Hapless or hypocritical? Civil servants have had enough of being attacked to save the Big Dog

A Friday-evening press release accompanied by anonymous briefings doesn't indicate strong leadership, but it does have the whiff of Red Meat sacrificed, along with civil service morale, to save a floundering prime minister
Source: Alamy

By Dave Penman

24 Jan 2022

The new Clifford the Big Red Dog movie is not quite as terrible as you might think. A friend of mine went with her husband to see it after watching Jack Whitehall on the Graham Norton show, not realising it was a kid’s film until she sat down. At least I had an excuse, I have a four-year-old daughter.

The Jack Whitehall character is dishevelled, lives a chaotic lifestyle and is easily distracted. Which brings me conveniently to Operation Save the Big Blue Dog.

I can only assume that Steve Barclay’s Friday night press release, announcing a return to pre-pandemic office occupancy, was just the latest instalment of the diversionary tactics from No.10. It’s a fair assumption though. Let’s face it: anyone serious, running an organisation of 500,000 staff across over 200 separate organisations, wouldn’t be credible if they thought an announcement on changing working practices was best delivered on a Friday night by press release.

The alternative explanation, that he thinks this is the way to lead the civil service, is more frightening. For the sake of argument, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he’s happy to insult a workforce that has performed miracles during lockdown for a few easy headlines to save his boss.

I was warned on Thursday that the government was planning a new front in its working from home culture war against the civil service, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Friday evening release was of course accompanied by heavy anonymous briefing, detailing how lazy, privileged civil servants have all moved to the Cotswolds and are rarely available online, as presumably they’re walking their cockapoos or on their Pelotons.

It contained the usual mind-bending rhetoric about “taking a lead” and supporting sandwich shops. Again, we are apparently to assume that the minister for the Cabinet Office thinks that a priority for the civil service is to support city centre sandwich shops, rather than deliver effective public services. We’re also to assume that those thousands of private sector businesses that have already embraced hybrid working will send their staff back to offices, simply because he's instructing civil servants to return.

He must know, one assumes, that season ticket sales are a third of their pre-pandemic level, with the data showing a massive transition to Tuesday-Thursday peak travel, though still below pre-peak levels. He must realise that those who work from home are still economically active and so what we are witnessing is displaced, not lost, economic activity, and the government should be supporting businesses to adapt.

"When challenged, ministers have repeatedly struggled to identify what work is not being done, or what is less efficient about hybrid working"

He must know that most people want hybrid working, recognising that whilst there are many activities that can be done remotely, there are also many benefits to being the office. He knows that many government departments have at best a 60% desk ratio – already saving millions of pounds for the taxpayer – so the reality is that everyone cannot get back to their desks. He will also know that the government’s flagship levelling up agenda in the civil service, Places for Growth, is predicated on at least 40% of staff working from home.

He must know that, when challenged, ministers have repeatedly struggled to identify what work is not being done, or what is less efficient about hybrid working. That’s why we get anonymous, insulting briefings, rather than an on the record direct challenge backed by evidence, and why the press release is full of rhetoric rather than facts.

Which is it then, hapless or hypocritical? Minister for analogue or minister for disinformation? Either way, it does not bode well. I’ve been inundated with messages over the weekend from angry civil servants, insulted by the messaging and disillusioned by the lack of leadership. One told me she was so incensed she was going back to the private sector where she could get greater flexibility.

All this for the sake of some red meat to throw at newspaper columnists and backbenchers who have no idea how modern public services operate or how digital collaboration works. I hope he thinks it was worth it.

Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA. He tweets as @FDAGenSec

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