PM warned to stop flexible-working ‘culture war’ with civil service

Departmental leaders should decide how – and from where – officials deliver on priorities, FDA chief tells union’s annual conference
Dave Penman addresses the FDA conference this morning. Photo: FDA/Twitter

By Jim Dunton

12 May 2022

Senior civil service union chief Dave Penman has warned prime minister Boris Johnson to put an end to the “culture war” between some cabinet ministers and the civil service over departments’ flexible-working arrangements.

Penman, the FDA's general secretary, used a speech at his union’s annual conference today to attack government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg’s ongoing efforts to reduce hybrid working in the civil service, which was hugely expanded during the pandemic.

He said Rees-Mogg’s latest tactics, which have included threatening to close offices that are under-used and leaving notes on empty desks during departmental walkabouts, were demotivating officials delivering public services and putting people off joining the civil service.

“I’m not an absolutist on working from home – or flexible working, to give it its proper title. What we should measure is productivity, not bodies behind desks,” Penman said.

“That’s exactly what the majority of civil servants believe as well. All of the evidence suggests that people want a hybrid option that suits their job and gives them greater flexibility. They know that will look different for different roles in departments or even in teams – because of course, they understand how modern workplaces operate. They understand what it’s like to run and deliver public services in the 21st century.”

Penman said Rees-Mogg’s “crass, condescending, passive aggressive little notes”, left for people delivering vital public services, were part of an effort to curry favour with the right-wing media, rather than an attempt to improve productivity.

“Can you imagine a chief executive in private industry treating their staff like that? Or one who would brief the press that their staff were lazy, and undermine their most senior managers in the process?” he asked.

“Whilst private industry has embraced this quiet revolution in working practices, delivering efficiencies for employers and greater flexibility for employees, we have Jacob Rees-Mogg wandering around Whitehall with his clip board and his clicker counting people at desks.”

In a direct call to Boris Johnson, whose formal titles also include “minister for the civil service”, Penman said: “this culture war against the civil service has to stop”.

He added: “You say you want a brilliant civil service and you want to attract the brightest and best to join it. Well, this is not the way to go about it.

“Challenge us to deliver, be clear about your priorities, but step back and let those whose job it is to run the service get on with it. No more micro-managing, no more anonymous briefings. You do your job and let the management of the civil service get on with theirs.”

Ministers need to recognise cost-of-living impacts for civil servants

Penman also used his speech to contrast current Bank of England estimates that inflation will hit 10% later this year with ministers’ recent proposals to offer civil service pay rises of around 2%.

“As we face the worst cost of living crisis since the 1970s, the response from government has been simply business as usual for public sector pay,” he said.

“After a decade of wage freezes followed by caps followed by a pause, civil servants’ salaries have already fallen by 18% in real terms. So not only will the government’s policy result in real hardship this year, the civil service will simply fall further behind the private sector, who are already responding to the crisis.

“There may be no easy answers, but what we need now is flexibility and imagination. With double-digit inflation, business as usual is simply not good enough.”

Penman said the crisis required “different thinking” and pointed to business cases for pay reform – as demonstrated by HM Revenue and Customs’ three-year settlement, worth 13% on average, which was agreed last year – and the potential for redistributing “discredited” performance bonuses.

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