Sunday, 20 May 2012

If its a day ending in Y, then its time to attack the civil service again...

Oh good, its been at least a few days since the civil service was last attacked for having the audacity to exist and employ people, so it was probably time for another article to make out that the Civil Servant is the root of all evil. While the author accepts that the Civil Service is never going to win any prizes for being a popular organisation, the level of hatred that the media attempt to generate against it is starting to border on the obscene. If the media were to conduct similar levels of attacks on religious or ethnic groups as they do on the civil service, then one could almost foresee prosecutions occurring.

The current criticism stems from news that the civil service operates a flexible working system. This has been portrayed in the media (or rather the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph) as something which permits Whitehall Civil Servants 36 days extra leave per year through working a nine day fortnight system. There is apparently no auditing of this system and its open for exploitation and abuse.
If one is to believe the ‘sources’ (assuming they aren’t made up in true tabloid fashion), then apparently all of Whitehall is at it, and most departments are a ghost town on Fridays.

Lets briefly consider what it is that the fuss is all about. At its most simple Civil Servants are employed to work a fixed number of hours per week – usually 36 in London (7hrs 12 per day, plus lunch). Most departments operate a ‘core hours’ scheme whereby workers are expected to be in between 10-4pm and work as appropriate to make up the time.

The nine day fortnight scheme, or TOIL isn’t some kind of random system where employees arbitrarily decide they wish to take time off every two weeks. It’s a contractual change to your working hours, and subject to supervision and approval. If you are found to abuse the system then you can expect gross misconduct charges and dismissal from the civil service. The scheme is not something that most Civil Servants take part in – in the last ten years, this author has met precisely two Civil Servants working the nine day fortnight scheme.

The flexible working system merely tries to offer staff the ability to work a more flexible routine which reflects their personal circumstances. It isn’t an automatic right, and it would only be given if changing working patterns doesn’t impact on the role of the individual or their team. It doesn’t mean staff work any less time, and it doesn’t mean that they are skiving off. Often the system helps as it means staff are available to provide cover later when needed, and can stand down when there is no work to do.

In reality though most staff are so busy that they never get the time to take their TOIL and work for free far in excess of what is expected. The authors role requires him to regularly work late into the evenings, and he often has 2-3 days’ worth of excess TOIL which is lost, as there is just too much work to do. People may have accrued TOIL, but they certainly don’t often get to take it.

The idea that staff are somehow getting a magical 36 days of extra leave per year is just plain rubbish. Staff are working exactly the same hours as before, doing exactly the same job, and merely doing it for slightly different working patterns. No one attacks shift workers for working odd patterns. No one attacks people who do a 36 hour 9-5pm five day week, so why is it so wrong to try to offer flexible working?

The reality is that the civil service is not some plush job where people have an easy life and do little work. Most people in the Civil Service are hardworking individuals, who genuinely take pride in what they do, and who are getting utterly fed up of the constant attacks on their role and existence. It is incredibly dispiriting to have to read the sort of attacks day in, day out from press organisations who have decided that people with the audacity to work in public service are leeches who must be chastised. Yet the same organisations attacking the Civil Service, and who demand mass firings (and judging from the comments online, some readers expect mass firing squads) of Civil Servants are the same ones who criticise it when things go wrong.

Right now thousands of Civil Servants are applying to leave on early redundancy terms. In the MOD, 40% of all Civil Servants are in the process of losing their jobs. Despite this, the queue to get out is huge. The MOD was overwhelmed with applicants to get on the early release scheme last year, and it is likely that the same will happen again. People are fed up with being made to feel scapegoats for decisions in which they had no say, no part and no role. Today the Sunday Telegraph has reported that there is likely to be real concern at the loss of skills in the Mod through the redundancy scheme (LINK HERE). The reality appears to be dawning that if you attack the MOD Civil Service, blame them for all the mistakes in the military, demand mass sackings and downsizing, then you are going to lose core skills. There is no large department of Administrative Affairs to sack for the MOD. There is no office full of bean counters who can be lost. The reality is that where people go, they are taking with them niche skills, experience and future potential that cannot be easily replaced. By all means attack the civil service, but don’t be surprised to discover that in doing so, you are, in a small way, ultimately helping to undermine UK security.  

It’s entirely appropriate to attack Civil Servants where genuine abuses or mistakes have occurred. People that have done this should be named, shamed and fired. But this is a tiny percentage of overall public sector workers. Most people try to do the best they can do with declining budgets, with unclear guidance, and they are trying to implement politically driven changes, and then expected to carry the can for the politicians when things don’t go to plan.

One theme that this author has tried to put across is that it’s extremely depressing to try to work in an organisation where 40% of staff are being made redundant, where pensions are being slashed, where budgets are being cut, and where pay has been frozen for years and will continue to do so. It is depressing to be made out to be the reason everything has gone wrong in society, and that it is all the Civil Servants fault. It is depressing to be blamed and told that I should be hung in front of my family (as one particularly charming Telegraph poster put yesterday) for suggesting that most Civil Servants are normal people trying to do the best we can.

The irony is of course that the organisation most determined to do the Civil Service down is also one of the most hypocritical out there. The author was discussing the Telegraph article last night with a social acquaintance of his (a reasonably well known national journalist). They spent a lot of time strongly attacking the Civil Service, and suggesting that all public servants are feckless, lazy and workshy and don’t deserve to have any form of flexible working. They then went on to complain, apparently without irony, about their new bed not having a headboard, making it hard for them to work in bed. Nice to see that the Fourth Estate doesn’t see fit practise what it preaches.


  1. here-here!
    Just wish this site had a bit more traffic...

  2. Mike - thanks - the site is only 4 1/2 months old, so is still slowly establishing itself. I'm averaging about 9000 hits per month, and trying to slowly build it up over time. As a one man blog though, I don't want to do too much too soon, as there is a physical limit to what I can write in any week.

  3. Ferretygubbins20 May 2012 at 15:31

    As a Civil Servant myself (albeit in a different department - HR processing for DWP) I would agree with what you have said above with one small caveat. The work pattern you describe above (10 days work over 9 days) is usually a contractual arrangement and so the non-working day should not be considered as TOIL rather it is a contracted non-working day.

    I think that it doesn't help that we often use specific CS terminology that can often be (deliberately?) misinterpreted by those with an axe to grind. Thanks for a very interesting blog.

  4. Work 37 hours myself, but I'd love an extra 36 extra days a year annual leave. Where can I sign up for all these wonderful things that the DM and DT claim I can get as a Civil Servant?

    I'll happily swap jobs with a member of the Fourth Estate if they think I'm lazy and feckless. I'd love to see how they cope with a single day in my post. :-)

  5. Ferretygubbins20 May 2012 at 20:10

    Anonymous - if you work for DWP all you need to do is submit an Application to Change Work Pattern to your line manager and Robert is your Father's brother. Of course you'll now be working 8 hours and 13 minutes per day instead of 7 hours 24. I fear though that the last sentence may not bolster the press' stance that we are all idle and workshy so that part may not be printed.

    1. I work for the Scottish Government and I doubt I'd be allowed a Change Work Pattern in my area. Only people who I know have been given them are parents with young children.

    2. Ferretygubbins27 May 2012 at 19:37

      The knack with the application, in my experience, is to work out how it will affect your colleagues and try to address those issues in the application. Also avoid taking Monday as a working day (you can lose out with P&P leave if your office closes on bank holidays - well not loses out but it feels like you do) although patterns which avoid Monday and Friday as non-working days tend to be easier to get.

    3. To be honest I'm happy with my 7:24 as it is and we're too busy not to have fewer people available. One good thing is that I can go home at 4PM on some days, though before the DM, or DT gets into a froth I start at 7:30AM on those days.

  6. The Telegraph article was a disgrace, but then its become such a bl**dy awful newspaper in recent years one shouldn't be surprised. However, I think Sir Humphrey doth protest too much.

    I did a spell with the Civil Service and the amount of feather-bedding, decision-avoidance, all round crap management and non-existent leadership soon forced me out. There are good people in the CS but its numbers could be dramatically cut without any loss to service delivery.

  7. It's a while ago since I left the public sector and although there was quite a lot of media malice around then, you have my sympathy because it seems to have got worse.
    To cheer you up I think your blog is doing well to be getting 9000 hits a month - it's taken me nearly 18 months and 156 posts to get about 1000 and I have only had 9500 in all!

  8. I like this blog too and very glad I found it. Lots of common sense and de-bunking of media pedalled myths. Regarding working hours I met a very interesting man from the home office once who told me about a civil service study that had been done proving that a 4 day week for all would reduce productivity by virtually nothing and then only for a short period of time while people adjusted. It made perfect sense to me I have to say. Like any job people are more productive when they are motivated and believe they are doing some good. Surely flexible working can only help in that. For all the people trying to do the best job they can I say shame on you to the journalists who write this rubbish, you should be taking a long hard look at yourselves!

  9. If a Civil Servant uses TOIL who does his job when he is taking the extra leave?

  10. Ianeon - with flexible working, the individual isnt using extra leave. He is working a different pattern of hours, but is doing the same work, and delivering the same output.
    This isnt leave, its just working at different times.