Chisholm says Covid-19 will accelerate civil service’s shift away from Whitehall

Cabinet Office perm sec tells MPs continued remote working will see more people based at the same office, but not there at the same time
Alex Chisholm gives evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee on 29 September 2020

By Jim Dunton

30 Sep 2020

Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm has said he expects Covid-19 to accelerate the civil service’s shift away from Whitehall and embed working from home for at least part of the week – even when the pandemic is over.

Chisholm was sharing his thoughts with MPs on parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee yesterday in a hybrid meeting that saw him in the committee room at Westminster but several members participating remotely.

Chisholm, who is also chief operating officer of the civil service as well as Cabinet Office perm sec, told MPs that he did not expect to see an increase in the number of civil servants who worked from home exclusively, but believed that a new balance between office and home working would be found. 

Asked about what the civil service had learned from its operations in the pandemic, Chisholm said the experience had been a real-life experiment in new ways of working. 

“What we’ve shown is that the hybrid model of working with some people working in the office and some people working at home during the course of every week is actually very sustainable, and indeed very efficient, and works well for many staff and the lives that they have outside of the office,” he said.

“I think the so-called ‘stack rate’ – the number of people we can get into a given building – will probably go up after the pandemic because you would probably not assume they would all be attending on the same days of every week.

“That will mean that we will be able to have a smaller, more efficient lower-cost estate across the UK.”

Chisholm said he still believed there was a benefit in people spending time in a traditional workplace, even when they could work from home, and said he had sympathy for civil servants fored to work remotely from their bedrooms or shared homes.  

“The Cabinet Office, despite its ancient roots, is a relatively modern workplace and much better set up than most people have in their homes,” he said.

Positive impact of Covid-19

Asked directly whether he anticipated there would be fewer civil servants based in Whitehall in future, Chisholm said he did – but he noted there were already plans to move officials away from the capital under the Places for Growth programme.

“There will be fewer officials working in Whitehall, partly because we want to reduce the number of people working in Whitehall and the size of the Whitehall estate anyway,” he said 

“But one of the positive impacts of this virus has shown the potential for this hybrid working, this mix of online and face-to-face. And I’m sure that will be a permanent feature.”  

Chisholm noted that property in Whitehall, and central London in general, was expensive and that departments were set to be charged a notional amount of “imputed rent” to reflect the economic cost of the space they occupied, even where the government was the freeholder.

New estates plan imminent

PACAC chair William Wragg asked Chisholm when the government would be setting out further details of its estates strategy, which includes plans for a new HM Treasury base in the north.

Chisholm said he expected an announcement in the coming weeks, and said it was still the government’s plan to move around 22,000 civil servants out of London over the next decade – a figure floated by chancellor Rishi Sunak in February this year.  

According to the latest annual workforce statistics for the civil service, there were more than 91,000 civil servants based in London at the end of March this year. 

Chisholm said he anticipated an “evolving programme of consolidation and movement” that would need to be continually updated “in light of the new stack rate” as the nation emerged from the coronavirus pandemic.

He accepted that it was not possible to make progress with the agenda on the ground at present because social distancing rules meant the civil service “can’t get many people into offices”.

But Chisholm added: “We do think that in future we will be able to get more efficient use of the estate across the whole of the UK.”

He also told MPs that moves to rebalance civil service jobs away from London had the support of many civil servants, such as those who resented being drawn to the capital in search of promotion. 

Chisholm added that many Cabinet Office staff were “positive” about the opportunity to build their careers outside of London, even though they worked in the capital now. 

The perm sec told MPs that the coronavirus pandemic had “quite a strong levelling effect” across the country and that the availability of remote or hybrid meetings had lessened the compulsion to “rush up to attend some meeting in Whitehall”. 

He said: “We want to move away from that and accelerate efforts to have a government for the UK and from the  UK, positioned in offices throughout the country.”

Redundancies

Chisholm was asked whether he thought the regional rebalancing of the civil service – which he expected would see 40,000 jobs shift between regions – would lead to some staff losing their jobs. 

He said it was not the case for the Cabinet Office but could not speak for other departments. 

However, Chisholm did observe to MPs that he believed that the current size of the civil service – which had a headcount of 456,410 at the end of March would head downward from its current six-year high. 

“When you’re looking forward about civil service numbers, I would expect those numbers to go down because they’re at a cyclical relatively high level and that’s what I would expect anyway,” he said.

New Cabinet Office non-executive directors

MPs also asked Chisholm about the selection of four new non-executive directors at the Cabinet Office earlier this year: Lord Bernard Hogan-Howe, Baroness Simone Finn, Henry de Zoete and the former MP Gisela Stuart, now Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston. 

Stuart was a Vote Leave ally of Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and de Zoete is a former special adviser to him. Finn is a one-time special adviser to former Cabinet Office  minister Francs Maude – now Lord Maude – and helped him with his civil service reform agenda. Hogan-Howe is a former Metropolitan Police commissioner.

Committee chair William Wragg noted de Zoete and Finn’s former roles and asked Chisholm whether the role of the board was to “impartially oversee” the work of the Cabinet Office.

“Yes indeed,” the perm sec replied. “It’s support and challenge.”  He noted that the board members had been “extremely energetic” in their work.

Wragg said he was sure each board member was “individually excellent” but wondered what Chisholm thought about any perception they might not be “as a collective whole necessarily seen as completely impartial”.

Chisholm said his experience to date was that the new board members were “very independent minded as individuals and as a collective”. He said they had not been shy about challenging him or Gove, whose formal title is Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

“It’s an opiniated group and an experienced group and a very diverse group and I’m satisfied they’re exercising a proper support and challenge function,” he said.

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