The Bureau of Meteorology: Chaos at the forecaster

Oct 25, 2022 •

The Bureau of Meteorology has called on all media to change the name they had used to refer to it: the BoM. Instead it wanted to be called The Bureau.

What seemed like an odd branding announcement at first, has led to a series of revelations about working conditions for Australia’s official weather forecasters. Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton on the culture at the Bureau of Meteorology and how science got sidelined.



The Bureau of Meteorology: Chaos at the forecaster

808 • Oct 25, 2022

The Bureau of Meteorology: Chaos at the forecaster

[Theme Music Starts]


From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

Last Tuesday, while torrential rains brought floods that cut off whole towns in Victoria, Australia’s weather forecasting agency made a strange announcement.

The Bureau of Meteorology called on all media to change the name they had used to refer to it - the BoM – to The Bureau.
What seemed like an odd branding announcement at first, has led to a series of revelations about working conditions for Australia’s weather forecasters.

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton, on the culture at the Bureau of Meteorology and how science got sidelined.

It’s Tuesday, October 25.

[Theme Music Ends]


Rick, for a long time, the Bureau of Meteorology has been viewed, I think very affectionately by most people. It's our beloved National Weather Service. It's where we go to check the rain and where all of the weather experts who turn up on the news are from. So it was a bit of a surprise when the agency found itself in the middle of this PR disaster last week, wasn't it? So tell me what the controversy was about at its core.


Yeah. So I mean, it was Tuesday, regular Tuesday. There's major flooding in Victoria and the BoM announced a rebrand in a press release.

They essentially said that they didn't want to be called the BoM anymore, which has been their colloquial nickname for a really long time.

Now the media weren't really going with the new name. So the BoM made its explicit edict early last week on the Tuesday that all media covering them needed to stop calling them by those initials and start using the new name. And they even kind of vaguely threatened that if they didn't, they'd be in breach of the legislation somehow.

Instead they just wanted to be known either as their full title or the Bureau, which is confusingly the nickname of a lot of other things around the world, like the FBI, a French TV show, even a nickname for the Australian Bureau of Statistics. And it was quickly pilloried on social media. People didn't think it was necessary.

Archival tape -- Sky News:

This is bizarre, actually. Now, the Bureau of Meteorology, we all call it the BoM. It's the BoM. It's just the way it is. They’ve asked people to stop calling it the BoM or the Weather Bureau.

Archival tape -- Sky News:

It is the BoM and they’re not going to stop people calling it that regardless of how they rebrand themselves.

Archival tape -- Sunrise:

Leaving the confusion aside it is simply the stupidest thing I have probably ever seen any organisation do ever.


This botched rebrand probably would have ended there as just another frustrating story of an Australian icon trying to turn itself into some slick brand. But then I started kind of pulling back some of the layers on this because I knew in the background that there was some other stuff going on and I knew typically that things like this, they don't happen in isolation.


Yeah ok. So let's step though some of the things that you've uncovered about what's actually happening at the BoM. Starting with the cost of this rebrand Rick?


Yeah, now last week there was some reporting via the Minister's office, Tanya Plibersek, who released these. I mean she demanded the contracts and the BoM gave them to her. The Minister's office and it was $220,000, apparently is how much this rebrand had cost. That's not true. Since then, I have managed to find out that the full cost is much closer to $750,000, three quarters of $1,000,000. And some of that was. Well, some people would argue most of that, but definitely some of that was completely unnecessary because there work that was started and then thrown out and then started again.
Most staggeringly and bizarrely, the BoM hired EY Sweeney, which is a marketing and branding offshoot of Ernst and Young, the consultants. They hired them on a $93,000 contract to conduct market research regarding the rebrand. And what the consultants found was that just 15% of people recognised the Bureau of Meteorology as The Bureau. You know, this was the name that this agency had chosen as their preferred moniker. They wanted everyone to call them the bureau. And yet only 15% of people recognised them as that. Crucially, this is really important. More than 60% associated BoM with the Bureau of Meteorology. So here we've got research that cost almost $100,000 that has told them that the most successful brand they have, apart from the full name Bureau of Meteorology, is BoM, which also happens to be the brand of every social media channel they've got. It's the brand of the app, the BoM app, it's their website address, and they want to change it. And that's a very curious thing indeed I think.


And taking a step back, Rick, in some ways what you're outlining is fairly typical corporate behaviour agencies focussing on how things look and branding and marketing rather than the core function perhaps of what an organisation does. But I suppose the difference here is that this is a public service agency, which means that what we're talking about here are taxpayer dollars and an agency like the BoM, As you mentioned earlier, they actually report to a minister in this case to Tanya Plibersek. So can you tell me a bit more about what her reaction was when this brand repositioning was rolled out and made public last week?


Well, neither the environment minister Tanya Plibersek whose portfolio includes the BoM nor her office, was aware that the agency was about to launch this entirely controversial brand edict and new look publicly in the middle of a flooding crisis really. And the minister's office was completely caught off guard and they were furious about it, I can assure you.

They demanded a briefing from the higher ups at the Bureau of Meteorology, like how many contracts were there? What was the value of those contracts? What the hell is going on with this project? And according to people familiar with that exchange, the response from senior bureau managers was cagey and unsatisfactory. Now, internally, BoM staff were told that they were to move full steam ahead and that the minister's office was very happy and there was nothing wrong. Everything was fine.

The problem was that after Tanya Plibersek demanded these contracts, the Bureau of Meteorology didn't give them all over. They only gave her office a selection. Presumably maybe hoping that it wouldn't come to light, but that certainly, you know, I was tipped off by staff members who were very unhappy with the way this whole thing is being handled. And so that's where we get to this real cost, which is closer to that $750,000 figure. And that has not been revealed publicly until we wrote it. And the minister's office didn't know about it until we wrote it.


So this rebrand, Rick, it doesn’t seem to have been very well-received by the public, or by the Minister and her office. But what about the people who actually work at the Bureau of Meteorology, the people whose job it is to inform the public about weather events, what do they make of this decision by the executive leadership of the Bureau to spend all of this time and this money on this rebrand?


They hate it. And universally so in terms of the 21 plus people that I've spoken to in the course of interviewing for this story, and I'm still talking to people, people are still coming to me.

So this isn't just a case of, oh, well, yeah, this funny rebrand happened, but everything else was going okay at the Bureau. It was a case of the Bureau is not running properly and this rebrand is happening and it's also failing. But there's a broad cultural problem, and I was told by many people that this rebrand was just a symptom of this much bigger problem. And just to give you a little background, I guess, you know, more than 20 staff alone in the media and communications division at the BoM have left in the last 18 months. A lot of them left because they were too stressed to continue working there. And I've spoken to a lot of people who are familiar with that situation.

And the entire marketing team at the agency, as one person put it, it was blood let and removed during this restructure.

And although many of the concerns that were raised with me relate to the media division, meteorologists and other staff have complained to me about the severe dysfunction in this area infecting other parts of the service.

One weather forecaster I was talking to, who can’t be identified because of course they still work for the BoM. They told me that this is prioritised by management over severe, long term understaffing of mets, that’s meteorologist, seemingly not of management and consultants. They’ve had plenty of funding, he goes on to say, combined with a huge top to bottom restructure, the public service hitting the really hairy stages. All of this at the tail end of three lightning years in a row with the potential for, you know, most of the East Coast to flood so easily. Meteorologists are tired and overworked. I’m so happy the public saw the bullshit instantly.


We'll be back in a moment



Rick, It sounds like the Bureau of Meteorology have problems that go far beyond the failing rebrand they've been trying to implement. They've got staff who are overworked, who are fed up, who are leaving and it sounds like they've got a real cultural problem on their hands. So tell me more about what the workload is actually like for someone at the Bureau of Meteorology, someone who's been a weather forecaster during the last couple of years of disasters?


Yeah. It's full on. It's really full on. People are, you know when you talking to tired people, they're broken. And that's exactly what I'm picking up. So we’ll illustrate this by just looking at one of the major disasters the BoM had to warn us about, and that's the flooding that happened in Lismore.

And that was one of the worst flooding events in Australian history where the river, the Wilsons River there broke its previous record by two metres, two metres. Now going into that event, I'm told that the weather forecasters were already overworked and exhausted from the series of extreme weather events that had been happening in the months leading up. We were in the really hairy stages of this, what they called the public service transformation at the Bureau. So the restructure, they'd be closing the state offices, centralising forecasting in a head office which was split between Brisbane and Melbourne. They call it national production. And so people are tired. People have left because they haven't been willing to move. They're down, they're short staffed.

Now residents in Lismore in particular were trapped after this catastrophic flooding and it appeared to catch officials off guard. And just to be really clear, the SES, which itself is struggling with this new centralisation model, losing a lot of local experience. The SES is the one that's responsible for issuing evacuation orders, but they get the information about what weather to expect direct from briefings, from the meteorologists, the hydrologists at the Bureau of Meteorology. So they work in tandem. They have to. Now I was told by one source that there absolutely needs to be a royal commission into what happened. This person said, I saw a grad meteorologist barely off course, as in they’ve just finished training, barely off course, in charge of things that they would never have been in charge of up until that point.

Lismore happened right in the short staffing period.

A separate source who is no longer with the BoM told me that the organisation was down now about 24 or 25 meteorologists.

On top of all of that, media managers have explicitly banned the mention of climate change in connection with severe weather events, which is a bit of a hangover from old science, where you can't say individual events are caused by climate change. That's a pretty fair assessment, right? The science from that is changing, but also it goes beyond that. They prefer you to not mention climate change at all when talking about the fact that climate change does actually lead to an intensifying likelihood and probability of events like these extreme flooding events, these extreme heat waves actually happening. And we're seeing that across the world as we speak. And it seems to have really picked up pace in the last few years, and that's what media managers have been trying to damp down and say, don't discuss it.


Telling people not to mention climate change in the context of increasing floods and fires. I mean, I can imagine that that would really not go down well with people who work in the field and who know what they're talking about and can see it actually happening.


This is the problem right, because that expertise has been stripped away from the highest levels of the BoM. There are no meteorologists in the executive. Andrew Johnson, the CEO, is an agricultural scientist and his right hand man, Peter Stone, who also came over from the CSIRO, who used to work with, is also an agricultural scientist. Neither of them are meteorologists and there's been this kind of demotion, I guess, of expertise in meteorology and climate science. They used to have a chief climatologist at the bottom and that role doesn't exist anymore.

Peter Stone, I'm told, has carriage of that area despite not being a climatologist or even a meteorologist himself. Now, in addition to that, I've been told that these gag orders have been issued to prevent the forecasters from speaking to journalists unless the comments are pre-approved. And there was one case in March last year in the Sydney flooding that involved the Hawkesbury and outer areas of Sydney where meteorologists accidentally fluffed their lines and it mentioned climate change and the response was furious and essentially from management said no one needs to speak to a journalist for the rest of today. This is in the middle of an emergency when people's homes are being flooded. And they basically put a blanket ban on anyone with expertise talking to journalists for the rest of the day because they were angry that the lines had been fluffed.

Now, a spokesman for the Bureau of Meteorology denies this vehemently. They say that we have never issued gag orders and they point out that they released the State of the climate reports every two years and they do a lot of climatology work, which is all true.

But there is a view internally that those reports are not as fulsome or as explicit as they should be because of intervention from management.

I would say overall, the accounts of the culture at the Bureau of Meteorology are, I've never encountered anything like it. It's really quite sad.


It is sad and it's also quite scary to hear about what is a fundamental public service, something like the BoM that plays a huge role in our lives and an important role being hollowed out in this kind of way. So, I mean, where do you think this leaves the BoM? Can it still continue to fulfil its core purposes?


Yes, it can. But there does need to be some change.

One of the fears and it’s very fair. One of the fears of people talking to me was that, you know, even airing some of this stuff would have people lose their trust in the BoM, or lose their trust in the people who are working and the meteorologists are doing amazing work. They are great people and they're doing their best. And one you know, one former employee told me that the BoM has a duty of care to the Australian people, they said I watched them put up meteorologists for life crosses pretending to be in another state where the weather was happening. So it didn't look like they had no one on the ground. No, that person said, I watch colleagues have nervous breakdowns or just fall apart in front of my eyes. It was so distressing.

And the thing is, it's never been more important. To have a functioning Bureau of Meteorology then right now, in this moment in history, if you look at the heatwaves in Europe, the heatwaves in British Columbia, in Canada, we're getting temperatures close to 50 degrees, you know, in places that were never designed for these temperatures. And in Australia, where we've had three La Nina years in a row, Sydney broke its rainfall record two thirds of the way into this year. And we’re still going!

You know, they should be moving heaven and earth to get everything fixed.


Yeah and I think it's fair to say, Rick, that this rebranding attempt has really backfired in every way possible, in that people haven't responded well to it. But it's also opened the door for the kind of reporting that you have been doing and for details about what’s really happening, the real problems at the agency? And what sounds like a fairly toxic culture to be made public.


Yeah, exactly. And you know, in terms of any PR strategy, that is the massive backfire, that is the opposite of the intended effect they've drawn. They've essentially moved an enormous spotlight onto themselves as an agency and the story is far from over as far as I'm concerned, because we've got Senate estimates later on this week, the Bureau of Meteorology up on Friday. And I know for a fact that Tanya Plibersek’s office are deeply unhappy with the way this whole thing has unfolded.


Rick, thank you so much for your time.


Thank you.


Also in the news today…

A flooding emergency is continuing in eastern Australia.

The Bureau of Meteorology says rivers are rising across the country - from southern Queensland to Victoria.

On Monday, the NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said that by the end of this flooding event, almost every part of NSW will have been through a natural disaster this year.

Archival tape -- Premier Perrottet:

I think by the time we get through this event we will have almost the entire state at some point in time that's been affected by a natural disaster of one form or another.

The Chinese communist party’s leadership council, the Politburo, have been appointed for a new five year term.

At the same time, President Xi Jinping secured an unprecedented third term as general secretary of the party.

Experts say his new Politburo standing committee colleagues represent Xi’s increasing power – with all six other members his longtime allies.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

Last Tuesday, while torrential rains brought floods that cut off whole towns in Victoria, Australia’s weather forecasting agency made a strange announcement.

The Bureau of Meteorology called on all media to change the name they had used to refer to it: the BoM. Instead it wanted to be called The Bureau.

What seemed like an odd branding announcement at first, has led to a series of revelations about working conditions for Australia’s official weather forecasters.

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton on the culture at the Bureau of Meteorology and how science got sidelined.

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton

Listen and subscribe in your favourite podcast app (it's free).

Apple podcasts Google podcasts Listen on Spotify


7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, Alex Tighe, Zoltan Fecso, and Cheyne Anderson.

Our technical producer is Atticus Bastow.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Scott Mitchell. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

More episodes from Rick Morton

Subscribe to hear every episode in your favourite podcast app:
Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify

808: The Bureau of Meteorology: Chaos at the forecaster