Opinion: Ministers risk becoming leaden-footed luddites as work from home row rumbles on

Every day seems to bring new jibes at hard working civil servants over office returns. But eventually reality will catch up with
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By Richard Johnstone

14 Oct 2021

 

This month at CSW we have been thinking about recruitment through the years, as we have spoken to outgoing first civil service commissioner Ian Watmore. The Civil Service Commission’s formation in 1855 was a central part of the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms that created an impartial civil service. It has been ensuring that recruitment into the civil service is fair, open and meritocratic ever since.

This doesn’t mean that its work is unchanged – far from it. It has moved from being the body that carried out recruitment to the one that regulates it. In Watmore’s time in the top job, the commission had to ensure the Northcote-Trevelyan principles were not undermined by ever-growing staffing challenges in response to both Brexit and Covid.

History will doubtless find elements of the response to both of these events wanting. But it will not find civil servants, and those on the commission who regulate their work, lacking for either determination to find or commitment to deliver the right solutions to the nation’s problems in a timely fashion.

One wonders if the nation will be able to say the same about its elected politicians. If briefings against officials become an ugly part of the political furniture following the EU exit vote, then we have been left with the inflatable plastic chair and red-lipped sofa even after the flames of passion from the plebiscite itself have died down.

Take the widely-reported remarks of MPs at the Conservative Party conference. From quips about getting off exercise bikes to jibes about “wokeing from home”, senior figures in the party of government felt content to deride civil servants for cheap laughs in a way that would be flabbergasting if those delivering the lines were not so profoundly unserious.

Top of the (Peloton) charts was party co-chair and ex-culture secretary Oliver Dowden, who criticised Sarah Healey, his former perm sec, for having the temerity to point out that people might be able to find more time to exercise if they didn’t have to travel into the office.

Quite why a senior politician chose to rage against a statement which essentially confirms how long it takes the earth to rotate on its axis is unclear, but his insistence that “people really want the government to lead by example” by sending civil servants back to offices is not borne out by polling, which consistently shows demand for flexible working. It was, doubtless, borne out by the cheers in the room, which is probably all Dowden – who once told CSW that “I don’t recognise this image of civil servants being blockers or frustrators or anything like that” on Brexit – cared about in the moment.

But his comment belies a persistent misconception that people who work at home aren’t really working. A passing acquaintance with the work of government in the pandemic (which you would hope a cabinet minister would have) proves that this is not the case, otherwise the many, many support schemes launched in the last 18 months would not have happened.

More than this, the country is still grappling with what the world will look like post-pandemic. The equilibrium may settle on a widespread return to the office, but this seems. And the government will need to recruit for many positions in this new labour market, for which talking down the homeworkers makes little sense.

Watmore calls these hostile briefings “a shot in the foot of the [politicians] that say them”, who will work with civil servants if they get into power. After a decidedly policy-lite conference season, ministers look like leaden-footed luddites desperately trying to find another bit of shoe to aim into.

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