A Thwarted Career in the Public Service ‘Veggie Patch’

In late December, 1978, I trooped into a Canberra high school auditorium with a hundred other hopefuls. We were sitting the Clerical Selection Test for entry as Clerks Class 1 to the Third Division of the Federal Public Service. About 30,000 sat nationally, and the top 5,000 ranked by order of merit received job offers.

I suspect I came last in merit – certainly no offer came in the mail for a Clerk Class 1 post on $155 a week. It was a lucky escape.  Being a federal clerk in that era, and possibly still today, is not an attractive job.

There’s an insider’s account of clerical life in a peer-reviewed paper by Flinders and Sturt University sociologist Craig Matheson[i] , who actually clerked in the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce and in the Public Service Board from 1984-88. That was just a bit later than my own hypothetical career in filing, sorting, re-arranging random figures, photocopying, proofreading, collating, checking and putting letters in envelopes.

Matheson recounts that his four years so addled his brain that it took him some time in academia before he could think properly again. The work was mindless, the clerks bored and apathetic, and Matheson detected  “a palpable lack of enthusiasm for work”.  He says, “Most would eagerly engage in conversation  and celebrate birthdays and other rites of passage such as staff welcomes, promotions and farewells, because these provided oases of colour and excitement in an otherwise boring and uneventful day.

“During one power failure, for example, a festive atmosphere emerged in the office and many of my workmates were visibly disappointed when the power was restored. On another occasion during a local heat wave, many gathered eagerly around a thermometer to see if the temperature had risen to a level at which occupational health and safety rules excused them from attending work.”

Workmates often disappeared after official lunches, leaving the office deserted. “The absence of supervisors also provided opportunities to avoid work. When our section head was absent for the day, I absconded with my supervisor to the National Press Club to spend the afternoon playing pool.”

 One group worked in a low-skill area dubbed “the veggie patch”.  “You’d nearly have to be brain dead to work there,” they told Matheson.

As the years passed, “disillusion, bitterness and simple deterioration” set in, a living death among The Working Dead. “They’re not actively involved in life, they’re just going through the motions … existing, not living.”

Another researcher, Alan Jordan, wrote of his department’s effect:  “Bright men behave as though they were dull, energetic men as though they were lazy, and reasonably courageous men as though they were terrified of change.”[ii]

Jordan could literally set his watch by the mass exit from the offices at six minutes past five. He wrote, “When I asked a newly arrived workmate what he thought of the atmosphere in our division he simply replied, ‘Comatose’.”

But clerks liked the job security. “Not too demanding” was a positive job description. “There are worse jobs than sitting on your arse reading reports,” one said. Time-servers got promoted through the scale and piled up at the   plateau called the Terminal Class 8 Syndrome.

Clerks’ typical witticisms, says Matcheson, included, “Are you coping with the challenge?” and “I don’t think I can stand this excitement for much longer.” Another comfort was forming little friendship groups. Some women were even prepared to forego promotion and pay rises lest they lose their chatting pals.

Matheson can back his tales up with surveys.  In the Department of Primary Industry and Energy, 31 per cent didn’t care how well DPIE performed and 37 per cent weren’t willing to put in any effort to help DPIE. Things were little better for higher-level clerks. “I spent many weeks collecting statistics that were never used,” Matheson said. In one department, 60 per cent of clerks surveyed said fruitless and futile tasks interfered with their real work.

The bosses were characters from Kafka, expert  mainly in stupefying Public Service prose. When graduates asked their SES boss for less boring work, they were told, “You’re not paid to enjoy yourselves.” Even policy work could involve drearily examining the tariff rates on rubber mallets, or non-tariff-barriers to Australian exports of fruitcakes.

But let’s get back to my Clerical Selection Test adventure.  The tests started in 1961 to sort out those with talent for clerical/admin work such as “checking, computations, critical thinking and the use of English”. Attendant educationists and psychologists bulked up new positions at the Public Service Board, but their checks on the test were worthless. The test was killed off in 1990 after wasting everyone’s time for 30 years.

From my 1970s perch with The Age in the Canberra Press Gallery, I’d heard rumors that the test’s questions favoured school leavers compared with mature-age applicants. The conspiracy theory went that only high school kids would become Clerks Class 1 and pose the minimum threat to all those clerks ensconced higher up the ladder. So I sat the test to see what the questions were.

My published account began,

“It’s hard to cheat your way through a Public Service exam  with two female supervisors prowling the room and breathing down your neck.

When they weren’t looking I frantically copied the questions down in shorthand  and when the ladies came my way, I filled in answers on the test sheets at random.

This was the Commonwealth Clerical Selection Test.  

With reasonable diligence  and luck, Clerks Class 1 can shin up the ladder to Clerk Class 4 ($217) and at least dream of becoming a Clerk Class 11 ($420) before retirement.

 But by writing down the questions for later study, I was violating the rule that said writing could only be done on the answer books. To make things worse I got an early reprimand for looking at Section 4 when everyone else was still working on Section 3.

After two hours the supervisor ordered me to stop my shorthand writings. So for the remaining  50 minutes I had nothing better to do than answer the questions, some of which were quite hard.

At the exam’s end I was politely asked to wait until everyone else had trooped out of the classroom. “Would I mind seeing the chief supervisor in room 14B?  Just a few routine questions.”

I sped off in the opposite direction, in case he planned to confiscate my shorthand notes. On Monday, a telephone call.  “Would I mind contacting  Mr X at the Public Service Board? Just a few routine questions.”

I rang him. 

“We understand you were writing the questions  down during the test.” I was told politely. “We don’t know why but if you were to disclose to anyone else who plans to sit for the test both you and your friend are liable to be automatically disqualified.”

He little realised that I could reduce the Clerical Selection Test  to rubble by publishing a swag of the questions. 

“No special study is required for the test,” says the brochure. 

A sample question is “12 plus 7 equals … 5? 15? 19? None of these?” Rather harder is, “What percentage of 50 is 8?”

Another sample question on current affairs asked what the abbreviation STD stands for. If you guess “Scientific Training Division” or “Southern Telephone District”, you’re wrong.
For some reason the people who set exams always seem to muck things up. The test on English usage includes a sample question with more errors than they had  bargained for, namely,

“Us parents don’t  (1) believe in interferring in our children’s (2) quarrels.” Point 1, the brochure explains, should read “We parents don’t” and point 2  is correct as is.  The wrong spelling of ‘interfering’ is just a Public Service snafu.

The actual exam is a lot harder than the brochure specimens, especially the final questions  which are designed to sort the sheep from  goats. In the competition you’d better be nimble in adding fractions or getting the decimal point right in 0.06  divided by 0.001. And late in the test you get those awful questions about Fred who can walk at 20 yards a minute backwards on an escalator moving forwards at 12 yards a minute.

While the solutions might be obvious to you, they never are to me even after I’ve run these through my schoolboy algebra. Their relevance is also debatable. “At the Clerk Class 1 level,  the work may be fairly routine,” the PSB’s blurb admits. It adds that in the fun departments you might be able to examine applications by visitors for permanent residence status or investigate claims for welfare pensions.

But even there the need for tricky maths would not be great. And maturity not academic brilliance should be the chief need.

In the same way the examiners really pull out all stops on English grammar, with sentences like ‘Up with which, can you not put?’

On the other hand they recognise the need to attack clumsy Public Service jargon like,  “It is regretted that your welfare cheques have been delayed three months involving the consequent demise of your infant daughter.”

Another very practical test is simply to crosscheck addresses and names, since Clerks Class 1 should not send a pension cheque for Mr Bloggs (Forrest, 6434) to Mr Bloggs (Forrest 3236).

In current affairs nobody but quiz king Barry Jones could hope for a perfect score. How much do you know about Parliamentary representation or the current Prime Minister of France?

I also suspect that like so many ‘objective’ tests, the computer can mark you wrong for a right answer. For example, asked if Cuba has a Communist government, I would not tick ‘Yes’ but would write in, “What do you mean by ‘Communist’?” The current affairs section seemed full of ambiguities and anachronisms.

But it’s time to stop nit-picking.  The Clerical Selection Test, I belatedly discovered, was put through the wringer by Dr J.K. Antill of Macquarie University, in a report to the Coombs Royal Commission three years ago. He damned it.

“The most notable feature of the Clerical Selection Test is the dearth of useful information about it, both in terms of its construction and its subsequent validation,” he began. (“Validation” means checks on whether an exam achieves its aims of selecting the most promising applicants for the Public Service). “The 11 validity studies which followed the test’s introduction are of generally poor quality and provide little evidence which could be claimed to support the test’s continued use.”

The original test was superseded by a new model  in 1971  and a parallel model in 1974, but no validation study of either test was available to Dr Antill.

He noted caustically that the board had been running the 1971 test for five years , but there was no sign of analyses of its results.

Feminists will be interested to learn that after the board monkeyed with the weighting of the tests a few years ago, a ‘significant bias’ against females resulted. Dr Antill said  the test would probably be outlawed under US law.

“There is no evidence to suggest that the Clerical Selection is significantly related to job performance,” he concluded.

He found it distressing that the lower-paid public servants in the Fourth Division (which doesn’t have such stiff entrance requirements) were locked down there because the Board  made it so hard for them to crash the educational and test barriers into the Third Division.

First they had to pass high school leaving exams although the board had no evidence that its educational barrier was related to performance on the job.  Then they had to pass the Clerical Selection Test which was pretty shonky.

And all the time the Public Service Board had an excellent idea of how good these people were because they’d been employed there for years!

As a special privilege for Fourth Division slaves,  they can sit for an HSC-type exam called the “October clerical”. Fewer than a third  of the 900-1000 who sat for it pass the exam and they still have to win a place by merit after taking the Clerical Selection Test.

I inspected the 1977 “October clerical” test. A typical  question was “Outline the internal policies of the Third French Republic until 1914. Were there any problems?” (Examiner’s comment: ‘Only a few answers, which were well done.’)

And “What were the main economic, social and political developments in Australia in the decade after World War II?”

(Examiner’s comment: ‘Only a small number of candidates handled this question fairly well, concentrating on social, economic and political developments  of the decade.”)

 Dr Antill attributed the crumminess of the tests to lack of resources in the test section of the Public Service Board, rather than to incompetence.

My own top of the head conclusions about the Public Service Board is never have so many done so little so badly.

You might  think an exam question for junior clerks about the Third French Republic from 1870-1914 was peak idiocy.  Not so. Two weeks later I got a letter from Charles J. Prosser, of Burwood, Vic., who had retired in 1963 as superintending engineer of the planning branch of the Victorian Postal Administration.

“Having read your article in The Age recently  I thought you might appreciate this (enclosed). I have treasured the original since 10th and 11th October, 1924.”

The (enclosed) was a typed page of undoubted veracity which had been dictated to would-be PMG cadets in 1924 to check their spelling and hand-writing skills.

Examination No. 1290 – 9th, 10th, and 11th Oct., 1924.


For appointment as Cadet Engineer, Electrical Engineer’s Branch, Postmaster-General’s Department.


How well I remember the ostentatious vernal loveliness and summer grandeur of that somnolent archipelago, and the gratefully deciduous trees encumbering the interstices between the coniferous pines of the gentle declivities reaching down to and encroaching on the confines of the sea. How the foliage sloping down to an abysmal dome scintillated flashes of kaleidescopic hues in the glorious deluge of sunlight.

The incessantly restless sea, teasing and glancing, refracted the ambient light  from myriads of spumy points, the tawny sands glared a monochrome unmitigated by shade, while the monotony of the littoral sinuosities was relieved by precipitous promontories of quiescent caves, all reminiscent of swashbuckling  pirates and carousing buccaneers, and the time when the turquoise tranquillity of those insular seas was intermittently ruffled by the adventurous and intrepid corsair. Now they are agitated only by shoals of tiny gorgeously-tinted  fishes fleeing in a panic from some predaceous enemy.

Lichens nestling in every niche and crevice of the granitoid rocks, inconspicuous individually, but arresting the alert eye by theur ubiquity, and clamouring for recognition redeemed the rugged escarpment from unparalleled nudity.

In the illusive coruscations of the November twilight, I often whimsically visualised my island as a pelagic crustacean swallowed but unassimilated by some omnivorous leviathan of the deep.”

I phoned Mr Prosser and by great luck my 40-year-old notes of our conversation survive on the letter itself.

The dictation test was held at Melbourne University’s Wilson Hall. The text was read out by a Scot with a very rough brogue. “After the first sentence 200 lads got up and walked out,” Mr Prosser said.

Out of many hundreds in Victoria, only four passed including himself and a mate, Ted Stewart. Another was Sam Jones, later Sir Samuel Jones and a pal of General Thomas Blamey. Sam in 1942 became Head of Radio and Signal Supplies in the Munitions Department, locally-made radio and radar becoming a key element of our armed forces.

Mr Prosser said, “One of my friends sat and failed, I think he became an assistant director of engineering in Brisbane.”

Today there are two million federal, state and local public servants — they’ve bred up by a quarter million in the past decade. Of course the country needs them – every one of them. Until 4.49 p.m., anyway.

Tony Thomas’s new book, The West: An insider’s tale – A romping reporter in Perth’s innocent ’60s is available from Boffins Books, Perth, the Royal WA Historical Society (Nedlands) and online here



[i]   Matheson, C: In Praise of Bureaucracy? A Dissent From Australia. Administration and Society, Vol 39, No 2, April 2007.

[ii] Jordan, A (1974). Living Death in the Social Policy Section. In D. Edgar (Ed), Social Change in Australia, pp 409-22, Melbourne, Cheshire.

  • ianl

    Wonderful, Tony.

    Once, very long ago (it seems like 3 or 4 lifetimes) in my early youth I worked for a short time as a clerk in the old Repat Dept. It appeared that my bosses (one each end of the floor, overseeing rows of seated clerks) came to regard me as “bright” material for they invented a new position for me: Clerk in Charge of the Bombs. This actually meant that I was to work on and resolve the most difficult, complex problem cases, of the sort that the Minister may get to hear of.

    Within a few days, my “colleagues” had sorted out their reaction to this alien idea. They simply dumped every case file on my desk (“way too hard” was the cri de coeur) and went off to the pub.

    I left the Service very shortly after that. What a surprise.

  • Doubting Thomas

    My first paid job was as a temporary Base Grade clerk in the Sydney Office of the Department of Immigration, working in the Registry. It was months after I was employed that I discovered that an exam was required for entry into the Third Division. This was by no means a barrier to the Irish Catholic mafia which reputedly “controlled” or at least dominated certain sections of the Commonwealth Public Service as, reputedly, others were by the Masons.
    Perhaps surprisingly, the old pre-computer, card-index Registry system was a very busy place, particularly in the two alphabetical sections within which the majority of migrant surnames fell. Mail was delivered by the suitcase load twice daily from the GPO, and one quickly learnt not to leave any of today’s mail until tomorrow or one would very quickly be buried in backlog. I soon found I was one of very few who cared about this.
    The custom there was that at almost on the dot of 1630, the signal to down tools was when the women went to the ladies’ room to prepare for the arduous homewards commute. Then, people would start queuing up at the sign-out book until it “opened” at 1651 (or was it 1649?).
    On one particularly busy day, I was still working to clear that day’s mail at about 1645 when I was approached by the local union rep and “ordered” to stop work. “What are you trying to do? Work yourself out of a job?” I lasted 6 months.

  • en passant

    Wonderful tale Tony, but unfortunately things have deteriorated since your attempt to join the ruling class.
    My first job was a plum one on the City Council. There were 48 clerks on high Dickensian stools and desks. After two weeks I was told to move up one desk as No. 9 was retiring. Two weeks later No. 23 resigned and I moved again. My life was laid out for me until retirement! I was already No. 44 and on the fast track. 5-months later resigned.
    Many years later I was hired to take over a senior management position in the ‘Department’ while the incumbent took Long Service Leave. I barely made it to the final week. The Open Plan Office was quite noisy (I had a glass-paneled office), but on my first day I thought I had gone deaf because at 16.51 it went from hubbub to instant silence. I walked around and found a computer screen with a half written letter. Nothing wrong with that, except it not only stopped in mid-sentence but in mid-wor ….
    I liked your humorous assertion that: “his four years so addled his brain that it took him some time in academia before he could think properly again.” Yeah, right.

  • lloveday

    As a condition of a studentship, I had to work in the SA Public Service during University “holidays”. First day, I went at it head up, bum down, as I presumed was expected and the only way I knew to do anything, and was promptly told “don’t work so hard”.

  • en passant

    At least they did not say “Don’t work at all”.
    During my short time in the ‘Department’ one group trouped off one Friday every month to an off-site all day planning meeting. Honestly, what follows is true.
    I called for the previous 6-months Meeting Minutes and was surprised to find them to be identical. I was about to follow up, but a spy told me that what they really did was spend the day playing ‘Trivial Pursuit’, complete with a monthly trophy. With two weeks left of my assignment I let it go.

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