FDA union chief fires back at criticisms of remote-working UK civil servants

By on 06/10/2021 | Updated on 06/10/2021
Dave Penman has accused the government of "civil service bashing". Photo by Graham Martin courtesy of the FDA

The general secretary of the FDA union Dave Penman has hit back at Conservative party co-chairman Oliver Dowden for criticising civil servants who work from home.

Dowden said earlier this week at the Conservative party conference in Manchester that “people need to get off their Pelotons and back to their desks”. He added that civil servants have a responsibility to “lead by example” by returning to the workplace.

His comments are thought to take aim at Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) permanent secretary, Sarah Healey, who last month said she preferred remote working as it meant she could spend less time commuting and more time on her Peloton exercise bicycle.

Dowden was secretary of state for DCMS before a Cabinet reshuffle last month.

“Dowden has managed to simultaneously undermine the permanent secretary who loyally served him, knowing she can’t answer back, while insulting hundreds of thousands of dedicated public servants. Is that his idea of hybrid working?” the FDA’s Penman tweeted.

Adding to the fray this week was former Tory minister Jake Berry, who accused civil servants of using remote working as an excuse to engage in online culture wars.

Addressing an audience at the conference, he said: “We have to end the civil service ”woke-ing” from home – sorry I mean working from home, but let’s be honest, it often is woke-ing.”

‘Not a binary argument’

Around 97% of 2,400 public servants surveyed by the FDA in June said they wanted to continue to have the option of working at home even if that is no longer the default post-pandemic. Research by GGF and Dell Technologies has generated similar results, with 82% of UK civil servants saying that they would like to work remotely more frequently in future than they did prior to the pandemic.

In a Times column published this week and directly addressed to Dowden, Penman wrote: “You know that the vast majority of employees whose jobs allow it want a balance of office and home working. You know this is not a binary argument, yet that is how you and others in government choose to paint it, all for a quick headline. That is why this is so insulting.”

The government wrote to departments in September 2020 saying it expected 80% of the civil service workforce to be attending offices at least once a week by the end of that month, but it had to row back after cases of COVID-19 increased significantly.   

In a speech before the Tory party today, prime minister Boris Johnson reiterated his government’s desire to get civil servants back into the office. “We know that a productive workforce needs the spur that only comes with face-to-face meetings and water cooler gossip,” he said. “If young people are to learn on the job in the way that they always have and must, we will and must need people back in the office.”

The row rumbles on

The latest spat over home-working civil servants follows comments made by an unnamed senior government minister last month that civil servants should have their salaries cut if they continued to work remotely, prompting Penman to accuse the government of “civil service bashing”.

The government has for years been working towards a model by which civil servants can work more flexibly, including from home and from hub offices around the country.  

It unveiled its smarter working programme in 2018 and has made a commitment for all 42 government departments to become ‘smarter working mature’ by the end of 2022. “Smarter working for us means people being able to make the right choice about where, when and how they work with all the enablers in place to support them,” Kate Guthrie, smarter working programme director and deputy director for workplace experience at the UK’s Government Property Agency explained during a webinar hosted by Global Government Forum in July 2020.

About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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