‘Why are we measuring bodies behind desks?’ UK government ministers squabble over ‘Dickensian’ war on officials working from home

By on 25/04/2022 | Updated on 26/04/2022
A picture of the Cabinet Office building at 70 Whitehall in London
The Cabinet Office at 70 Whitehall in London. Photo Mikey via Flickr

Efforts by UK government minister Jacob Rees-Mogg to crack down on civil servants working from home have been questioned by cabinet ministers concerned the  “Dickensian” efforts will distract from efforts to improve civil service efficiency.

After Rees-Mogg last week renewed a push to end working from home for civil servants by writing to UK cabinet ministers urging them to get more of their officials into the office, Nadine Dorries, the UK’s culture secretary, reportedly questioned the purpose of the letter.

According to The Times, she said that the government should focus on measuring the productivity of public officials, rather than office occupancy.

“There’s a whiff of something Dickensian about it,” she is reported to have told Rees-Mogg. “Why are we measuring bodies behind desks? Why aren’t we measuring productivity?”

Read more: UK renews push to end working from home for civil servants – as Ireland signs up to 20% remote working

Rees-Mogg’s letter highlighted that average daily in-office attendance for officials was 44%, but that departments varied from 73% attendance at the Department for International Trade to 25% at the Department for Education.

Dorries’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport was in the middle of the pack at 43%, and she reportedly told Rees-Mogg that her civil servants were “knocking it out of the park” as they prepared for an increased amount of legislation.

According to The Times, a number of other cabinet ministers also have reservations about the plans to force civil servants back to the office, as do permanent secretaries – the most senior officials in each department.

Details of the row emerged after Rees-Mogg left a note on civil servants’ desks in the Cabinet Office stating “Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon.”

In an article in the Mail on Sunday newspaper, Rees-Mogg said he left the notes “after a tip-off from a fellow minister”. He said that “in a room which could fit several dozen people, not a soul could be found”.

Rees-Mogg hinted that officials could lose the portion of their salary that is intended to reflect the cost of living in the capital – known as London weighting – if they do not return to the office.

“Those who are at their desks every day seem to be younger, hard-working and ambitious civil servants, often renting house-shares in London for whom the office provides the right environment for work.

“Meanwhile, others enjoy the fruits of their London-weighting at home in the shires… Essentially, if people are not back in their office it will be fair to assume that the job does not need to be in London.”

The comments come amid ongoing government efforts to relocate 22,000 officials out of the capital by 2030, with 4,000 posts having already been moved.

Read more: UK government hails relocations; Australian Senate calls for COVID Royal Commission; US Secret Service probes ‘influence operation’: management and workforce news in brief

Responding to Rees-Mogg’s note, Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, said it was “the most crass, condescending act I’ve seen from a minister”. He added: “Ministers’ obsession with ending flexible working and micromanaging the civil service increasingly just looks vindictive.”

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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.

5 Comments

  1. marky says:

    I wonder how many tory party donors and “old boys” own office buildings that wont be needed if people continue to work from home?

  2. Ada says:

    There seems to be a culture of ‘presenteeism’ building within some CS departments, where it is more important to be seen to have bums on seats. It has been demonstrated throughout the pandemic that people are more than capable of doing their jobs and remaining productive (more so in some cases) when working from home. The CS says how important it is to move and change with the times and reflect society but struggle to do this in practice.

    Two large CS department near to where I work still have their staff working from home and only go into the office when required and have even rented out some of their office space to local businesses to use as they have determined that they no longer need the huge office space as working from home or hybrid working is working far better and why keep paying out huge amounts of money on estates when it isn’t needed?

    I am not customer facing in my role yet have been told to be in the office full-time despite that before the pandemic, I didn’t spend all my time in the office. Again, this seems to be more about ‘bums on seats’ and making the office look busy. I enjoy both working from home and coming into the office for the more social interaction with colleagues, so hybrid working for me would be ideal. There seems to be a lack of trust by leaders in their staff, to do their jobs from home. If there is one thing that has been proven throughout the pandemic is that many businesses have had to think differently and diversify and have demonstrated this successfully – the CS have no excuses not be be able to do the same.

  3. Hybridalltheway says:

    Agree with Marky. Has more to do with lost revenue from businesses owned by Tory donors than from productivity of staff. Sickness absence has generally been far lower (in my organisation anyway) from those who can work from home than when staff had to come into the office. Staff with covid but no symptoms for example still able to work whereas if they were “forced” by the likes of Mogg to attend would report sick leave. Hybrid working has been much better in my experience and doesn’t involve micromanaging from barely competent senior MPs!

  4. Schengen says:

    The funniest thing about the ‘note’ left on desks is ‘Minister of Brexit Opportunities’. Haven’t they found any yet? Haven’t they worked out there are none? It’s the most ridiculous job title.

  5. Lee Jones says:

    My reply to Rees-Mogg’s note, should one ever be left on my desk, would be a simple apology for my absence which was due to me being invited to a party at Number 10.

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