Civil service leaders ‘should make stronger case for office-based working’

Cabinet Office minister tells House of Lords that younger staff need in-person mentoring
Baroness Lucy Neville-Rolfe extolled the "clear benefits" of "face-to-face, workplace-based collaborative working". Photo: Richard Lincoln/Alamy Live News

By Jim Dunton

05 Feb 2024

Cabinet Office minister Lucy Neville-Rolfe has told peers that civil service leaders should make a stronger case for office-based working, with younger officials particularly in need of in-person mentoring.

Her comments came in a House of Lords debate prompted by a call from Conservative peer Baron Naseby for the government to set out its plans for reviewing the impact on public services of civil servants working from home.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe sidestepped the main question, but told peers there were “clear benefits from face-to-face, workplace-based collaborative working” and that the government’s latest post-pandemic back-to-the-office drive, launched in the autumn, reflected the thinking.

“That is why departments have issued new guidance that most civil servants should spend at least 60% of their working time in the office and our senior civil servants have been told that they need to set an example as leaders,” she said.

Neville-Rolfe was a senior civil servant at the Cabinet Office in the 1990s before moving to supermarket giant Tesco, where she was an executive director on the main board from 2006. She returned to the Cabinet Office as a junior minister in September 2022.

In the 10-minute debate on Thursday, Conservative peer Laura Wyld – who was head of then-prime minister David Cameron’s appointments unit from 2013 to 2016 – called for civil service leaders to be stronger advocates for a return to the office among junior civil servants.

“The way younger workers learn and prosper is by observing their senior colleagues and having the opportunity to share ideas and thinking,” Baroness Wyld said. “ Is there not an onus on senior civil servants to make the case more powerfully for working in the office?”

Neville-Rolfe said she agreed “completely” and that was part of the government’s approach.

“I am very keen that we should have balance, but people should come into the office and get the sort of mentorship my noble friend has mentioned,” she said.

Lib Dem peer William Wallace asked whether the introduction of hot-desking in Whitehall and the “squeeze on places for staff to work” made it difficult for everyone to have a desk if they went in to the office every day.

“Some of the offices are full some of the time, but it is important that we use our property properly in the interests of value for money, while modernising it so that it is a good workplace,” Neville-Rolfe responded.

“One of the things young people say is that they want to come to a nice place to work; my department, the Cabinet Office, is certainly a very nice place to work.”

No “overreliance on consultants”

Elsewhere in the debate, Labour peer Baroness Jenny Chapman accused the government of the “overuse” of external consultants, which she said was expensive and gradually undermined departments’ in-house expertise.

“The government awarded £2.8bn of consulting contracts in 2022 alone,” she said. “Does the minister agree that the government should work hard to retain expertise within the service? Will she commit the government to cutting back on their habitual overreliance on consultants?”

Neville-Rolfe said she agreed there needed to be “proper value for money and proper competition” but questioned whether excessive use was being made of consultants in government.

“I do not see an overreliance on consultants,” she said. “While I have been a minister – only just over one year – we have moved to replace consultants with full-time civil servants in areas such as digital, because they represent better value for money.

“Clearly, we need to use outside consultants for some things, not least bringing in skills on things such as AI where we do not have the civil service skills we need. There has to be a balance; consultants can be valuable. Where I am with the noble baroness is that there needs to be proper value for money and proper competition and we should not overdo it.”

The Institute for Government’s annual Whitehall Monitor report, published two weeks ago, found Whitehall’s reliance on both consultants and temporary labour has increased in recent years, with spend reported in departments’ annual accounts rising by 40% in real terms since 2018-19.

The Department of Health and Social Care spent 15 times more on temporary staff in 2021-22 than it did in 2018-19 because of pressures related to Covid-19.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spent seven times more on temporary labour in 2022-23 than its predecessor department did in 2018-19.

The IfG said the war in Ukraine, 2020’s merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, and IT activity were the prime contributory factors.

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