Jacob Rees-Mogg is not a name one naturally associates with efficiency. The image of him languishing on the green benches as Leader of the House of Commons must live rent-free in the imaginations of most of his critics.
Nevertheless, his appointment as Minister of State for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency means that ‘maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense’ (thanks, Google) is now his daily business. For those of a small-state bent, it seems a manna from Heaven matching of man to role.
After all, in a Government so often condemned from its right-flank for being high-taxing and high-spending, it is surely helpful to have the Government’s trained backbencher ensuring that waste doesn’t get out of hand and that every penny extorted from the taxpayer is deployed wisely.
Unfortunately, as our Editor has previously pointed out, Rees-Mogg is unable to translate his new job title into action unless given the full support of the Prime Minister and the understanding of the Treasury – and neither appears to be forthcoming.
But a ministerial position does not only bring with it red briefcases, rides in Jaguars, and the opportunity to posture at the Dispatch Box. It also provides what Teddy Roosevelt called a ‘bully pulpit’ – a conspicuous position that supplies opportunities to speak out from and be listened to.
In Roosevelt’s case, it was the Presidential office he held. For Rees-Mogg, it is the terrific platform he has been given from which to condemn poor practices within Whitehall. And there is no more obvious example of that now than the civil service’s conspicuous failure to stop working from home.
During the lockdown, working via Microsoft Teams and Zoom was necessary. But since all remaining restrictions have gone, most have become used to living with large numbers of infections of a not-particularly-lethal virus and have returned to work. Alas, the Tube is once again heaving.
Yet this message doesn’t appear to have filtered through to those in Whitehall. A league table published yesterday revealing the percentage of civil servants working from the office during the week beginning April 4th makes for comically absurd reading.
About 80 per cent of government departments were found to be operating with less than half of all desks in use and 36 per cent were operating at two thirds of normal levels. Before the pandemic, average staff occupancy across Whitehall had been about 80 per cent.
The least occupied is the Department for Education, operating at 25 per cent capacity. The Foreign Office, despite the war in Ukraine, is only at 31 per cent capacity. The Home Office, where we were told to expect mass walkouts last week over the Rwanda Plan, is only at 42 per cent. Some walkout.
From a friend of mine inside the civil service, the impression is given of a fantasy land at odds with the working practices of most other organisations. He has been earmarked for promotion after only a few months, due to his willingness, unlike most colleagues, to turn up to the office around two days a week.
Of course, after a couple of our evenings in The Marquis of Granby, I think he was rather glad he didn’t have to be back at an office desk the next day. But it is no cause for celebration if our government is not working at full capacity because civil servants are being bone-idle or buying me a pint.
Clearly, the absence of staff in the office makes it harder for elements of the bureaucratic state to function properly. Delays in housing Ukrainian refugees or delivering driving licences suggest that a population back to working as normal is being failed by a civil service pretending it is still April 2020.
As such, Rees-Mogg is wholly right to call them out on their behaviour, and demand departments return to their pre-pandemic ways of working. Private businesses can experiment with new ways of working in the long-term. But wars and cost-of-living crises cannot be handled from your sofa.
Obviously, he will face stern resistance. Since Whitehall has shelled out at least £33 million in taxpayers’ cash over the last two years buying HDMI cables, footrests, and other ‘essential’ tools for homeworking, civil servants will want to get their money’s worth.
That is not the sort of value for money that I imagine Rees-Mogg is looking for. Nor is he just “counting civil servants in and out of buildings”, as David Penman, the head of the union representing senior Whitehall officials, has suggested.
As he did with getting MPs back to the Commons as Leader of the House, what Rees-Mogg is attempting do is to set an example, to show that those in charge of governing our country are as committed to returning to normal as the rest of us should be. But that has to contend with civil service arrogance.
If you want to see the smug face of an elite who believe they are born to rule, you will not find it with our Old Etonian Minister for Efficiency, or the Prime Minister with which he shares a former school. Instead, it lies with those smug Sir Humphries, who know they will still be ruling long after this government is gone. No wonder they are so hard to shift – both into the office, and onto the dole queue.