A minister said he is “not attacking anyone” in the public sector after announcing plans to review how well Government offices are being used by civil servants.
Civil servants were instructed in November to return to the office for at least 60% of the working week, with senior officials told to come in more often to promote “strong visible leadership”.
Cabinet Office minister John Glen, in a speech at the Institute for Government’s annual conference on Tuesday, said he planned to look at performance management guidance for senior civil servants to ensure that making full use of offices is factored into their yearly reviews.
Speaking during a question and answer session afterwards, the Conservative minister said he thought the call back to the office, after the Covid-19 pandemic helped establish a work-from-home culture, was “reasonable”.
Defending the review of performance management guidance, he said there needed to be a “way of actually making sure” the office return directive “works”.
“It seems bizarre to me on day one to say, ‘Right, we are going to have 60% of people’s time in the office’ and then not have any way of verifying and measuring it,” Mr Glen said.
“Now, there will have to be a consultation around how we do that. But I’m just making a reasonable point, I think, that we need flexibility.
“Covid has given us new ways of working and that still allows two days of the week to work flexibly but there is a real advantage (to working from the office).
“We benchmarked it against what the norm is broadly in the private sector.
“So I am not attacking anyone. I am just saying, people expect, if you are paid by the taxpayer, to be working together.
“But obviously we want to be reasonable and obviously we have given people the right to request flexible working.
“And those sorts of things are part of a modern employment package but we have got to find a way of actually making sure it works.”
The Paymaster General, who was moved from the Treasury in November as part of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s ministerial reshuffle, also said he “wasn’t trying to stoke any sort of culture wars” by introducing a review of staff networks.
As part of his speech, the frontbencher revealed plans to issue new guidance on Civil Service staff networks as part of plans to “provide clearer advice on acting with impartiality in relation to diversity and inclusion”.
It comes after right-wing concerns over equality and diversity policies inside the Civil Service and public sector, with reports that staff are to be told that meetings about such issues will need to be discussed outside of work hours.
The minister said that, while working in the private sector before he became an MP, he had been part of “various networks” that were “valuable” for staff cohesion but they would happen “before work” or “in the evening”.
He said taxpayers “want to know that, though these networks are important, they are not actually taking a disproportionate amount of time”.
“The problem we have got at the centre is that we do not have data points on all of this and that is why I was very careful with what I said – we want to look at it and issue guidance to clarify so people can be assured around that,” he added.
In his speech, Mr Glen said it was “clear we have to do more with less” and that the Civil Service “must embrace new technology” as ministers look to slim down the numbers working in Whitehall after recruitment boomed during the Brexit process and the coronavirus pandemic.
He stressed the potential benefits of artificial intelligence (AI) in improving the speed of public service provision and government communication.
Pay frameworks will be reviewed for those working in “digital and data” jobs, including those “at the forefront of AI delivery” to “ensure these roles can compete with similar roles in the private sector”, Mr Glen said.
“My ambition is simple: a smaller, more skilled civil service that is better rewarded,” he said.
Later during the Q&A session, Mr Glen went on to say that AI was “not a panacea” and that recruitment reforms would be needed to ensure the public sector can make the most of the advancements the technology can provide.
The address at the think tank conference comes after former minister Lord Francis Maude published late last year a major review of Civil Service governance.