Connecting civil servants - a pipe dream or future reality?

Written by Jonathan Owen on 9 October 2019 in Feature
Feature

CSW reports on a CS Live round table about the potential of connectivity to transform government

The acceleration of digital connectivity offers an opportunity for government to truly transform the way in which it works. Jonathan Owen reports on a round table where senior civil servants came together to address how the technological promise of a better future might be realised.

Sponsored by BT, and held at Civil Service Live in London, the session looked at the benefits technology can bring to an ever-evolving workplace.

But for all the benefits that technology might bring, there remains a real gap between theory and reality.

Chairing the session, Mike Parsons, chief operating officer and director general, government property at the Cabinet Office, remarked that “collaborative tools” could have a real impact.

This would include bringing about closer working across departments as well as helping “engage in different ways with citizens and to get better feedback about the services we offer.”

Debbie Alder, director general people and capability, at the Department for Work and Pensions, commented that technology can be used not only to “enable delivery to citizens” but also to “enhance the experience of employees and the quality of work.” Technological change also brings with it certain responsibilities, not least the rights of citizens in terms of how their data is used, Alder added.

Julian Critichlow, director general, energy transformation and clean growth, at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, described how today’s workplace is vastly different from that of the past.

“Thirty years ago you’d go to libraries, get materials, draw up manual slides, you’d have to all be at the meeting at the same time,” he said.

Since then there has been “a dramatic shift” to things such as virtual meetings and instant access to information online.

At the Department for International Development, staff are “very familiar and very comfortable with operating virtually.” Apps are being developed to enable staff to gather “real time data” when they are out in the field and “to be able to share that with colleagues,” according to Juliet Chau, director general, finance and corporate performance at the department. 

This is a change from technology just being used to do “core corporate tasks” such as working collaboratively on policy notes, she added.

The complications of cross-departmental working were cited by Susanna McGibbon, director general at the Government Legal Department, who added that different systems can be an obstacle to greater connectivity.  She stressed the importance of “developing our own skills to make the most of tech” and added that it’s not just about the equipment, “it’s about how we use it.”

Marco Salzedo, Government Commercial Function's director of commercial and contract management capability, argued that technology should be seen as “an enabler.” 

He also made the point that choice is important and that “it’s acceptable to work remotely, it’s acceptable to dial in to a meeting but sometimes it’s also acceptable to get together.”

Richard Graham, strategic lead for ‘A Great Place to Work’, at government property in the Cabinet Office, echoed the importance of those using the technology. “It’s a people agenda...what do you need to do your job? What’s the tech that’s best suited to your job?” he said. 

Over the next five to ten years these technologies will make things simpler and easier and mean that “we are going to live in a non-wired world”

One of the issues raised was that of having protocols in place to govern the way technology is used to bring people together. An example cited was that of video conferencing, where it is important to have good practice via simple etiquette such as making sure people are dialed in on time and introduced to other attendees.

Another challenge identified was that of ensuring the reliability and functionality of the equipment used to connect people, as was finding a way of getting different IT systems to talk to each other.

Critchlow shared lessons he had learnt during his time at Bain & Company, prior to joining the Civil Service last year. The consulting firm had a single search engine that accessed all its databases of information, something “which was transformational” and also had a ratings system where staff were able to ‘rank’ data in terms of its quality and usefulness.

There was consensus over the potential of ever greater connectivity to enable smarter working to the benefit of not only civil servants but also citizens through more efficient delivery of government services. From changing the way information is sourced to speeding up communication, technology has already had a major impact on the workplace. 

For Katherine Richardson, deputy director, resilience and emergencies division, at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, video conferencing has “helped to transform the way that we work.” But technology has its limitations when it comes to human interaction. “We do struggle with things like having people who are a bit isolated, I’ve got one person in Truro and if they are having a bit of a tough time it’s very difficult to tell that sometimes on the video conferencing or on the phone,” she said.

Technological change brings with it certain responsibilities, not least the rights of citizens in terms of how their data is used, DWP’s Alder commented. Another issue is that of digital poverty. “There’s probably a surprisingly large minority of people in the UK who can’t engage in this way” and people coming into job centres who don’t have mobile phones will be unable to take advantage of government apps, she pointed out.

In terms of the broader landscape, advances such as 5G, Wi-Fi 6, and e-Sims - where networks can be switched without having to swap bits of hardware - are set to bring ever greater connectivity.

Over the next five to 10 years these technologies will make things simpler and easier and mean that “we are going to live in a non-wired world,” according to Tim Skinner, central government sales director, BT. Technology is all about “connecting people and information to make good decisions,” he said. The flexibility it brings means that the boundaries between work and social lives are increasingly blurred.

On the issue of the work-life balance, Parsons commented how the Cabinet Office is encouraging staff about to go on holiday to not take their work with them. Summing up the wider discussion, he reflected that there are “some areas where we need to think carefully about, around personal data, digital inclusion of members of the public who we serve, segmentation of the workforce and how we balance choices.”

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