Dave Penman: What's your issue with the civil service, John?

Cabinet Office minister John Glen's latest attack is both ill-advised and damaging
Cabinet Office minister John Glen Photo: Parliament.uk

By Dave Penman

19 Apr 2024

 

Why are civil servants so lazy? It was a question that was posed on the front page of the Evening Standard on Tuesday. It wasn’t just the usual partial take from a newspaper that is almost entirely reliant on commuters grabbing a copy on the way home; this was inspired by the minister for the Cabinet Office, John Glen, penning an article about ministers' second-favourite subject, working from home.

It was an interesting piece. Glen has pushed for 60% attendance in civil service buildings because – as he said in a speech at the Institute for Government – that’s apparently the norm in the private sector. The accompanying statistics to the article showed that the majority of the civil service is reaching this, and many departments like the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Work and Pensions, HM Treasury, the Department for Transport, the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Defence and the Cabinet Office itself are exceeding it.

The one highlighted as not, and ministers' favourite punchbag at the moment, was HM Revenue and Customs, and that was at 53%. So, as Bulda the Troll famously asks Anna in Frozen: "What’s the issue dear?"

The issue appears to be that Glen isn't getting enough headlines. We’ve been through all of this before. For all the watercooler moment anecdotes, the Cabinet Office cannot provide any evidence as to why 60% in-person attendance is the answer for a civil service of 500,000 staff, across several hundred organisations, with tens of thousands of different jobs and working requirements.

Of course they can’t, because a one-size-fits-all approach makes absolutely no sense. We’ve asked and asked for the evidence. Hybrid working has benefits over fully remote but there is no magic number, and they know that. So, we end up with the reductive argument of “well, that’s what the private sector do”.

Now, if you take the headline, the article and the comment piece together it poses an interesting question. If private sector norm is 60% and the civil service is matching 60%, the logic follows that if the civil service is “so lazy” then the private sector is as well.

Was that Glen’s subliminal message to industry? Get off your lazy arses and back to the office. We all know you merchant bankers can’t be trusted to not get distracted at home and, like our dearly departed prime minister, snaffle cheese from the fridge. That, as Sir Humphrey was fond of saying, would be a “brave decision” minister. Not something Hacker was ever attracted to.

I doubt it, because the purpose of the article was to "show some leg", as a minister once put it to me, to the Trumpian wing of the party. They’re not interested in statistics or evidence on this point, they just want to blame every failure of government on lazy, "woking from home" civil servants. HMRC was gleefully quoted in the article because of their poor record on call handling, which is, of course, now being blamed on home working.

Never mind that we’ve been over this particular issue before. Jim Harra, the HMRC permanent secretary, got asked about it by the Treasury Select Committee. He wrote back explaining that "colleagues are only permitted to work from home if they can carry out their duties effectively there. We are able to monitor and manage helpline adviser performance whether they are working at home or in the office, and the evidence we have on adviser productivity at home compared with the office shows that the number of callers served per adviser is similar, no matter where they are working".

Easier to blame home working than address head-on the two government policies that are leading to the backlog. There are an extra 1.2 million self assessment taxpayers this year alone, caused by the policy of freezing the tax thresholds, and HMRC are not being given the extra resources to deal with it.

Glen has some form in this territory. In advance of his IfG speech in January, he briefed the Sunday Telegraph on ministers' first favourite subject, staff equality networks. Cue a slew of headlines attacking the civil service.

When I met with him later that week, I asked what he thought civil servants made of the minister with responsibility for the civil service focussing on these peripheral issues, given the enormous challenges facing the service. After my impassioned plea to stop trashing the service, he said when he considered these issues in the future he’d picture me and what I’d just said. I told him jokingly that I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy, but now I’m warming to the idea.

Ministers can prioritise currying favour with whatever wing of the party they feel they need to ingratiate themselves with, or they can lead the civil service, they can’t do both. In his speech to the IfG Glen talked about the challenge to recruit the right skills into the civil service and acknowledged pay had fallen behind the market. How exactly does he think those headlines help with that particular challenge?

On Wednesday morning, a civil servant contacted me. Heading home from the office at 8pm after covering meetings and follow up for a staff absence, they saw that headline. As they put it, they usually try to ignore the click bait political posturing, but that was too much.

Has Glen motivated them to go that extra mile again? If someone in the private sector with key skills was considering whether to take a 50% pay cut to come into the civil service to do good work, would they be inspired?

I don’t know whether Glen is happy or not with his latest foray into corporate leadership, but what he can’t do now is deny his culpability for the consequences. I hope that image of my impassioned plea is now indelibly burned in to his memory. The least he deserves.

Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA union

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