Dave Penman: the government’s return-to-office drive is yet another insult to civil servants

The introduction of targets for officials to get back into departments is gesture politics, says the FDA general secretary, and is likely to fail
Anthony Devlin/PA Archive/PA Images

By Dave Penman

08 Sep 2020

“Let them eat cake” said Marie Antionette, as she was wheeled along in her carriage and heard the cries of hungry Parisians for bread. Revolution followed, and like lots of revolutions, those at the very top didn’t even see it Cumming.

Over the last six months a quiet revolution has been happening in in spare bedrooms, kitchens, dining rooms – and for those lucky enough to have the space, home offices – up and down the country. This is not simply a public sector story. Every one of you will know someone working in the private sector, from small businesses to multinationals, from Wick to Westminster, who has been working effectively at home. Study after study is showing that private sector employers are reworking their workforce strategies as they recognise the costs that can be stripped out with a policy that is popular among many of their workforce.

Let’s be clear here, home working is neither suitable nor desirable for everyone. Many don’t have an environment at home where they can, or indeed want to, work every day. It can be isolating for some and of course, there are people who simply prefer to come to the office, again for many different reasons. Remote working also brings lots of challenges for employees and managers, whether that’s the dynamics of team working that can drive innovation and ideas, or just addressing difficult conversations as managers.

At the FDA we invested heavily early on in lockdown on online training for members, covering the challenges of remote management to addressing wellbeing and isolation issues. The lockdown has driven innovation and we’ve seen several thousand members access training that we simply would not have delivered in more ‘normal’ circumstances.

It would have to be admitted, there was, a lot of scepticism about remote working. We’ve all been in meetings where those dialling in are not fully up-to-speed with the dynamics in the room, where people dial in late and interrupt your flow when you’re in full “I have a dream” mode (which I am in half of most meetings I attend). It has helped that many people, at least initially, were in a similar position. The dynamics of a half-in, half-out meeting are very different from everyone being on Zoom/Teams/whatever.

As unions we’ve been working with employers to balance all of these issues, as we work through how staff will return to the workplace given the restrictions imposed on capacity. With a very small number of exceptions, those issues were being dealt with sensitively and constructively by all. The civil service can rightly be proud of how it quickly adjusted to lockdown and equally, how it was managing the transition back to the workplace for many staff.

Of course, this is not what we’re actually dealing with now. The announcement, which we have seen but as yet are still not able to publish, clearly indicates that this is a cabinet decision and, despite warm words around team dynamics, is centred on a belief that the civil service should be back in towns and cities to set an example to the private sector. After weeks of briefings to the press, of civil servants being counted and photographed as they entered buildings, of columnists shaming “work-shy” civil servants in articles written from home and, of course, of Iain Duncan Smith being outraged, we finally had an instruction from cabinet.

This is not a decision which is centred on what’s is best or most efficient for the civil service. Quite the reverse indeed, as managers will be spending time counting staff at desks for weekly returns rather than delivering vital public services. This is the worst kind of gesture politics, as it will fail on two counts. Firstly, arbitrary targets and rotas being dreamed up in cabinet is no way to run government. I couldn’t help think of The Thick of It’s away day sketch, with exasperated minister Peter Mannion asking “Am I supply side economics?”, as a guess at what was written on the post-it note stuck to his forehead .

Secondly, as should be abundantly clear, business will do what works best and is most efficient. Sending thousands of civil servants into offices on a rota will not make one jot of a difference. We can argue all day about whether the city centre service economy will revive or transition. There are arguments either way, but despite my lack of economics qualifications – bar the A I got for my Accounts O Grade in 1984 – I think those economic realities will play out despite, not because of what happens with civil servants returning to work.

For me and our members, this is yet another sorry episode from a government that doesn’t seem to understand or value its civil servants. Its first instinct is to rely on a hostile press to shape public opinion, so it can force through changes it doesn’t deem worthy of dialogue or persuasion. It’s certainly no way to get the best out of 450,000 committed public servants but then, when you’re looking at the world from your carriage or ministerial car, I’d imagine that’s not really your main concern.

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