leave approved quickly; others might be refused or made to dangle. And it is made clear that this is the way the game is played. One executive was told not to speak with anyone below senior officer level, or have regular meetings with staff. Others complained of ‘hairy-chested SES clones’. A departing SES officer in Finance said ‘I know what they want from me, and I won’t be that sort of person.’

The dynamic described above documents above all the decline of internal social capital. Mintzberg (1996) noted that the common values of working for the collective good were what held together the old patriarchical, hierarchical and machine-like model of bureaucracy. Now there is little opportunity for expressing these ideals, either at the policy level or through internal activities.

Thus, it is not just the loss of expertise, but the loss of participation, that sets up a spiral of deprofessionalisation. In terms of democracy, it is the loss of accountability, both internal and external, that diminishes public sector decision making. It is not trivial that officers no longer feel they can apply and develop their skills or express their values. It is not possible to have real professionalism without a good measure of internal transparency and accountability. And without mechanisms to support, review and extend internal democracy, the ability of the public sector to support wider democratic process collapses.

Instead, a form of narcissism replaces internal dialogue. Dysfunctional organisations often show narcissistic tendencies, described as the promotion of a totalitarian organisational ideal as seen through the eyes of the leader (Schwartz 1990). In the second year, a number of informants started describing Finance in these terms, using metaphors which indicated a profound sense of disempowerment and loss of control. Undercurrents of resistance also surfaced: ‘This could become a department of delinquents’.

It would be easy to point to the ideological excesses of the Howard government in relation to this decline in public sector morale. But this process began before that, and this is not just a Canberra story. In the United States, the Coalition Of Federal Employees (http://omnist.com/COFE) is ‘an organisation of activist advocates engaged in social action for public accountability’. They support whistleblowers working on issues such as safety in nuclear power plants. Colleagues in the public service have indicated a need for a forum to meet, discuss and take collective action on these issues. A degree of anonymity would be necessary, and perhaps that’s where technology has a role. Public airing of staff turnover for various agencies might provide a rational economic indicator of performance. It has also been suggested that if traditional unions lack the resources or formal role they once had, local staff associations might arise to fill the gap. One clear direction for addressing the problems of morale, participation and professionalism in the public sector is suggested in Reith’s background paper from several years ago: ‘The Government seeks an environment in which public servants have much greater say in the way they perform their work.’

It would be ironic indeed if attack or bald denial should be the official response to these findings. Above all, the study of Finance raises an inescapable question: If these processes are so disastrous for staff in a key Commonwealth department, how can they benefit the nation?


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Burchell, Gordon, Gordon, Colin, & Miller, Peter. (editors) (1991). The Foucault Effect. Harvester Wheatsheaf: London.

Caudle, Sharon L. (Fall 1997). "Performance Results: The Information Technology Factor". New Directions for Evaluation , 75, 63-78.

Fletcher, Patricia D., & Foy, Deborah O. (1994). "Managing Information Systems in State and Local Government". Annual Review of Information Science and Technology (ARIST), 29, 243-276.

Geiselhart, Karin. (1999). ‘A Fractal Model for Repluralising the Policy Process: complexity theory and democratic process’. Paper presented at the Public Administration Theory Network, Sydney.

Geiselhart, Karin (1999a). ‘The Global Nervous System of Information Technology’, presented at the Communications Research Forum, Canberra.

Gualtieri, Robert. (1998). Impact of the Emerging Information Society on the Policy Development Process and Democratic Quality. OECD Public Management Service: [cited 4/3/1999] URL: http://www.oecd.org/puma/gvrnance/it/itreform.htm.

Mintzberg, Henry. (May-June 1996). "Managing Government - Governing Management". Harvard Business Review, 75-83.

Pusey, Michael. (1991). Economic Rationalism in Canberra - A Nation Building State Changes its Mind. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Schwartz, Howard S. (1990). Narcissistic Process and Corporate Decay - The Theory of the Organization Ideal. New York University Press: New York and London.

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