Think back to those days in early 2020 when smoke haze got so thick in Canberra that some public servants were told to stay away from the office.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, on shaky ground after fumbling his response to the bushfire crisis, looked to the levers at his disposal in his urgent search for a reset.
He reached for one: a federal bureaucracy he once held at arm's length and sometimes derided with his "Canberra bubble" quips.
The public service, he would have found, was useful in a large-scale, national crisis. It was a timely lesson, considering what happened later in 2020.
In the Black Summer, the Australian Defence Force mounted its largest ever mobilisation in response to a domestic disaster. Services Australia, under pressure to improve service delivery in 2019, quietly processed government payments for fire-hit communities.
Both the welfare agency and the defence force went on to play critical roles in the national response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Political expediency might have played a role in Mr Morrison turning to the public service during the bushfires. By contrast, in COVID-19 the Coalition government appeared to learn that its bureaucracy was suited to something other than following orders.
Public appetite for good government boomed in the pandemic. Meeting that demand involved listening to a well-trained, expert bureaucracy. The Prime Minister's patronising message in August 2019 that public servants should implement rather than advise on policy seemed from another era. That kind of thinking looks increasingly outdated as the government looks to bureaucrats for advice on policies to reboot the national economy in 2021.
The bureaucracy's expertise came back into fashion for the government, a trend that became a lounge room spectacle as then-chief medical officer Brendan Murphy took to TV screens while explaining the pandemic response. The Prime Minister only has to look askance at other nations to see what could have been, had he sidelined the public service in COVID-19.
Getting on with it
The magnitude of the task is well-documented but its most obvious examples are the long hours of Treasury officials in co-creating the JobKeeper wage subsidy program to reduce the economic shock of COVID-19; the efforts of Health Department staff coordinating the nation's pandemic response; and the work of Services Australia staff and those seconded to the agency to process a surge in welfare claims.
Agencies and departments got to work on the national pandemic response while absorbing their own restructures following the Prime Minister's machinery of government changes late last year reducing 18 departments to 14.
The public service was nimble in its handling of COVID-19, mobilising bureaucrats from both within and outside Services Australia to deliver welfare payments to hundreds of thousands of newly unemployed people. It's arguably the most significant example of the bureaucracy's adaptation to the pandemic.
The mass redeployments could be a template of things to come for the federal bureaucracy, showing the kind of unified public service response desired by the government.
Two of the most senior bureaucrats, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens and public service commissioner Peter Woolcott, in September announced plans to build a reserve of staff available for redeployment to agencies in need of support for critical COVID-19 tasks.
On questions of government integrity, there were bad signs in 2020.
The board of department secretaries - a vehicle for cross-public service reform and coordination - will look to make the newfound mobility permanent in 2021. It will face an obstacle if agencies withdraw back to their silos when the coronavirus crisis eventually fades.
A public service reform agenda, made up of Thodey review recommendations not binned by the government, is also in need of follow-through.
Another rapid adaptation to COVID-19 took place inside the homes of public servants this year. Staff experienced first hand a new phenomenon for the bureaucracy, when agencies told them to work from home in a bid to stop coronavirus spreading through offices.
By August, 64 per cent of public servants were working remotely. A month later the return to office buildings was under way but the public service commission has urged agencies to continue embracing flexible work arrangements. In 2021, bureaucrats will learn whether their bosses have paid attention.
The government heaped praise on the public service for its work in COVID-19, but public sector unions condemned the Coalition's six month delay on pay rises for bureaucrats. While unions argued it was wrong to freeze wage rises as the government relied on public servants to implement its responses to the coronavirus, the Coalition said Commonwealth bureaucrats must share the economic burden of the pandemic.
The Community and Public Sector Union was also critical of the government's decision in November to replace the public service's 2 per cent wage rise cap with a floating limit tied to private sector pay increases. However the Coalition said the decision would bring wage rises for public servants more in step with other Australians.
Among departments and agencies, the Defence Department was guaranteed the most reliable growth in staffing as the government unveiled a new defence strategy in July expanding the nation's military spending.
Beyond the pandemic
The pandemic, and the bureaucracy's efforts to steer the nation from the worst devastation of the coronavirus, drew public attention away from troubling questions about government in Australia.
At intervals this year, there were reminders of the public service's involvement in the disastrous robodebt program. In November the government agreed to a $1.2 billion payout to nearly half a million Australians affected by the robodebt scheme, expected to be the largest class action payment in the nation's history. At this stage, calls for a royal commission into the affair hang in the air.
On questions of government integrity, there were bad signs in 2020.
Mr Morrison's initial mishandling of the bushfire crisis was only one source of pressure on the government in early 2020. Before the COVID-19 crisis arrived in Australia, the Coalition was defending itself from the political fallout of the "sports rorts" saga.
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It was an Auditor-General's report that exploded in federal politics like a hand grenade in January, finding then-sports minister Bridget McKenzie overlooked applications for sports grants found worthy by government agency Sport Australia while her office ran its own assessment process favouring marginal electorates.
The Australian National Audit Office also reminded the public of its role as a cornerstone of government integrity by throwing the spotlight on the Leppington land purchase.
Over the same year, the Audit Office came under increasing pressure as the Coalition government cut funding to the agency, potentially reducing scrutiny for billions of dollars in stimulus spending.
In recent weeks, the Auditor-General Grant Hehir also revealed public service agencies were asking him to remove content from his reports and signalling they were willing to use a little known section of legislation that would have hidden parts of the reports from the public.
A National Integrity Commission remains nowhere in sight, despite the Coalition reluctantly committing in 2018 to establishing one. In any case, the model the government is proposing has been lambasted as glaringly weak.
The Prime Minister and Mr Gaetjens have told public servants a busy year helping the nation recover from COVID-19 awaits in 2021.
As the pandemic recedes, whenever that may be, the Coalition will continue to grapple with issues of public trust. The bureaucracy's fortunes are tied tightly to the government's successes or failures in resolving these questions.
Demand for good government might have grown this year, but in some areas at least, it was in short supply.
In 2021, the Coalition has the chance to make up the difference.