Boris Johnson has put a huge amount of stock in persuading reluctant civil servants to return to their desks in Whitehall. His campaign this week to get more people back to the office was tinged with the suggestion that those who were slow to return might be in danger of losing their jobs. This divided the cabinet, with Matt Hancock pointedly suggesting that he was happy with many in his department continuing to work from home. Never one to miss the opportunity for a battle with Westminster, Nicola Sturgeon suggested that the government’s campaign to get people back to the office amounted to ‘intimidation’.
But why not see the slow return to the office as an opportunity? The government should be using the aftermath of the crisis to rebuild the state. According to civil servants, they are working just fine from their spare bedrooms. Dave Penman, general secretary of the civil servants’ trade union First Division Association, wrote on Twitter: ‘Ministers need to understand that the genie is out of the bottle… There will always be work that cannot be done remotely but the future of work was already changing and the last six months has accelerated that.’
We’ll find out how true that is when an assessment of the civil service’s productivity during lockdown has been completed — backlogs of passports and driving licences suggest that not all has been going well. But let’s accept that Penman has a point, and that there is great potential to expand remote working in future. There could be huge savings to be made.
For one thing, people who work principally from home do not need a salary with a London weighting. If they continue to live in London it will be for their own social, cultural or family reasons, not because they have to. The government could save money, as well as promote its ‘levelling-up’ agenda, by actively recruiting more of its staff from the provinces. What’s more, it could stop paying civil servants simply by the hour and pay them instead by what they actually produce. You can’t easily clock people on and off when they are not attending an office — far better to give them a set of tasks and let them complete them in their own time.
An increase in remote working would allow extremely well-located and valuable buildings to be leased for other uses. Not all government work has to be undertaken in Whitehall, but neither does it have to be undertaken by civil servants. Anyone who has demonstrated that they can do their job from home has also demonstrated that their job can be done by an outsourcing firm — possibly for a lot less money. Such reforms would normally raise the threat of strikes in the civil service. But just how would the unions set up picket lines when hardly anyone is going into the office anyway?
Recovering from Covid-19 isn’t just a case of reopening things. The government is going to have to give a serious amount of thought to how it can rebuild an entrepreneurial spirit, after so many people have lost their livelihoods through no fault of their own. The epidemic has helped expose a growing schism in the population: between the securely and the insecurely employed, and in particular between public sector employees and private sector workers. It isn’t easy to find data on how attitudes towards lockdown vary according to which side of this divide you sit — there are plenty of polls which break down their respondents by their socio-economic class or by their voting intention, but not by whether they are employed in the public or private sector. However, we do have a big clue via a YouGov poll in May which revealed that 61 per cent of Conservative voters supported the first moves to lifting lockdown, compared with only 32 per cent of Labour voters.
It is not hard to see why attitudes towards lifting lockdown should vary according to personal circumstances. If you have a secure job and pension — especially if you were able to work from home during the sunny spring — lockdown is likely to have been a pleasant experience. You may have watched the economic crash as a disinterested spectator. You may, like the teaching unions who opposed reopening schools in June, and the University and College Union which this week tried to persuade students to keep away from campuses until next year, have seized on Covid-19 as an opportunity to try to reduce your workload while continuing to collect your full salary.
If you worked in one of the affected parts of the private sector, on the other hand, you are likely to have lost your livelihood as well as seeing your pension collapse in value. It is little wonder that there has been a huge gulf in attitudes towards lockdown, with some people anxious to open up society while others take a risk-averse approach. A study by the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge, published in May, analysed attitudes towards Covid-19 and concluded that a high level of concern was associated with ‘pro-social’ values and a reduced level with an ‘individualistic world view’.
There are plenty of people who will pour scorn on the latter group as a bunch of irresponsible chancers, but they might also be described as being more entrepreneurial by nature. Ultimately, the salaries and pensions of those in secure public sector employment have to be paid for, and they can only be afforded so long as we have a successful private sector. Efforts to tackle Covid-19 have harmed a great number of people who had taken the plunge to set up businesses and, through no fault of their own, saw their hard work undermined.
The worst is yet to come, as the furlough scheme is unwound and we get to see how many of the nine million jobs supported by it are still viable. Rebuilding a dynamic economy is going to have to be one of the priorities for the government. A Conservative administration should position itself firmly on the side of enterprise to create a better economy with a more flexible workforce. Office-shy civil servants won’t like it, but they could hardly complain, having given the government the excuse to effect change.