This weekend, a Peruvian street dance group called D1 is performing at Sadler’s Wells. Or, rather, a maimed and curtailed version of it is. Despite having applied properly and in good time, and despite the theatre’s pleas, three of the eight dancers had still not received their visas by the time their flight left.
I spent a day last week trying to speed things up. For the dancers – street children who had been talent-spotted by a charity and forged into a troupe of international renown – performing in London was a lifetime’s dream. Ministers at the Home Office moved heaven and earth to help, but to no avail: the bureaucracy remained inert.
The uselessness of Britain’s visa service is nothing new, sadly; it has been damaging our reputation with overseas visitors for years. But things have noticeably deteriorated as a result of the staff’s refusal to return to their desks.
There was a truly spectacular self-own from the Home Office two weeks ago, when a newspaper investigation found that most of its officials had not come back to the office nearly a year after restrictions had been lifted. Defending the department against the charge of having caused needless delays to the completion of paperwork for Ukrainians, a spokesman said: “All staff working to process Ukraine Family Scheme and Homes for Ukraine visas are working from the office.”
In other words, the Home Office knows damn well that its officials are more productive at their desks. When it feels the heat, as it did over its failure to issue visas to Ukrainians, it calls people back in. Non-Ukrainians, by contrast, still have to put up with the kind of grudging service that long-suffering Soviet citizens used to queue for.
Talking of Soviet citizens, getting out of Britain is becoming almost as tricky as getting in. I recently had my own bad experience with HM Passport Office, but so many columnists have written first-person sob stories about passport applications that there is no point adding another. Let me instead report that, seized by a spirit of investigative journalism, I toddled over to their office behind Victoria Station. It was a weekday morning in late March, and the place was empty. The only employee present was a security guard turning members of the public away.
This is the context in which Jacob Rees-Mogg is politely reminding civil servants that they are supposed to turn up to work. There has been an enraged response from their trade unions, but the Minister for Government Efficiency would not be doing his job if he were not trying to make the government efficient.
A few weeks ago, the Mogg was informed that he urgently needed to approve the renewal of a lease on some expensive London property to a certain state agency. To the consternation of his officials, he decided immediately to inspect the supposedly critical site, and found it empty. On further investigation, he discovered that the same was true across Whitehall. The problem was worse in some ministries than others, and seemed to correlate roughly with the wokeness of the officials. Most MoD staff managed to make it into the office, for example, but only one desk in four at the Department of Education was occupied.
Rees-Mogg is not the sort of man who raises his voice, and I don’t think he sworn in his life. Faced with the insolent refusal of several public-sector workers to comply with their contracts, the most courteous of ministers left notes on their desks whose phrasing echoed that of his Somerset canvassing cards: “Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon. With every good wish, Jacob Rees-Mogg”.
His opponents naturally called it “bullying”, the word they automatically reach for whenever a minister asks civil servants to do their jobs. But the lockdown ended in July of last year – indeed, for most practical purposes, in May of last year. Almost all civil servants have been on full pay throughout, under contracts that identify their offices as their main places of work – contracts, in other words, which they are flagrantly defying.
I understand the appeal of working from home. Who wouldn’t want to save on commuting, to go for walks when the mood takes them, to be able to let the plumber in without having to take a day off? The trouble is, it makes most people less efficient, less motivated and a lot less creative.
Last week, a study by Columbia University found that people paired over Zoom were significantly less likely to come up with new ideas than people paired face to face. Almost all surveys show the same thing: for example, a major evaluation of 61,000 employees last year carried out by Microsoft found that working from home left them in intellectual silos, less communicative and less likely to come up with useful suggestions.
Yes, some types of job can be done from anywhere, because they require no interaction. In a newspaper, for example, most reporters, features columnists and leader writers will benefit from bumping into each other and sparking new ideas. Specialist correspondents need to be out and about talking to others, but usually not with their colleagues. Others – crossword-setters, TV reviewers, pet columnists – can perfectly well work from home.
Equivalent things are true in many industries and, by and large the private sector has adapted. Where people genuinely can work largely or wholly from home without loss of productivity, their employers have taken the opportunity to downsize and save on the office rent.
This, by the way, can be a mixed blessing for former commuters. If their jobs can be done from Brighton or Bookham, they can usually also be done from Bucharest or Bombay. If being physically present is truly unnecessary, then companies will outsource to places with lower wage costs, and globalisation will catch up with solicitors and scriptwriters two generations after it reached shipwrights and steel-workers.
But the evidence, so far, is that most companies want to see their employees in the flesh, and are prepared to pay commensurately. As one of our most successful employers told me, “If they’re working from home, they’re not working for me. They’re picking their kids up at three.”
It is true that some freelancers, paid by results, work better without commuting. But few civil servants are freelancers. Most are paid a fixed rate unrelated to output. Unsurprisingly, output drops when they stop showing up to work.
The deterioration can be catastrophic. Absenteeism by DVLA staff meant that postal applications were barely processed at all. To make matters worse, the DVLA website often went down, causing the system to reject applications that were being completed at the time of the crash, and requiring them to be submitted on paper. The impact on the economy is hard to quantify; but it is significant.
What goes for the DVLA goes, on a lesser scale, for almost every government bureaucracy. Last June, for example, I wrote here about the bizarre refusal of the Hampshire police to process my shotgun licence application. Ten more months have since passed – ten months without Covid restrictions. Yet, until this month, no new applications were being processed at all. I don’t mean that they were working their way through a backlog; I mean that they were refusing to start.
To see why government inefficiency is a problem, wrap your head around the extraordinary fact that, in the last fiscal year, the state accounted for 52.1 per cent of the economy. Yes, that figure was distorted by furlough payments and other grants. Still, an unresponsive state sector is a deadweight on the economy.
It also sets the tone for large private corporations. Dealing with a bank or an airline is nowadays almost as tedious as dealing with a government bureaucracy. A year on, the pandemic remains an all-purpose excuse for idleness, failure and poor performance.
Ministers are not responsible for the banks or the airlines. But they are responsible for people on the state payroll. This does not mean they can order officials around. As this column keeps lamenting, civil servants depend on other civil servants for every advancement, and can therefore all but ignore the wishes of the elected ministers to whom they notionally answer.
This time, though, the issue is black-and-white. The rest of the country is returning to the office. State officials cannot expect a permanent exemption paid for by the rest of us.