Seemingly every other week, a story is published about ‘pampered’ civil servants and their supposedly easy lives, with their high pay and unreasonable desire for hybrid working. Civil servants like myself are sick of it, and I want to set the record straight.
Just in the past week, The Sun and the Daily Mail have both reported on civil servants’ working patterns and rewards packages. The Sun claimed that “Civil servants enjoyed £40m of rewards despite productivity being lower than in 1997” (with no source cited for the latter claim), and the Daily Mail suggested that “hundreds of civil servants are on full-time home working contracts”. While this may be true, these inflammatory and frankly insulting statements create a one-sided narrative that fails to take into account any other factors, and continues to turn the public against civil servants.
Work from home policy
The main focus of the media’s attack on civil servants has been their desire to continue to work from home for a proportion of the working week. For some government departments, the current expectation is that people should work in the office 60% of the time (three days a week for most people on a full-time contract).
Other government departments, where the expectation is still set at 40% office attendance, will be brought up to 60% this year, and senior civil servants will be asked to be in the office 80% of the time, but of course that hasn’t been widely reported. Understandably, there are exemptions to these rules for those with extenuating circumstances such as disabilities and caring responsibilities.
The media also fails to acknowledge that, since the pandemic, the proportion of people who work a hybrid or remote working pattern has increased exponentially across the private sector too; not only public sector workers are appreciating the benefits of hybrid working. There’s also little recognition of the increased transport costs that people have been facing since the cost of living crisis began, which further increases the appeal of working from home. It feels as though civil servants are being unfairly demonised despite an increased desire for hybrid working across all sectors of the economy.
I would also like to acknowledge a common theme in the argument against civil servants being allowed to work from home – that ‘taxpayers’ money’ (public money) is being spent on maintaining supposedly empty offices. This is, of course, a valid point. However, what most of these reports don’t recognise is that many offices across the Civil Service have more people based there than desks available for them to work at, meaning people have no choice but to split their time between home and office-based working.
Thankfully, since the latest hybrid working announcement, there does seem to have been some acknowledgement by the media of the limitations placed on office attendance by the office buildings themselves.
While much of what the media reports is true, there is a great deal of other information that it suits publications to leave out of their sensationalised reports. For example, civil servants are often and incorrectly painted as lazy. I have never read an article about the hybrid working policy which acknowledges that civil servants continued to work full-time, from home, throughout the pandemic, while many people across other sectors were furloughed and unable to work at all.
One journalist recently went so far as to suggest that civil servants spent the pandemic years “walking the dog and watching YouTube”, instead of working – a statement that anyone who worked for the government during that time would furiously disagree with.
Perhaps even more frustrating is the suggestion that backlogs and delays in public services since the pandemic are the fault of civil servants who are sat at home pretending to work, rather than the result of increased demand or reduced resources. Every department saw their workload increase dramatically during, and as a result of, the pandemic.
We share the public’s frustration at the impact that this has had when it takes forever to get a reply to an email, or when you sit on hold for an hour only for the line to go dead, but I can guarantee that 99% of the civil servants behind the scenes are doing their best.
The media also often highlights statistics without putting them into the context of the Civil Service as a whole. For example, there may be hundreds of Civil Servants on WFH contracts, but that isn’t presented as a proportion of a workforce of over half a million. Reports also often overlook the fact that many people are more productive at home as, without commuting time eating into their day, staff are able to work for longer and get more done. But alas, balanced arguments don’t make good headlines.
Sunshine and roses?
The tabloids in particular also like to claim that civil servants are getting amazing pay and rewards for little work, but again, that’s not really the case. Companies across the private sector offer comparable rewards such as reduced-price gym memberships, vouchers for day trips, cinema tickets, vouchers for eating out, and discounts through partner companies and organisations yet, once again, a double standard exists when civil servants receive similar benefits.
Ironically, also in the last few days, the Daily Mail has reported that the Civil Service is fighting to keep staff who can earn more in the private sector as, despite recent pay rises, average pay for civil servants has dropped in real terms since 2010. Anecdotally, many civil servants cite the work/life balance offered by hybrid working as a key reason to stay in the Civil Service, despite higher paid roles being available in the private sector.
Pay and rewards within the Civil Service are good, but they’re by no means far beyond what is offered by other large employers in the private sector.
Slander and scapegoats
I can’t help but wonder when it became acceptable for the media to demonise civil servants with insulting, inflammatory generalisations that must surely be having a negative effect on the public’s perception of us. Some examples from recent weeks include:
- “Rishi Sunak should tell them to get off their Pelotons, put down their box sets and get back to serving the people who pay their not insubstantial wages — us.” – The Evening Standard
- “Civil Servants didn’t have to wait until Christmas for some nice little presents … restaurant and shop vouchers given to Home Office staff for… er… doing their jobs” – The Sun
- “These bone idle individuals do not have to struggle for existence; the taxpayer – that’s us -maintains them” – The Evening Standard
- “If you are paid by the hour as most Civil Servants are, the temptations to sneak away from the desk and towards the TV or fridge must be insurmountable” – The Telegraph
I also question whether civil servants are simply seen as an easy target – scapegoated by the media who are dissatisfied with the government, and by the government when criticised by the media – who knows?
Regardless, civil servants continue to work hard in changeable and tumultuous political circumstances and, with a general election coming up, our workload is only going to become greater and more complex in the coming months. Many of us are sick of being painted as work-shy and entitled by publications that take one issue or statistic and spin it to support an untrue narrative, which in turn damages the public’s perception of us.
So, next time you see a sensationalised headline bashing civil servants, please take it with a hefty pinch of salt – we may not be perfect but we’re definitely doing our best.