The Rundown Podcast: The Government's War With The Civil Service
Labour’s Justin Madders and the Institute for Government's Alex Thomas join PoliticsHome’s Alain Tolhurst and Suzannah Brecknell, co-editor of PoliticsHome's sister publication Civil Service World to pick through the government’s plans to shake up Whitehall with 91,000 job cuts and put an end to working from home.
The government’s aim to return to 2016 staffing levels in the civil service within three years has prompted threats of strike action by unions. Madders described ministers' treatment of staff as no better than shamed ferry contractor P&O, which sacked hundreds of employees without warning in March.
The civil service cuts are part of wider proposals to alter workplace culture as the economy tries to recover from the Covid pandemic, with the prime minister critical of what he calls a “post-Covid, work-from-home, manana culture” at some public bodies.
Meanwhile government efficiencies minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has been visiting various departments and leaving notes on empty desks, a practice described by his own Cabinet colleague Nadine Dorries as “Dickensian”.
Brecknell explained that the 91,000 figure came “pretty much out of the blue”, with most senior officials not aware the plans would be made public. She said that when the report appeared in the press last week, permanent secretaries and top officials told staff: "we understand this is surprising for you, we understand it's unsettling, we will give you details as soon as possible”.
“The best way to describe it was damage limitation, they didn't really know what was coming, and they had to deal with this firestorm suddenly with their staff are being told you're at risk of losing your job,” she added.
Thomas, a former civil servant in the Cabinet Office, said there's still a question of whether this is “part of a credible programme of reform” to be taken very seriously, and how far it is “part of the messaging that the government wants to get across” about cutting perceived waste in Whitehall.
Madders said ministers should “treat the people who do incredibly difficult jobs with a little bit more respect” after the plans were leaked. He believed the justification of reducing civil service headcount to a pre-2016 level was about “generating newspaper headlines, rather than any strategic approach to the demands of government”.
The panel also discuss comments by Boris Johnson that working from home is not productive and amounts to “walking very slowly to the fridge, hacking off a small piece of cheese, then walking very slowly back to your laptop”.
Madders considered this view to be hypocritical. “Johnson's home is literally his office, which probably goes a long way to explain why the country is in such a massive mess if that is how he approaches every day," he said.
“But we should also remember that actually, there are millions of people in jobs that you can't do from home, and those people are really excluded from from this debate.
“I think the future is going to be hybrid working, I think there's going to be a balanced struck between people able to do things in the comfort of their own home efficiently, but also have some, some time in the office, mixing with colleagues swapping ideas, working together as a team.”
The Labour frontbencher said there’s evidence to suggest people are actually more productive when offered flexible working, and “reducing it to an arbitrary work from home or work in the office debate, which is nice for a headline, just ignores the reality of how the workplace is changing”.
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