Ministerial hand-wringing over working from home is beyond a joke

While Jacob Rees-Mogg fixates on the numbers of officials who are back at their desks – and hugely damages morale in the process – civil servants are getting on with the job of delivering public services
Much of the government's own levelling up agenda is predicated on officials working from home

By Dave Penman

22 Mar 2022

The world faces its greatest geopolitical crisis in nearly 70 years with open warfare on the continent of Europe. We’re still emerging from a once-in-a-century pandemic and indeed, as I type, case numbers are rocketing. Inflation has hit record highs and could be in double digits by the summer, causing untold misery and a cost-of-living crisis not seen since the 70s.

In the midst of all of this, Jacob Rees-Mogg, minister for sunny uplands, government efficiency and dead cats, has written to departments to insist that civil servants return to their offices. Officials are also being threatened with fortnightly audits of how many have been present at their desks. 

Of course he has written to departments. If there was ever a minister who was blissfully untroubled by the burdens of actually delivering anything, it’s JRM. He’s not bothered whether this is actually related to how effectively the civil service is operating. He doesn’t care what it will do to morale for civil servants who’ve worked night and day to respond to all of those national emergencies. He’s also not bothered by facts or data on efficiency and he certainly isn’t going to let the senior management of the civil service get on with their jobs.

While the civil service deals with real-world problems, JRM concentrates on the real enemy: civil servants who are working three days at home and two in the office. It would laughable if it wasn’t so morale-sappingly damaging. 

Every pronouncement from a minister on this issue only serves to demonstrate two things. Firstly, that they haven’t got the foggiest how modern workplaces operate, and secondly, that they are so clueless they don’t even realise their brilliant memo just announces this complete ignorance to the world. 

It should be surprising – but clearly isn’t – that it also flies in the face of the rest of government policy. A key plank of the levelling up agenda is to move 20,000 civil service roles out of London. Not only are many of these jobs predicated on hybrid working, saving taxpayers millions of pounds in office costs, but it’s based on the premise that senior roles can relocate hundreds of miles away, because you don’t need to physically work next to ministers when you have all the wonderful technology available that enables you to work anywhere.

Again, if he’s even aware of this, JRM will not care a jot about the mixed messages, the damage to morale or public undermining of the senior management of the civil service. Because ultimately, it’s not about reality or efficiency. It’s a world view of a “woke” civil service that either plays well to the base, or is actually so completely divorced from reality that he believes it. I’m not sure which is more frightening.

So, while Rees-Mogg fixates on numbers at their desks – on Teams calls to colleagues working in other offices or at home because, of course, most departments only have capacity for 50% of staff at any one time – civil servants are getting on with the job of delivering public services.

Frankly, I’m tired of responding to this nonsense and I know civil servants are tired of responding to it too. Is it too much to hope that some of the grown-ups in government will realise that indulging this infantile approach to the civil service is counterproductive? Instead of quietly ignoring or being grudgingly complicit with a behind-closed-doors apology, they should push back and tell JRM where to stick his fortnightly bean-counting as they’ve got, you know, a country to run.

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