Doing the unimaginable: don't forget the unsung heroes across government

As the civil service responds to the immense challenges of  the coronavirus pandemic, they have achieved something incredible - leaving Dave Penman (almost) lost for words


By Dave Penman

16 Apr 2020

It’s not unusual to write my CSW column from the comfort of my own home. I’m hopeless with deadlines, as the editorial team would happily attest, so often it’s written late on a Sunday having pleaded for the weekend to finish my piece.

This time it feels different, though. There’s little comfort in my makeshift office as I tag team with my partner to keep our three-year-old daughter Mollie entertained, whilst we take calls and catch up with what feels like triple the number of internal meetings we used to have when we were at the office. Trying to get out and follow the rules is also difficult. I feel guilty if I take time out during the day just to go for a walk, and no three-year-old really just wants to walk. I find myself turning into my father, trying to explain why going for a walk is a thing in itself. My recollection is this was usually when we were on holiday in a place like Morecambe or Torquay and we’d be dragged along for a walk on the “front” alongside hundreds of other families with similarly recalcitrant kids.

Home-working felt like a privilege before shutdown: freedom from the commute, all those extra hours to get on top of things. Now it feels a bit like prison. There are, of course, upsides. You get to see the hideous decoration in colleagues’ houses – flock wallpaper and grotesque watercolours that look like they’re from the 1978 Coronation Street set. I was on with one colleague when his young kids appeared at the back of shot having clearly raided the freezer of ice creams. I didn’t have the heart to tell him and they disappeared to consume them in secret somewhere.

Zooming, Skyping and Teaming have become the norm and, remarkably, the country’s broadband capacity appears to have coped. We’re learning new etiquette for these conversations, or not in my case, as my propensity to talk over people to get my point across works a treat on teleconferences.

I’ve had my own troubles, though. I must have crossed someone in the Cabinet Office many moons ago and in retribution, they plugged “Dave therave” into the contacts for private office. Whenever I get invites to meetings this is what appears as my name. It’s been a bit of a joke for years until earlier this month, when I found myself on a conference call with Michael Gove and about a dozen public sector union general secretaries. The calls kept crashing and then at one point “Dave therave” appeared at the top of the list and remained there for the rest of the call. God alone knows what he thought.

We’ve got a great team at the FDA, who work well together and look out for each other. We’ve got virtual coffee breaks and a lot of informal support going on. But it is only week three and the strain is starting to show. We’re fortunate though: the FDA is an organisation of 30 staff, most of what we do is possible remotely and, of course, our network of hundreds of volunteer reps are still supporting and advising members every day. Our FDA Learn team regrouped almost overnight and have delivered some great webinars, looking at these very issues and how to manage them. In the space of 10 days we’ve had more than 500 members take part, with more to follow.

What has been difficult for the FDA must have been almost impossible for many parts of the civil service. While the country focuses rightly on the NHS and the immediate response to the pandemic, unseen has been the extraordinary efforts of the civil service coping with thousands of new priorities and changes in demand that would have felt unimaginable only four weeks ago. A million Universal Credit claims in a fortnight – 10 times the norm – and up to a million travellers needing repatriation just as the global airline industry shuts down. Tens of thousands of civil servants redeployed to focus on the new and emerging priorities. The list of extraordinary achievements is endless.

All of this at any point would have been lauded as an organisational masterclass but, simultaneously, the service has had to reorganise itself to cope with the restrictions on movement, meaning that over three-quarters of the civil service is now working from home. Hundreds of thousands of officials are having to cope with the isolation, technical frailties, new ways of working, cramped working conditions, impatient children, unprecedented demand and responding to crisis after crisis to help keep vital public services open, all while they worry about their own families, loved ones and colleagues.

I do not have the words, so I’ll simply say: thank you. 

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