Public servants are about to undergo major restructuring in line with the new government's decisions. Photo: Jessica Shapiro
Once again, the federal bureaucracy is poised to upend itself to suit a prime minister's passing whims.
This week, the public service will begin to squeeze itself into a shape that fits Tony Abbott's new Administrative Arrangements Order.
These reshuffles are among the most pointless rituals of government.
The restructure will probably create enough work to keep hundreds of public servants busy for a year, if not longer.
It's not only the relatively simple process of renaming departments, redesigning websites and changing a few signs in foyers. Machinery-of-government changes can lead to lengthy legal negotiations.
When one department's work is split between two, how much furniture, equipment and files are transferred? Which agency pays for the removalists and the IT changes? Is a new office lease needed? What about all the other contracts signed in the name of the former workplace?
Then there is the staffing chaos: combining two workforces, each on different pay rates for the same job levels, and trying to manage the process fairly.
These reshuffles are among the most pointless rituals of government. They are usually entirely about politics rather than efficient administration: prime ministers allocate portfolios to reward ministers and repay debts to others.
No one knows how much the changes cost taxpayers; neither the Finance Department nor any other agency collates the expenses.
But we see hints here and there. When the then Department of Climate Change added energy efficiency to its portfolio in 2010, it paid a consultant $67,045 for tips on sorting out the mess.
When Labor won office in 2007 and combined the education and employment portfolios to create the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, it paid $160,000 for advice on how to merge staff IT services (a task that took years).
When that department lost its tertiary education division to the horrendously named Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education in 2011, the two agencies forked out $184,000 to experts to figure out what to do.
And now, in a Kafkaesque twist, those workers will return to DEEWR (from which they should never have been uprooted) before they ever really settled into their new workplace anyway.
These payments, however, are a mere sliver of the total costs of machinery-of-government overhauls.
The rearrangements take years to complete and the affected departments must foot the bill at the expense of useful work.
But is that a shiny fleck of hope on the horizon? Mr Abbott made a point this week of giving each minister ''a very simple title''. He wants ''clear lines of authority and a back-to-basics government''.
And so we will have an environment minister rather than the ''minister for sustainability, environment, water, population and communities'', a communications minister rather than a ''minister for broadband, communications and the digital economy'', and so on. (Labor truly had perfected the creation of portfolio hotchpotches.)
We can only hope the Administrative Arrangements Order creates simple, sensible departments, too, whose structure dissuades Mr Abbott, or any future prime minister, from needless meddling.
As former public service commissioner Andrew Podger said in July, ''portfolio responsibilities should, as far as possible, reflect longer-term functional relationships, limiting the extent of administrative churn required as political priorities change and facilitating a focus on longer-term issues''.
It's a pity, then, that Mr Abbott didn't wait a little longer to ensure that he gets this week's restructure right. If he forces the bureaucracy to play musical chairs again during his prime ministership, perhaps he can offer to pay for it.