Public servants at Canberra's Shared Services Centre reacted with panic on Monday to news that much of their work is to be taken over by the Finance Department.
Hundreds of workers were left almost completely in the dark on their future after the co-ordinated release of the news by the bosses of the Education, Employment and Finance departments.
But Renée Leon, Michele Bruniges and Jane Halton were unable to tell the shared services workers exactly what was going to happen to them.
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The move marks the next phase of the push to make the public service more efficient by "insourcing" departments' back office functions like payroll and IT to a specialist area.
Workers were only given a vague outline on Monday of the plan but it looks clear that it will hand yet more public service power and influence to the Finance Department and its high-profile boss Jane Halton.
The Shared Services Centre emerged from the break-up of the Education and Employment departments in 2013 and has been operating since early 2014 as a key plank in the government's "contestability program".
By early 2015, the shared services centre had grown to more than 600 public servants, bigger than some departments, and was undertaking backroom functions for 11 other agencies and departments.
An audit, by the Australian National Audit Office of the administration of the centre is due to be tabled in Parliament this month.
The audit was to assess the effectiveness of the Department of Employment and Department of Education and Training's running of the Shared Services Centre and its success in delivering efficiencies and value for money.
The office of Education Minister Simon Birmingham referred questions, on whether Monday's announcement was related to the audit, to the Education Department which refused to answer.
"We cannot comment on Australian National Audit Office processes," a departmental spokesman said.
The shared services concept has been in and out of fashion in the public service, as different management theories have held sway over the decades.
But the formula was considered dead and buried when the Howard government abolished the much-maligned Department of Administrative Services in 1997.
But in May 2016, the government said "shared services" experiment was showing promising signs, yielding savings of about $40 million so far, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said he was keen to see more backroom operations moved to the small number of shared services operations.
Dr Bruniges and Ms Leon were unable to offer much detail to their workforces on Monday, other than to promise a detailed plan in "coming weeks".
"The movement of some of the SSC functions is a natural transition to this whole of Government approach," the two departmental secretaries wrote.
Ms Halton told her department that the takeover was the next step in the shared services experiment.
"As Finance has responsibility for the Whole-of-Australian-Government Shared and Common Services Program, I see this transition as the next iteration, and a progression of the work that has gone into the Shared Services Centre since its inception," the Finance boss wrote.
"Any changes will be implemented prior to the end of the calendar year, and in the meantime the SSC will continue to deliver its services as normal."
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