This weekend a Peruvian street dance group called D1 is performing in Sadler’s Wells. Or rather, a mangled and shortened version of it. Despite applying correctly and in a timely manner, and despite pleas from the theater, three of the eight dancers had still not received their visas by the time their flight departed.
I spent a day last week trying to speed things up. For the dancers – street children scouted by a charity and integrated into an internationally renowned troupe – performing in London was a lifelong dream. Interior ministers moved heaven and earth to help, but to no avail: the bureaucracy stood still.
The uselessness of the British visa service is unfortunately not new; this has damaged our reputation with foreign visitors for years. But things have deteriorated significantly due to the refusal of staff to return to their offices.
Two weeks ago there was a truly spectacular takeover of the Home Office, when a newspaper investigation revealed that most of its officials had not returned to the office near a year after the restrictions were lifted. Defending the department against accusation that it caused unnecessary delays in completing paperwork for Ukrainians, a spokesperson said: “All staff working on visa processing Ukraine Family Scheme and Homes for Ukraine have been working for office.”
In other words, the Home Office knows full well that its officials are more productive at their desks. When he feels the heat, as he did over his inability to issue visas to Ukrainians, he calls people back. Non-Ukrainians, on the other hand, still have to put up with the kind of reluctant service that long-suffering Soviet citizens used to do. queue for.
Speaking of Soviet citizens, getting out of Britain becomes almost as tricky as getting in. I recently had my own bad experience with the HM Passport Office, but so many columnists have written gory first-person stories about passport applications that there is no need to add another. Let me instead report that, gripped by a spirit of investigative journalism, I went to their office behind Victoria Station. It was a weekday morning at the end of March and the place was empty. The only employee present was a security guard turning away members of the public.
It is in this context that Jacob Rees-Mogg politely reminds public servants that they are expected to report for work. There was a furious response from their unions, but the Minister for Government Efficiency would not be doing his job if he did not try to make government efficient.
A few weeks ago, the Mogg was told it had to urgently approve the renewal of a lease on an expensive London property at a certain state agency. To the dismay of his officials, he immediately decided to inspect the supposedly critical site and found it empty. Upon further investigation, he found the same to be true in Whitehall. The problem was worse in some departments than in others, and seemed to correlate roughly with the awakening of officials. Most MoD staff managed to get to the office, for example, but only one in four offices at the Department of Education were occupied.
Rees-Mogg is not the kind of man who raises his voice, and I don’t think he swore his life. Faced with the insolent refusal of several civil servants to respect their contract, the most courteous of ministers left notes on his desk whose wording echoed that of his canvassing cards from Somerset: “Sorry, you were absent during my visit. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon. With best wishes, Jacob Rees-Mogg.”
His opponents naturally called it “bullying”, the word they automatically use whenever a minister asks civil servants to do their job. But the lockdown ended in July last year – in fact, for practical purposes, in May last year. Almost all civil servants have been paid full-time, under contracts that identify their offices as their main places of work – contracts, in other words, that they blatantly defy.
I understand the appeal of working from home. Who wouldn’t want to save on commuting, going for a walk when the mood takes it, being able to let the plumber in without having to take a day off? The problem is that it makes most people less efficient, less motivated and much less creative.
Last week, a Columbia University study found that people matched on Zoom were significantly less likely to come up with new ideas than people matched face-to-face. Almost every survey shows the same thing: for example, a major assessment of 61,000 employees conducted by Microsoft last year found that working from home left them in intellectual silos, less communicative and less likely to offer helpful suggestions. .
Yes, certain types of work can be done from anywhere, as they do not require any interaction. In a newspaper, for example, most top reporters, columnists, and editors will benefit from crossing paths and sparking new ideas. Specialized pen pals should be outside chatting with others, but usually not with their co-workers. Others – crossword puzzles, TV reviewers, pet columnists – can work perfectly from home.
Equivalent things are true in many industries, and by and large the private sector has adapted. Where people can truly work largely or entirely from home with no loss in productivity, their employers have taken the opportunity to downsize and save on office rent.
This, by the way, can be a mixed blessing for former commuters. If their work can be done from Brighton or Bookham, it can usually also be done from Bucharest or Bombay. If being physically present is really not necessary, then companies will outsource to places where labor costs are lower, and globalization will catch up with notaries and scriptwriters two generations after it has reached shipbuilders and steelmakers.
But the evidence so far is that most companies want to see their employees in the flesh and are willing to pay accordingly. As one of our most successful employers told me, “If they work from home, they don’t work for me. They pick up their children at three o’clock.
It is true that some freelancers, paid by results, work better without traveling. But few civil servants are independent. Most receive a fixed rate unrelated to production. Unsurprisingly, production plummets when they stop showing up for work.
The deterioration can be catastrophic. Absenteeism of DVLA staff meant that postal inquiries were barely answered. To make matters worse, the DVLA website frequently crashed, causing the system to reject applications that were being processed at the time of the crash and require them to be submitted on paper. The impact on the economy is difficult to quantify; but it is significant.
What applies to the DVLA applies, on a lesser scale, to almost all government bureaucracies. Last June, for example, I wrote here about Hampshire Police’s bizarre refusal to process my application for a shotgun license. Ten more months have since passed – ten months without Covid restrictions. Yet until this month, no new applications were being processed. I don’t mean they were working on a backlog; I mean they refused to start.
To understand why government inefficiency is a problem, consider the extraordinary fact that in the last fiscal year, the state accounted for 52.1% of the economy. Yes, this figure has been skewed by furlough payments and other subsidies. Yet an insensitive state sector is a dead weight on the economy.
It also sets the tone for large private corporations. Dealing with a bank or an airline today is almost as cumbersome as dealing with a government bureaucracy. A year later, the pandemic remains a catch-all excuse for idleness, failure and poor performance.
Ministers are not responsible for banks or airlines. But they are responsible for people in the pay of the state. This does not mean that they can order officials to move. As this column keeps lamenting, officials are dependent on other officials for every advancement, and therefore can virtually ignore the wishes of elected ministers to which they theoretically respond.
This time, however, the issue is black and white. The rest of the country returns to the office. State officials cannot expect a permanent exemption paid for by the rest of us.