‘Big Brother-style development’ – union slams use of tech logins to monitor Whitehall occupancy

Written by Beckie Smith on 14 September 2022 in News
News

Privacy notice reveals use of information gathered via staff accessing WiFi and computer systems

Credit: Mohamed Hassan/Stock Vault

The Cabinet Office is monitoring employees’ computer and WiFi logins to ensure civil servants are complying with ministers’ back-to-the-office drive, it has emerged.

A privacy notice for the department’s Official IT platform was updated last week to reveal that staff data – including system usage, IP addresses, office locations and email and document access logs – is being used to monitor office attendance.

The data is being processed “to compile anonymised office occupancy statistics and report on overall numbers of staff attending Cabinet Office locations, in order to monitor overall compliance to office working and inform future strategy of how Cabinet Office estates are used”, the notice says.

Departments began publishing office-occupancy data for their Whitehall headquarters in June amid a push by then-government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg to get more officials back at their office desks.

The latest stats show that as of the last week of August, Whitehall buildings were at between 48% average daily capacity – in the case of the Wales Office – and 85% capacity, in the case of the Ministry of Defence. Two-thirds of desks were occupied at the Cabinet Office’s 70 Whitehall HQ on any given day that week.


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The privacy notice update indicates that scrutiny of civil servants’ working locations is unlikely to let up, despite Rees-Mogg having been promoted to business secretary in Liz Truss’s cabinet reshuffle last week. It follows months of what is widely considered to be politically driven pressure on hybrid and remote workers to spend more time in the office. 

It also follows the announcement of the government’s latest property strategy, which has upped the number of buildings to be sold off from the public estate from 16 to 20 in the coming years.

Announcing the strategy last month, Rees-Mogg said the plan was intended to reduce the cost of “under-utilised” buildings, asking why taxpayers should “be made to fork out for half-empty buildings”.

However, the strategy was an expansion of existing plans to reduce the size of the government estate in London and increase the civil service’s regional presence through the Places for Growth programme – which long predates the row over working from home.

It is up to each department to determine how to monitor office attendance. A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Work is underway to develop a common methodology for efficiently monitoring occupancy that provides a daily and historic trend record of office occupancy levels for a building.”

The department is using IT data alongside anonymised building-pass records, a desk-booking system and manual headcounts, the spokesperson said.

The move has sparked an immediate backlash, with PCS union chief Mark Serwotka calling IT monitoring a “worrying, Big Brother-style development that we fear could be used to victimise our members who work from home rather than in the office”.

“We hoped the bogus argument about having to be in the office to do the job had been put to bed following the demonstrable success of our members working efficiently and productively at home during the pandemic,” he added. “So, to resurrect it now, at a time when our members are worried about job cuts and the cost-of-living crisis, is an unnecessary provocation.”

The Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “We have been consistently clear that we want to see office attendance across the civil service consistently back at pre-pandemic levels, and ministers and officials at all levels are keeping the machinery of government working ahead of what we know will be a challenging few months.”

 

About the author

Beckie Smith is deputy editor for PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this story first appeared. She tweets as @beckie__smith.

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