Cabinet Office survey reveals steep drop in staff wellbeing and trust in leadership

Officials say department chiefs should be more supportive of flexible working and question “vision”
Jacob Rees-Mogg. Photo: Richard Lincoln/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

06 Jul 2022

Staff wellbeing and trust in the Cabinet Office’s senior leadership has plummeted amid rows over hybrid working and job cuts, with less than a quarter of civil servants expressing confidence in the strategy and vision of their department’s leaders in a snapshot survey.

Just 24% of officials who responded to a “pulse” questionnaire in May said they believed senior leaders having a “clear vision for the future of Cabinet Office” – down from 49% in the latest Civil Service People Survey.

The survey – leaked to CSW’s sister publication PoliticsHome – showed particular dissatisfaction with the way the department has handled officials’ return to the office following pandemic work-from-home arrangements.

The poll, which revealed Cabinet Office civil servants are less happy than a year ago, gave officials the opportunity to comment on the flexible working row in a section labelled "Hot topic: Hybrid working”. 

They were asked “What one thing could Cabinet Office do that would have the greatest positive impact on your experience of working in the office?”.

Among the more than 1,300 responses to the question, the most common demands included: 

  • Clearer guidance on hybrid working, less pressure to return to offices and more consideration of flexible working
  • Improved conditions in office (WiFi, functional work space, resources, food & drink)
  • Lifting the recruitment freeze to help with resourcing issues

The survey highlights a comment from an anonymous civil servant, who said: “The apparent change in policy around hybrid working in the recent days has been handled very badly - with ambiguous and heavy-handed messaging. 

“Attending the office 40% of the time suits a lot of the team's personal circumstances, but also allows us to get the benefits of both in person and remote working.”

The Cabinet Office survey also revealed that, of the 10% of respondents who said they had experience discrimination in the last six months, a third said the reason was their working location. The results of the questionnaire, circulated internally, did not define what this meant.

The last year has brought a deluge of work-from-home criticism by ministers.

Last August, when an unnamed minister said civil servants who work from home should get a pay cut. Then-Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said the suggestion was “unhelpful”, but added that there are “clear productivity advantages” to office-based work.

His successors took a more direct tone as Covid-19 restrictions began to end. In January, Steve Barclay called for departmental officials to “lead the way” in getting offices back to pre-pandemic occupation levels.

But government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has been the most outspoken critic of home working, and has been leading the government’s drive to limit hybrid working since being appointed in February. In April, Rees-Mogg urged ministers to order civil servants to stop working from home and ensure offices are at "full capacity".

The Cabinet Office has been coordinating the collection of data from departmental HQ buildings “to gain a general understanding” of how busy offices are. It released the first statistics on this last week.

The Cabinet Office survey also revealed widespread concern about the recruitment freeze implemented in response to plans to reduce the service headcount to 2016 levels. Opposition to the freeze was a key theme among responses to the “hot topic” question.

One civil servant told the survey that the Cabinet Office should “consider the workload of people and prioritise only essential work,”, while another said the department needed “properly resourced and skilled teams in order to deliver what are, at times, unclear objectives”.

A government spokesperson told PoliticsHome: “We are committed to making the Cabinet Office a great place to work, which is why we regularly seek the views of our staff. This was a snapshot survey and the results represent less than 30% of Cabinet Office staff in terms of response rate."

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