28 April 2022
Back to the Office
Is Mogg right?
By Robert Kilconner
Even Dante never dreamed of this sort of hell. Imagine somewhere where you had to be continually nice about people you really didn’t care for, the whole thing being made worse by the fact that you are probably only being fair to them. What a nightmare! Alas it is not just a nightmare, it exists and I am afraid that I have been sent there. Last week it was Priti Patel and the need to give her credit for at least attempting to solve the difficulties of immigration policy. This week it is worse. I have to speak understandingly of the appalling Mogg – yes, that’s the one, the man who lay about like an oaf on the front bench, too grand by half to give his attention to the affairs of the nation. His gesture of putting notes on the desks of civil servants urging them back to work may be irritating showmanship but at least it addresses an issue that needs to be grasped.
The extent to which the nation returns to its desks is of course a question for organisations up and down the country. In the private sector it will be sorted out by the forces of competition. “Which firm will you use? The one where the optimal solutions to difficult problems are thrashed out over the coffee machine and, if an executive is out, someone picks up the phone and tells you when they will be back; or the one where people work in silos and you are left with an out-of-date ansaphone message?” Usually the former, but the rule is by no means absolute. If the nature of the business means that it can be conducted remotely with complete efficiency or with other compensations, the answer may be the latter and we have all got used to operators in remote parts of the globe who deal with our local calls perfectly adequately. Still, the private sector is a place where bad service and inefficiency are punished ruthlessly and can safely be left to work out its own solutions.
The problem comes when there are no forces of competition to sort the sheep from the goats and in the public sector efficiency will generally need to be imposed by diktats from above. That is not always the case. Sometimes an outside contractor can introduce market standards by pitching to do the work traditionally done by government employees, but even then such pitches encounter political hurdles which tilt the market in favour of the status quo. No, diktat it must often be and that gives rise to questions of how levels of office attendance should be set.
Years ago I joined a law firm in the city of London as a tax assistant. Naturally I was excited at the prospect of being involved in important deals and, when told that I had been assigned to a takeover negotiation which would run all night, I was full of enthusiasm and rushed off to my boss to ask him if he had any hints on how to tackle an “all-nighter” meeting.
“Yes indeed,” he replied. “The thing to remember is that the deal is due to be announced when the stock exchange opens at 8am. That means that although they will negotiate all night, the parties will not start to agree things until about 5am and, tax being the last thing to be dealt with, nothing in your area will even be discussed seriously until about 6am. So the best thing is to slip out of the room late evening and to have a good sleep in your office. Re-join the meeting about 5.30 feeling well-refreshed and start making your points to the exhausted lawyers on the other side. It should not be difficult to get things agreed.”
It was excellent advice and I followed it many times but its relevance here is that it is no longer necessary because nowadays specialist advisers would be at home conducting any late-night negotiations from their computers and dosing happily when waiting for the other side’s comments. Less exciting but clearly more efficient, and an area where the opportunities afforded by technology to work from home have contributed to efficiency. On the other hand, working from home is good cover for the lazy, those who like to double up their work with a spot of child care and the swingers of lead of every variety. The difficult thing from the point of view of public sector management is to know when it is a good thing and when it is not.
So credit then to Mogg for bringing the question to the fore, albeit without any suggestion as to how the underlying balance should be resolved. How is it to be found? Do we trust civil service management to do it themselves? Certainly the FDA civil servants union has got off to a bad start by howling about its members being insulted rather than trying to join in an intelligent debate. Bad stories too come from the DVLA. Still, it is impossible for politicians to manage the civil service, so the task must be one for internal management. But that doesn’t mean that they should have a free pass. A comparison between attendance levels in the civil service and corresponding parts of the private sector should be published every week and then we would know whether the public levels are in line with those imposed by the market and, indeed, whether there are areas where work needs to be out-sourced. That is your way forward, Mr Rees-Mogg.