From the editor: the Siren song of power

The belief that important work can only be done in an office doesn't bode well for civil service reform
“There was a sense that we had lashed ourselves to the mast while the rest of the civil service had gone home," one No.10 staffer said. Photo: Ishtaure Dawn/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Downing Street is a strange place to work, where offices, staterooms and flats form a maze filled with history, mice, and very busy people.

At the best of times, those people can feel beleaguered. It’s not uncommon for critics to describe a “bunker mentality” among the close-knit team of advisers both official and political.

What’s less common is for No.10 staff themselves to describe a bunker mentality, or to characterise themselves as heroes driven insane by their endeavours. Perhaps this was why certain comments reported in The Times  – in one of many pieces exploring the “Partygate” scandal – were so striking.

One adviser, attempting to explain why No.10 staff appear to have held regular parties while the rest of the country was in various levels of lockdown, told the paper: “There was a sense that we had lashed ourselves to the mast while the rest of the civil service had gone home. The work people were doing in No.10 was of a high degree of importance and couldn’t be done remotely.”

As even a classicist of the PM’s calibre would know, it was Ulysses who tied himself to the mast while passing the Sirens so that he would not fling himself onto the rocks of their deadly island. Perhaps less obvious is that Ulysses didn’t need to do this. He could have plugged his ears with wax, as his crew did, under his instructions. But he wanted to hear the Sirens’ song, and he knew he would be driven mad by it. He chose temporary insanity, and pain, in order to gain an experience that no other mortal had known.

Perhaps the metaphor reveals more about No.10 staff than they care to admit, as do the reference to civil servants going home, and the assertion that No.10’s work with a “high degree of importance…couldn’t be done remotely”.

This attitude towards those working outside of Downing Street is so dismissive as to be offensive. One wonders if the No.10 adviser thinks the work of officials standing up furlough schemes at HMRC is not of high importance because it was done at home, or because it was delivery rather than policy-focused?

Perhaps No.10 advisers were so caught up by the siren song of power that they didn’t notice who was providing them with daily updates on Covid cases, hospitalisations, deaths and – eventually – vaccinations? They will certainly have visited the Covid dashboard updated by officials at Public Health England each day. Those public servants were working entirely remotely to produce, with great innovation and hard work, something which has been vital to policymakers, businesses and individuals. They are still working remotely – some of the team have never met in person despite having, as lead developer Pouria Hadjibagheri has described on Twitter, “practically lived together day and night on Teams”.

There are many more examples of important work done remotely, just as there are examples where work could not be done remotely but staff managed to travel to their office (or school, hospital, laboratory etc.) and return home without flouting lockdown guidance.

Not everyone in No.10 attended the work-event-parties, of course. We await the results of Sue Gray’s investigation for details of who gathered when, and what concerns were raised.

What we do know, even now, is that there is a belief at the centre of government, including among many politicians, that important work can only be done in an office, ideally near a minister. That belief doesn’t bode well for civil service reform, and not even a pandemic has shifted it. 

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