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Wednesday 19 August 2020

FDA members rise to the Covid-19 challenge

By Scott Dobson

Public servants have been on the frontline of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, reacting to an unprecedented public health and economic emergency. From designing the Job Retention Scheme to keeping the wheels of the justice system turning, FDA members have been central to efforts to ensure our vital public services keep running.

Scott Dobson speaks to three of those members who have risen to the enormous challenges posed by the pandemic about how their working lives have changed.

Ed Bentley, Technical Adviser, Individuals Policy Directorate, HMRC

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Initially carrying on in his core role, within a few weeks of the start of lockdown, Ed Bentley was asked to take on additional responsibilities working on the design of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. His role, as he puts it, was to act as a “last line of technical advice”.

This included working on the design of the calculator tool, making sure it was giving the right outputs, providing technical support and drafting guidance when the scheme first launched. Ed says his biggest contribution was designing the rules for ‘flexible furlough’, after it was announced by the Chancellor, where people would still able to work some of their hours while having their wages topped up for the remainder of the time.

Ed has been working from home since the beginning of lockdown, and considers himself fortunate that he was already pretty well-equipped for remote working, with his team able to continue much as before. He thinks communication with colleagues has in many ways improved: “When you are in the office, there’s a sort of awkwardness about disturbing people and trying to talk to them while they are working, whereas the fact everyone embraced using the text chat through Microsoft Teams was a huge improvement, which people weren’t doing before it became necessary.”

He hopes this will continue in the future, as a much more informal, efficient way of communicating, something that has been essential when working on such a big project with a very tight deadline. Ed admits, however, that it is “bizarre that there are people I have worked with extremely closely who I’ve obviously never met.”

Ed is confident the Job Retention Scheme has been a huge success. “There were things we got wrong, which is natural, and things that we had to fix… we normally take two or three years from announcement to implementation, this was done in a little over three weeks.” The outcome was better than could possibly have been expected, and he thinks, in the circumstances, the public were more forgiving of things that weren’t quite right.

Looking ahead, Ed points out that HMRC had never really had such a big “money-out” function before, but now it has been done once, it should be easier to do in the future. He acknowledges there are severe limits on the ability to plan for events such as the pandemic, but thinks it is important that HMRC holds on to its corporate memory of how they built the scheme so that, if they ever had to do something similar again, they wouldn’t be starting completely from scratch.

Reflecting on the last few months, Ed believes working from home has been a very positive experience, with losing the commute and being able to spend more time with his young son. The success of the Job Retention Scheme has certainly proven without a doubt that civil servants can work very effectively remotely.

Imogen Ellis, social researcher at the Department for Work and Pensions

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Before the current crisis, Imogen Ellis was working as social researcher focusing on poverty analysis at the DWP, having joined on the Fast Stream in September last year.

At the beginning of lockdown, she began working from home, but when opportunities for redeployment came up, Imogen jumped at the chance of getting experience in an operations role.  She would spend the next couple of months working as a work coach at a local Jobcentre.

Imogen describes the experience as “very full on”, saying it could be challenging speaking to people who were often entering the benefits system for the first time and didn’t really know what to expect from the process, when it was all new for her as well.  Nevertheless, she found it a very useful and interesting experience, seeing first-hand how the work of the DWP impacts on people.

After leaving the Jobcentre, Imogen spent a further two weeks working in the Virtual Service Centre (VSC), mainly dealing with claims over the internet, where she gained a much better understanding of Universal Credit and the systems behind it. The VSC was established incredibly quickly, and there were inevitably teething problems, but Imogen believes that for those applying for benefits, “the transformation in how the DWP operated was really successful, the sheer amount of claims the department had to clear was incredible, and it was amazing how many people got paid on time.”

Reflecting on her experiences on redeployment now she is back doing her normal role, Imogen is pleased she had the opportunity to work in a different job with new colleagues: “There isn’t generally a lot of cross-over between those working in more corporate roles and those in ops. I definitely think people should get experience in ops if they want to work in DWP. I’ve learnt loads.”

She says a lot of her colleagues have said similar things, that “it is actually really worthwhile spending a week or two learning about just how difficult a job it is working in an operational role.”

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Stephen Head, CPS prosecutor in a magistrate’s court

Working as a prosecutor, Stephen Head says his workload has remained high throughout the crisis, but the CPS and its criminal justice partners have had to adapt quickly to ensure our justice system continued to function.

Stephen says the CPS acted rapidly to ensure there was adequate health and safety provision for those who still had to physically attend work - “such as making sure there was hand sanitiser available and that floor space was sectioned off to allow for social distancing” – and to get the technology in place for those working remotely.

Living close to the court he works in, Stephen volunteered to still physically attend so that colleagues who lived further away or were shielding could work remotely. “At first, this meant being present at the court as back up in case the tech failed. As time has gone on, however, some cases are now being dealt with physically.”

“Crimes are still being committed”, and it is vital that justice continues to be done, says Stephen, and this has meant major changes to the way our courts work. Video links are nothing new in court, but currently, most of those involved - defendants, prosecutors, probation officers - appear remotely. Where cases do need to be heard physically, case listings are staggered throughout the day in half hour slots to help maintain social distancing in court buildings. This has meant some very long days for prosecutors.

On the whole, he has found the courts he deals with to be understanding of prosecutors’ individual circumstances, but lots of dialogue between the FDA, CPS and other departments has been crucial. With the justice system already stretched, and a big backlog of cases even before the pandemic hit, this will be even more critical in the months ahead.

Looking to the future, Stephen hopes that there will be a permanent move towards “smarter working”. “Less time spent commuting and a smaller office footprint would be good for staff, the department, and the environment too.”

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