Many of us are enjoying new-found flexibility when it comes to working – and politicians deserve the same

The pandemic has shown employers and their staff the world over in all sorts of industries that remote working is actually much easier to achieve and is more productive and less disruptive than they ever thought

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Opinion: Lucy Stephenson

THE relationship between politicians and the public is a funny old thing. When it comes to election time many members of the public are content to pick a few random names from a list without attending a hustings, meeting the candidate in person or sometimes even reading their manifestos. Instead names, for some voters at least, are chosen according to who you know, where they live and who they are related to, rather than the stuff that really matters like their qualities and policy proposals. And then there is the large proportion of people who don’t bother to engage in the process at all, letting the rest of society choose their politicians for them.

We get told things like where election candidates were born, how many languages they speak or how much volunteering they have done, but we often fail to ask for their views on integrating different cultures, the preservation of Jèrriais or the local emphasis on French, or if they believe the government relies too heavily on the third sector.

We want our politicians to be human, approachable, reflective of society and ‘normal’, whatever that is, but then we seem surprised – offended even – to learn they have family commitments ­or perhaps even intend to start a family while they are in office, or that they have other priorities outside of the States of Jersey.

And we expect high-quality candidates with years of expertise and experience in areas like health, education, housing, finance, business and so on, or those with bright minds who could be working elsewhere to put themselves forward for a job paying a fraction of the salary that they have been used to (and have likely built a lifestyle around and taken out a mortgage against) or are qualified for.

The contradictions and ironies in this relationship are plentiful.

Even so, I was still surprised at the negative public response to the recent decision of Members to overwhelmingly back a last-minute proposition from Environment Minister John Young suggesting that those politicians who wished to work from home should be able to do so.

It had been just 72 minutes since the States had returned to sit in person, all together, following the summer recess and the lifting of most of the Island’s remaining Covid restrictions.

Members voted 40-4 in favour of the move and the meeting was immediately adjourned for 45 minutes to allow time for the necessary technology to be put in place, and for those Members wishing to work remotely to return home, which some did.

The response on social media to the decision was not as supportive, with many commentators going as far as to question the work ethic of some of those returning home or the message the decision sent to Islanders at a time when many are being asked to return to workplaces and offices.

They are quite right that the Assembly can and does set an example – and in this case it was setting a very good one. This decision should be the beginning of more remote-working options for politicians for long into the future, through Covid and beyond. Not only would it make the States a happy and healthier place to work but it could encourage more people to consider standing for election.

Currently, as I understand it, there might be issues with where someone can physically vote from following a debate, but this could be overcome, with the right safeguards in place, to allow those away on States business to take part in sittings.

Members who need to work at home for health reasons or because their child is sick that day or their elderly parent needs attention should be able to log on from outside of the States Building.

And, at the end of the day, does it really matter if someone chooses to work from home one day just because they want to?

It seems a weird logic to place such emphasis on where a States Member is when they take part in a debate rather than what they say, how they say it and, ultimately, how they vote.

And the job entails – or should entail – a whole lot more than just turning up to States Assembly sittings once every three weeks, excluding holidays.

The pandemic has shown employers and their staff the world over in all sorts of industries that flexibility is actually much easier to achieve and more productive and less disruptive than they ever thought. And many have chosen to commit to continue such an approach into the future, with some companies even slashing office space as they realise they don’t need it anymore.

Covid has transformed the working world for so many people – why not for our States Members too?

During the remote-working debate Deputy Rob Ward raised a point which would need addressing, however, if Members were to work remotely more often. He said he had reservations about ministers using the opportunity to work remotely as an excuse to ‘sit in Broad Street while their officials give them advice’.

Currently ministers pop out of the Assembly to receive advice from officials, who can often be seen loitering around the ancillary rooms of the States Building during big debates. Or they receive advice and information via the phone messaging system WhatsApp (it can’t be subject to freedom-of-information requests like emails can). So it is entirely plausible that this would go a step further, and officers would be in a room with a minister during a debate. Other Members might be tempted to get some help on occasion too.

But this should not be a reason to dismiss the idea of a more flexible system altogether. With some constructive working and a little thought, clear additions could be made to standing orders – the rules of the States Assembly – to dictate how it should work and what would be expected of Members.

Deputy Montfort Tadier questioned during the debate what the decision might mean for the future of the Assembly building itself, saying: ‘It brings into question the whole fundamentals of do we need this Assembly at all? Do we need to come in here for ceremonial purposes?’ And he added: ‘You get into a very grey area about what is a legitimate reason [for working remotely].’

Those legitimate reasons could be developed, discussed and debated before being laid down in standing orders.

After all, workplaces across Jersey and beyond are currently going through this very process right now and deciding what works for them – why shouldn’t our politicians too?

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