A month-long morning tea? The caretaker period is actually a hive of activity

The idea that the government's caretaker period is one long paid holiday for public servants might just be one of the biggest myths about the public service.

For the majority of public servants who work in service delivery, work remains the same as it does day in, day out - Centrelink, Medicare and the Tax Office don't take a break.

Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson has had to get involved in the election campaign this year. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson has had to get involved in the election campaign this year. Photo: Rohan Thomson

For those in policy development roles, the caretaker period is becoming increasingly busy as they monitor policy announcements from the major parties and even some minor parties, while preparing the incoming government briefs.

"It can be quite frantic," according to John Wanna, a professor of politics at the Australian National University and Griffith University.

"Especially if the parties issue a lot of policy ... they look at who will implement it, does it involve contracts, is it something public servants will do themselves, does it involve giving money to the states."

Professor Wanna laughs at the suggestion the caretaker period could be explained as a month-long morning tea.

"I used to ask [public servants]: 'What do you do in caretaker?' and they'd look at me and say tongue-in-cheek: 'Filing'."

Professor Wanna said if there is a clear election result, the new government could be sworn in by May 22 or 23, meaning the public service would need to be ready to swing into action.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd famously asked departmental secretaries to fly to Brisbane the day after the 2007 election to brief him after he won government.

It is the preparation for the new government that involves walking a fine line for senior public servants, constantly monitoring announcements, claims and counterclaims without being political.

"Mostly all the policy work is done confidentially, mostly they are receptacles of information rather than getting involved or taking part," Professor Wanna said.

Getting involved is sometimes necessary, though, with Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson last week writing to Labor leader Bill Shorten to assure him the public service had not costed Labor's climate change policies.

Dr Parkinson said "external modelling" was commissioned on a potential emissions policy.

"That's not unusual, to issue clarifying information, but mostly departments would prefer not to have to get involved in any politics because anything you can say can be taken as political," Professor Wanna said.

The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources has been the focus of political debate for almost a week regarding the water buybacks and the Eastern Australian Agriculture company.

Professor Wanna said it's unlikely caretaker conventions affected the department's ability to respond to media reports.

"They would have to consider caretaker conventions, but that isn't to say they can't do it. There are people across government to advise on that," he said.