Senior US official defends telework policy – as Canadian government wants officials in the office three days a week

By on 07/05/2024 | Updated on 08/05/2024
Photo by Zen Chung via Pexels

Welcome to this month’s Global Government Forum Management and Workforce Monitor

This month, we cover the latest thinking on remote working, a payroll hack at the UK’s Ministry of Defence, civil servants’ ideas for data innovation, and more.

In this edition:

  • Senior US government official defends telework policy – as Canadian government wants officials in the office three days a week
  • UK’s Ministry of Defence suffers payroll hack
  • Help to get the skills you need
  • Four projects shortlisted for implementation in 2024 Civil Service Data Challenge
  • President Biden praises officials in Public Service Recognition Week

Senior US government official defends telework policy – as Canadian government wants officials in the office three days a week

The Office of Management and Budget has defended the US federal government’s policy on telework under scrutiny from a House of Representatives committee which is calling for better data on how government is operating post-COVID.

Who? Jason Miller, the OMB’s deputy director for management, appeared before the committee on 30 April, as part of its oversight of the agency.

What’s the policy? Miller set out how around half of federal workers are not eligible for flexible and remote working policies, due to needing to be at their work site for all of their job. For those that are eligible, he said that the expectation is that half their working time is spent in the office, according to a report of the session by Government Executive.

Flexibility is available: Miller said that the OMB has been clear this is the expectation, but added that agencies also have “flexibility for how best to deliver based on their diverse mission space”.

Matching the private sector in the competition for talent: He stressed that this approach is consistent with developments across the private sector, where greater flexibility around telework arrangements has also taken root as a result of the remote working upheaval related to COVID-19.

“We should be able to compete for talent, and we should be able to measure performance,” he said.

Policy matching priorities: This policy has been developed in line with administration plans to try to increase the amount of time federal workers spend in the office. Office of Management and Budget director Shalanda Young announced last year that workforces would “generally [be] expected to increase meaningful in-person work… while still using flexible operational policies as an important tool in talent recruitment and retention”.

Employees want it: What’s more, GGF has previously reported that nearly half (45%) of US government employees would consider looking for a new job should their agency reduce remote and hybrid working.

Congress not satisfied: However, committee chairman James Comer called on government to provide more data on how effective teleworking policies are.

“The Biden administration claims to be using data-based management. But it’s not showing its work,” he said. “A prime example is employee telework.

“That necessity ended long ago. Yet, massive telework continues under the Biden Administration who is intent on making it a permanent fixture of federal work life. How do we know this is in the best interest of the public?

“The only data we’ve seen on that is a survey of federal employees themselves. They think it’s working great. How can telework levels be data-driven if you don’t even know how many employees are teleworking?”

Miller pledges more info: In the session, Miller made a commitment to provide updated information, documents and data on federal employee telework, and Comer stressed that the committee would continue to look for more details.

“We don’t believe the federal government is any more efficient under this telework policy,” he said. “We don’t even know what the telework policy is. If you can prove telework is more efficient through data, we will accept that and begin to sell off federal properties. We have asked for this data information but with all due respect you should have already compiled this information.”

Canada’s plan: The United States is not the only government working to get the balance right between office-based and remote work.

In Canada, government efforts to codify a return-to-office mandate of at least two to three days a week formed part of industrial action last year, with an eventual agreement reached to protect employees from arbitrary decisions about remote work. However, the issue is again in the headlines after the government announced on 1 May a move to a three-day mandate for public servants to be in the office. The Public Service Alliance of Canada has said it will object to the plan.

A ‘blatant disregard for the wellbeing of its workers’: PSAC said members were “incredibly frustrated and angered by this announcement”, highlighting that existing current in-office requirements aren’t being consistently or equitably managed by most departments.

Working in the corridors: The union said that many government offices are not coping with current requirements, with members being required to report to offices to spend all day on virtual meetings. What is more, there is often not enough space, with officials “forced to camp out in cafeterias or cram into awkward hallway meetings because of a shortage of available workspaces”, according to the union.

One-size-doesn’t fit: The union is now urging officials to contact their elected representatives to demand the government withdraws this guidance, which would take effect from 9 September.

Craving consistency: The Treasury Board of Canada says the new rules are being put in place due to the benefits of interacting in person in a “consistent” way, according to the Global News website.

‘Exception not the rule’: In the UK, getting more officials back to the office has been a long-standing aim of successive government ministers, with Cabinet Office minister John Glen returning to the theme last month, claiming that civil servants are “still working from home too much”.

“Working from home should always be the exception and not the rule,” Glen added in an article in London’s Evening Standard newspaper.

A principles approach? In Australia, the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) published a set of flexible working principles.

These are:

  • Flexibility that applies to all roles, with different types of flexibility being suitable for different roles that include when and where an employee works.
  • Flexibility that is mutually beneficial. Arrangements should be reviewed regularly to ensure they remain mutually beneficial for all.
  • Conversations about individual flexibility arrangements framed by the organisational and team needs. Managers and agencies “should be transparent about flexible work decisions, and ensure the reasons are clearly communicated and understood”.
  • Flexible work arrangements that value meaningful and regular face-to-face contact.
  • Flexibility that is embedded, modelled and refined, providing support to all staff to “have open and honest conversations about working flexibly, managing performance and supporting career development”.

A core part of business: In contrast to some of the more bellicose rhetoric in other countries, the guidance for the Australian Public Service said flexible work is a core part of the way the APS does business. Leaders “recognise that flexibility strengthens the APS’ ability to deliver strong outcomes, improves our workforce’s resilience, helps employees balance their work and personal priorities and helps position the APS as an employer of choice”, it added.

Making hybrid working work for all: Read more about how governments are developing their flexible and hybrid working policies in the latest edition of the Global Government Women’s Network newsletter, which shared a report from a session at GGF’s Innovation 2024 conference that looked at how government departments are adapting to the post-pandemic hybrid working trend.

UK’s Ministry of Defence suffers payroll hack

The UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) has experienced a significant data breach in which the personal information of UK military personnel was hacked.

Personal data: According to reports, a third-party payroll system used by the MoD was targeted in the attack. It includes the names and bank details of current and past members of the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force. In a small number of cases, the data may have also included addresses.

It is understood that the MoD acted fast and took the external network, operated by a contractor, offline. Initial investigations found no evidence that data had been removed.

Affected service personnel will be alerted as a precaution and provided with specialist advice.

Behind the hack: The government is not expected to identify a specific culprit at this stage but media reports from outlets including the BBC and Sky News suggest that China is the main suspect.

Tobias Ellwood, former chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Targeting the names of the payroll system and service personnel’s bank details, this does point to China because it can be as part of a plan, a strategy to see who might be coerced.”

‘Smear’: China’s foreign ministry has said it “firmly opposes and fights all forms of cyber-attacks” and “rejects the use of this issue politically to smear other countries”.

Threat proliferation: Last year, the government published an updated version of its long-term defence strategy which said the use of “commercial spyware, ransomware and offensive cyber capabilities by state and non-state actors has proliferated”.

In March, the government accused China of being behind an August 2021 hack targeting the details of millions of voters held by the Electoral Commission.

A growing threat: And it’s not only in the UK where there is an increasing focus on cybersecurity threats. At Global Government Forum’s Government Digital Summit, national government digital leaders identified the keys to security in a perilous digital world.

Cybersecurity is “a whole-society effort essential for digital transformation” according to Ann Dunkin, chief information officer of the USA’s Department of Energy. Dunkin oversees the complex ecosystem of public and private bodies managing crucial elements of America’s infrastructure, from nuclear power stations to oil pipelines, and told the summit about the threats governments face.

Nimble adversaries: To improve cybersecurity, governments need to recognise “the power of us all working together” to combat the advantages that cybercriminals and hostile states have, said Dunkin. “They’re faster, more nimble. They don’t have boards of directors; they’re just going to go, go, go!” However, she added that they lack the strength that comes from coordination and communication.

Read the report in full: ‘Team captains’: National digital leaders on the role of governments in cybersecurity

Upcoming webinar: And register now for GGF’s webinar later this year, Building cybersecurity by design and default, on 9 July.

Help to get the skills you need

Global Government Forum provides a wide range of live, interactive training courses which build on our ethos of providing high-quality events and information for civil servants from around the world.

Upcoming courses include:

GGF webinars also provide insight to help you in your career. Join us for: Unlocking insight from data to support decision making on 9 May, and Boosting skills across the public service to drive reform on 2 July

Four projects shortlisted for implementation in 2024 Civil Service Data Challenge

Four projects looking at ways to improve how the UK government uses data – including deploying artificial intelligence – have been named in the shortlist for the 2024 Civil Service Data Challenge.

How it works: The competition sees civil servants produce the best ideas for data innovation across government and is run in collaboration between the Cabinet Office, Global Government Forum, NTT DATA and the Office for National Statistics.

What success looks like: Last year’s challenge winner, Project Heyrick, is focused on making better use of government information to identify and tackle modern slavery, while the winning project from 2022 works to protect the UK’s peatlands using innovative Generative Adversarial Networks.

Who’s on the list? A longlist of eight projects was compiled from the 98 submitted ideas in January, and a shortlist has now been published following a semi-final held in London.

The shortlisted ideas are:

  • Policy Summarisation with Gen AI. Submitted by the Home Office, this project proposes the use of generative AI to revolutionise how government departments create policy documents and policy summaries, enabling efficient roll-out of policy and equipping staff with the right tools.
  • NHS Geospatial Planning Tool. Submitted by the Department of Health and Social Care, this idea plans to use open-source software and publicly accessible datasets to support NHS workers in planning visits to patients’ homes, reducing emissions through optimised travel planning and promoting high-quality care.
  • Streamlining the NHS-DWP Death Data Exchange. Submitted by the Department for Work and Pensions, this would automate how data is shared between the NHS and DWP to reduce duplication of civil servant workloads and reliance on legacy systems.
  • Optimising Prison Space Management. Submitted by the Ministry of Justice, this idea would use algorithms and analytics to create a solution that predicts when and where prison spaces will become available to make better use of the current estate.

What happens next? The shortlisted ideas will now be further developed ahead of the grand final on 4 July, where teams will pitch their ideas to a final decision panel before an overall winner is chosen. Find out more about the Challenge here.

President Biden praises officials in Public Service Recognition Week

At a time when public servants face ever-increasing workloads and unprecedented political criticism around the globe, it is always good to acknowledge the times their work gets recognised.

Happy Public Service Recognition Week: One such annual occasion is Public Service Recognition Week in the United States, when the work of public servants from across all levels of federal, state, local and tribal government is recognised. First held in 1985, the week is intended to, in the words of president Joe Biden’s proclamation for this year’s event, recognise “our nation’s public servants, who do the humble yet critical work of keeping our country running”.

‘Our nation relies on our public servants every day’: In this US election year, Biden’s proclamation highlighted the actions his administration has taken to support public servants, from increasing the minimum wage for federal employees to $15 to providing student debt relief for public servants and others. He also highlighted actions taken to boost job protections for nonpartisan career civil servants at a time when his rival in November’s election, former president Donald Trump, has set out plans to convert a number of existing nonpartisan career civil service roles into political appointees.

Like the president, we here at Global Government Forum hope that public servants feel proud in the vital work they do – this week and every week. We also hope that you enjoy this newsletter – and please do get in touch with any news or developments you would like to see us cover.

Thanks for reading.

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About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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