I don’t like to refer to the Daily Mail or the Mail on Sunday as a rule, especially as we don’t often share a world view. But this morning’s headline does give me a sense that I ought to respond.
I’ll start with the obvious stuff. Most civil servants don’t work in Whitehall, indeed, increasingly those that did don’t any more. The greater proportion of the Civil Service has always been based in towns and cities across the United Kingdom because that’s where we interact with customers. You can’t, for example, readily interview a self-employed trader and look at their records without being where they are, or at least modestly near it.
So, for example, HMRC has, or will shortly have, thirteen principle offices - Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Croydon, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Stratford. There will be a few additional specialist outposts, and a small presence in Whitehall. We’re talking less than 1% of our staff. And most of the big Government departments are like that - we’re operations and not mandarins.
The idea that a bunch of us have bought nice houses in the country and intend to stay in them regardless of what Ministers want is absurd. Many of us could now barely afford to buy the houses we currently live in, let alone “nicer” ones, in the same way that we aren’t spending our days on our Pelatons. And, we have a tendency to follow orders. If Ministers want us in the office five days a week, all that they need to do is give the order and we’ll be there. Or resign, possibly, in some cases, but that’s hardly a concern to the Mail headline writers who hate civil servants anyway.
Ironically, if we do all turn up though, the chances are that there aren’t desks for us. And that’s because, as part of the drive to cut the costs of the bureaucracy, we’ve reduced the size of the estate. New offices have a set ratio of desks to staff, and it isn’t 1:1, it’s perhaps 3:5, based on the theory that we won’t all be there at any one time. We don’t have a fixed workspace either, no desk that we go to every day. No, instead, we turn up and hunt for a free desk. If there isn’t one, there are collaborative spaces with armchairs. Not, perhaps, terribly suitable for working on a laptop or a tablet, and certainly not ergonomically appropriate. Oh yes, we don’t work from fixed computers with phones on desks any more. Everything is portable.
No, the system is designed on the basis that some of us will be working elsewhere for at least some of the time. In some cases, we’ll be on the road, in others, at home. And that works pretty well, actually. Much of my work is contemplative in nature. Evidence is submitted to me, I examine it, test it, ask questions, seek an understanding of the formulae and assumptions that underpin records and accounts. I can contact my manager, or a technical expert, or a support officer by e-mail or video call, and never actually meet with them in person.
Does it therefore matter where I perform my duties, or is it more important that they simply get performed, and performed effectively and efficiently? I would argue that, in a modern bureaucracy, you want to encourage every individual civil servant to perform their duties in the way and in the location that maximises their performance. For some, that will mean an office and there are a slew of reasons why they might choose that. You might not have a suitable work space at home, or you may be inexperienced and benefit from being surrounded by colleagues. You may find working from home stressful, and the office offers an escape from an unhappy relationship or a noisy environment. Some people even enjoy the company of colleagues.
Others will be more productive without the wearying effect of a long commute, might be happier for having the extra hours to live the non-work elements of their lives, or might carry out volunteer work in their new found free time. Their lives might, whisper it gently, be better and their willingness to accept the relatively low pay scales in various sectors that bit greater.
So, a good employer will see this as an opportunity to improve both performance and recruitment and retention. Unless of course, Ministerial decision making is performative, designed to send a message to those you seek to persuade, rather than rooted in good governance.