Confessions of an ex-grad
Prime Minister Julia Gillard addresses public servants at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade last year. Photo: Andrew Meares
It's the February ritual.
Thousands of the nation's self-acclaimed ''best and brightest'' descend on Canberra to take up graduate positions with Commonwealth Government departments and agencies.
The spotters guide is easy to write. They're the only people wearing full suits or charcoal woollen work dresses in the middle of January. They blunder through the Coles at Manuka, thoroughly confused and desperately seeking the bread aisle. And invariably the entire horde will turn up at the same open house for a one-bedroom apartment in Kingston or Braddon. They arrive with aspirations that read like an ad for a university or army recruitment program: ''make a difference'' or ''see the world''. But what happens of these hipsters and dreamers? How do they grow up to become the (dull, uninspired) cliche that is public service middle management?
The answer is complicated but a lot of it stems from that first year in the public service. The first thing to go is the free spirit of the environmentally friendly, inner-urban dweller. Only one person can get that one-bedroom apartment within walking distance of DFAT - the rest will find themselves buried somewhere in the kangaroo-infested forests of Lyneham, O'Connor or even Tuggeranong. Those who intend to take public transport to work have their dreams almost immediately crushed when they open an ACTION bus schedule. Even grads who are close enough to walk or ride, frequently give up on that idea once the post-Anzac Day chill sets in. By the Queen's Birthday they're locked into a three-year salary package on a new Korean hatchback.
The next thing to be reconsidered is the dream of ''making a difference''. Six months into their time at the department the young grads will realise that all they've done is attend copious amounts of training on how to write unhelpful replies to people who have emailed their minister. They might have been given one of the infamous ''grad-projects'' - an open-ended research task marketed as a ''use of the grad's unique skills'' but is in practice a sponge to absorb the grads unseemly over-exuberance for work.
But success will be found once expectations are suitably managed. The grads do make a difference, just a slightly smaller one than they anticipated. Value-adding really is as simple as putting a semi-colon in the right spot in a ministerial brief. Being thanked for inserting that semi-colon provides such joy that it's almost enough motivation to proofread the next brief. Producing talking points that might theoretically be uttered by a represented official in response to an unlikely question suddenly feels like penning the opening of the Gettysburg Address.
The inculturation also includes the canon of departmental rumours and legends. Every department, it seems, has its own mythology to explain how some grads go on to achieve the promised land of ''management position by 30'' while others disappear without a trace.
Many of these myths include the cautionary tale of the ''bad grad year'', the year where the grads were so unruly that they were tainted universally and were all marked for the Sisyphean torment of an eternal APS5. Their transgressions often include inappropriate statements made within earshot of authority figures, rampant abuse of the flex system and - in one extreme case - a Minister who was shocked to see the bare legs and midriffs of a number of female grads on the inevitable Parliamentary excursion. Don't be that guy who applied for a first assistant secretary position at the end of his grad year. Try to be more like that guy who got a corner office in his last rotation despite not doing a millisecond of useful work.
Once broken and socialised, the culture really changes. The formerly idealistic young cohort rapidly joins Canberra's favourite pastime: fighting for status. Grads are thrown, Hunger Games-style, into a battle for rotations, seeking career-building weapons such as high-profile taskforces or personal access to department heads and senior executives. The universal scoring system in this game is your opportunity for work travel (Paris being 250 points and Queanbeyan being 1).
Hubris begins to shape not only the individual grad but the group as a whole.
Inter-departmental rivalries flourish and the grads ameliorate their anxiety about their group with rumours of the hopelessness of other grad groups.
There is much hilarity when you hear about the grads at XYZ department having to do handshake training (though it's exactly what those limp-wristed neophytes deserve). But then you're subjected to the same lesson in firmly gripping another human's hand whilst looking them in the eyes.
And then, somewhere in December, it will all end. With a certificate and a firm, highly-choreographed handshake.
It is now, after a year of indentured servitude and training that the grads are finally given a desk of their own.
Now, suitably inculcated, they are ready to properly settle in, to make a difference and see the world.