The federal public service is a smaller machine than it was a few years ago, and last year continued its run of staff losses. Its workforce fell by 2100 to about 144,700 public servants in 2019. As telling as those numbers are, they mask smaller stories about the changing shape of the federal bureaucracy.
A series of machinery of government changes further complicate the picture.
The Health Department has endured both - staff losses, and restructures - in recent years. Its experience is one that summarises that of many public service agencies. Only two years after a round of redundancies forced by budget pressures, the department shrank again in 2019. All the while, it absorbed a fourth set of machinery of government disruptions in five years.
Combined, the numbers of staff leaving the department since 2016 through redundancies and machinery of government changes tells a story of turbulence. The department has had a significant share of this.
The Health Department's comments on the changes could be taken as philosophical in tone: Its changing workforce reflects fluctuations in programs, government decisions and moves to streamline activities.
In some ways, this is all par for the course in the Australian Public Service nowadays.
Despite the instability coming with job cuts and machinery of government changes, it's the department's performance that will ultimately decide the merits of these overhauls. The public, and the government, will focus on these rather than staffing numbers.
So far during COVID-19 the public service has used a newfound mobility to redirect staff where needed. Services Australia is the most high profile example of that, receiving 2000 staff redeployed from other agencies to process surging numbers of social welfare claims. The Health Department has also used redeployed public servants, and moved around its own staff, to get the job done. Both agencies have endured staffing cuts in recent years.
The innovation of rapid cross-APS redeployment during COVID-19 will likely influence the future shape and structure of the public service's workforce.
Of course, the Health Department will likely have more scrutiny than ever in coming months as it remains a crucial part of the nation's COVID-19 response.
Its efforts to date have been extraordinary, although the hours and workload involved must be superhuman. The sprint will become a marathon, as the department continues helping lead the nation's handling of the coronavirus crisis, with new secretary Brendan Murphy now at the helm.
Whether the government decides the pandemic has changed the level of resources appropriate for the department's work will emerge in the budget updates to come this year.