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April 19, 2022updated 29 Apr 2022 8:17am

Rees-Mogg’s office return demand could undermine civil service tech recruitment

Inflexible working will limit the civil service's ability to compete with private sector employers, experts warn.

By Afiq Fitri

UK minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has called for a “rapid return” by civil servants to their offices. The demand is at odds with the government’s plans to attract talent from the private sector to spur civil service reform, experts have warned.

The government has urged its civil servants to make a ‘rapid return’ to the office. (Photo by Hollie Adams/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Rees-Mogg, who is Minister of State for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency, made the demand in a letter to ministerial colleagues yesterday. “Now that we are learning to live with Covid and have lifted all legal restrictions in England, we must continue to accelerate the return of civil servants to office buildings to realise the benefits of face-to-face, collaborative working and the wider benefits for the economy,” Rees-Mogg wrote.

Currently, fewer than 50% of civil servants are going into the office, according to data obtained by the Daily Mail. At the Department of Education, just 25% of staff have attended the office on an average day since April 4th.

These figures mirror civil servants' preference for hybrid working. A 2021 survey conducted by the FDA, a trade union for the UK’s senior public officials, found that 97% of civil servants preferred to have the option to work from home, if the option to do so was no longer the default. Of those respondent, only 13% indicated they would want to work from home all the time, while the remaining preferred a more flexible approach. 

Calls for civil servants to return to the office full time are at odds with the government's own reform plans, the Institute for Government think tank has argued.

In its Declaration on Government Reform, published last year, the government said the civil service needs to "draw on a more diverse range of experiences, skills and backgrounds", including more employees from the private and charity sectors. It also pledged "to keep pace in areas of growing importance, including digital and technology".

However, the government has struggled to compete with the private sector on salaries, observed Jordan Urban, a researcher at the Institute for Government, earlier this year. "The civil service will always struggle to compete on salary with the private and wider public sector, and so needs to make itself attractive by matching or going beyond what other sectors can offer in other ways," he wrote. "Reducing opportunities for hybrid working would undermine these attempts."

Speaking to Tech Monitor today, Urban added that it may not even be possible for every civil servant to return to the office, as the government has been reducing its office estate since 2010. “So there simply isn’t enough office space for every civil servant to come into the office every day, or even in some departments, most days.” 

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Dave Penman, the FDA’s general secretary, agrees that the government’s refusal to embrace hybrid working will affect its ability to recruit new talent. And its focus on presenteeism risks demotivating the current workforce, adds.

"Rees-Mogg’s micro-management can only deter any new talent this government says it wants to attract to the civil service, whilst demotivating those already in post," Penman says.

“It’s ridiculous that ministers are concentrating on where civil servants’ desks are rather than what is being delivered by the civil servants," Penman argues, adding that he believes Rees-Mogg and his colleagues "should be prioritising productivity instead of spending time ensuring civil servants are being counted with clickers".

Read more: Employees will not give up remote working easily

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