By Geoff Lyons

25 Oct 2018

Could new ways of working transform the way the Civil Service delivers in challenging times? Geoffrey Lyons reports on a Civil Service Live roundtable

On March 15, Jamie Turner of The Office of Government Property marked his daughter’s fifth birthday in a unique way – he wrote a blog. “I am lucky to have the support from my manager and workplace to ensure that parenting isn’t a binary choice between being a perfect parent and pursuing a fulfilling career,” he wrote. “And I am proud to say that where I work was one of the pioneers of Smarter Working.” The blog, which was published on the civil service website, was highly praised by commenters. Jeremy Heywood promptly tweeted a link to his 24,000 followers.

Four months later, Turner and others gathered at Civil Service Live for a roundtable in partnership with BT to discuss smarter working opportunities and their potential to fundamentally reshape the way the civil service operates. “The majority of civil servants at most grades, certainly in the lower grades, absolutely welcome the concept of flexible working,” said Barry McGill, director of digital permissions border systems at Border Force. “But there’s a point where it starts to become difficult.”

Managed expectations

McGill believes that some of the most formidable challenges to successfully implementing smarter working practices stem from the management level. “Managers have to change their mind-set about how to manage people,” he said. While smarter working saves time in the long run, McGill stressed that the time spent changing mindsets is a short-term challenge for managers. But however costly this may be, there’s general agreement that change must ultimately flow from the top-down. “This needs to be taken on board at the highest levels, from perm secs downwards,” Turner said. “It’s about senior owners articulating and leading in a vision of a modernised civil service,” said Simon Godfrey, director of government relations at BT.    

Mike Parsons, director general of government property at the Cabinet Office and chair of the roundtable, said that it was not uncommon to hear the view that “the processes and expectations around management [to support smarter working] are unrealistic and potentially burdensome.” This is something to which Martin Sellar, programmes director at the new Government Property Agency, which is collaborating with the tax department to establish 12 regional hubs across the UK, can speak directly. “One of our challenges is to get people to see this is about more than an estates thing,” he said. “So we’re trying to look at the buildings as enablers and the people as where the change really happens.” 

Sellar believes that one way to help managers make the shift to a more flexible working environment is to give them more data. “One thing you can do is make trust and culture tangible. When people aren’t trusting, sometimes it’s because managers don’t have the data to monitor performance,” he said.

Good as new

While new data may prove useful, participants agreed there’s a danger that the very novelty of new technologies and workplaces can be a distraction. 

“When we were approaching our move, we focussed too much on how the office is modern and clean and new, and not enough on efficiencies,” said Dominic Brankin, Director of Workplace and DHSC Transformation at the Department of Health and Social Care. Brankin sees people fall into a similar trap with technology. “Whatever new technology you’re using, there are some old-fashioned basics that you need to get right,” he says.

But maybe that’s easier said than done. BT’s Godfrey said it’s not always simple to find middle ground between different ways of working. “When there are five to six different styles of work [happening in one space], then that requires a unique approach,” he said. “We’re under no illusions about how difficult this is.” Turner supports this view. “No one size fits all,” he said. “You need to take into regard the needs of the individual too when implementing smart working solutions -  replacing landlines with mobile phones requires excellent reception, open space environments require an understanding that some people might require fixed desks or other workplace needs.”

Welcome to the hub

There’s a general consensus that relocating civil service jobs presents a window of opportunity to finally get smart working practices, particularly remote working, right. Adam Altoft, smart working programme director at HMRC, said now is the time to “turn up the volume” on smarter working. McGill of the Border Force echoed this sentiment, urging that substantive change be made quickly before the appetite fades. “We need to retract the time scale in which we do this,” he said. “There’s a danger of us losing some of the momentum along the way.”

But if a significant challenge to remote working is the idea that one must be in an office to be productive, then it’s doubly challenging to reverse the perception that the office must be located in London. The notion that the best civil service career paths must ultimately converge on the capital is an issue that continues to attract attention, and is being combated by government’s relocation efforts. “It’s a shame that people think the only route to the senior civil service is by coming into London,” said Simon Madden, Director of the Places for Growth Programme within the Cabinet Office. While branching out beyond London is ultimately the means to reversing this mindset, Madden urges caution. “It’s great if you move people but you don’t want to condemn them to be stuck,” he says. “The approach we’re taking in Places for Growth is to try to match the workforce skills that are required with the skill profile that fits the location and to ensure we cluster teams and roles so that we build career paths across the UK.”

DHSC’s Brankin said his departments are committing a number of senior civil service roles outside London. “Our executive committee has committed to having a similar proportion of SCS roles in Leeds as in London,” Brankin said. “It will take time but I think that’s a very powerful statement.” Madden added this is in line with the Places for Growth objectives thinking. “In Places for Growth we are working closely with Civil Service HR to make sure that Civil Service presence, including senior grades,  becomes more distributed across the UK. Only through doing that do you really ensure the civil service is representative.”

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