When I became chief executive of the Valuation Office Agency in 2004, there was a report around that said: “There is no clear reason why the VOA should have a central London head office.” My heart sank at this. The track record of earlier moves of whole organisations was patchy. And I didn’t relish telling my new colleagues that they would either have to up sticks and relocate or find another job. Fortunately, the then government didn’t push us to move.
However, there is now another, more determined move to decentralise government departments, and this time I’m optimistic that it will work in every sense. In this respect, the pandemic may well prove to be a game-changer.
There are some strong arguments for decentralisation, including the policy work done closely with ministers. The biggest one for me might sound amorphous but is the way that living and working in London generates a London-centric view of the world which can distort policymaking, because of an undue focus on London house prices or the attitude of London councils.
This was brought home to me when I moved to Newcastle for a few months in 1991, after 10 years in London, and realised how my perspectives shifted. Moving out of the capital brings access to a wider talent pool. Attitudes here have been changing for a while.
When I started work in 1980, it was still the practice that you moved when the office required you to. By the time I was at the VOA in the 2000s, most people weren’t prepared to do that: they would travel frequently, and come to London for meetings, but not relocate.
There might also be benefits for the towns and cities where departments relocate, although the evidence looks less clear. Bootle and East Kilbride weren’t transformed by chunks of the then Inland Revenue moving there in the 1970s. Moving 400 Treasury staff and 350 others to Darlington is a significant step, but not by itself transformative for a town of 100,000 people.
Past efforts at shipping out senior staff and policy staff didn’t really work. In the late 1990s, I worked closely with colleagues from the Department of Health whose nominal base was Leeds. In practice, they were on the train to London virtually every week, sometimes several times. There was a video link, but it was temperamental and not great quality at best – I only saw a minister use it once in three and a half years. Culturally we were all used to working face-to-face for anything at all serious.
Senior officials and ministers will need to demonstrate that civil servants outside London aren’t second-class citizens. If there’s a bias towards London-based staff, don’t expect many people to volunteer for a stint elsewhere
Here’s where the pandemic has made a real difference. It’s demonstrated that meetings on screen can work not just from office locations, but from the fabled kitchen table. And culturally, we have now all become used to working in this way.
Both from past and current experience, I’d suggest a few conditions that will be needed for the decentralised operations to work well.
First, the process of setting up the new location has to be managed sensitively. We should avoid the old approach of shifting every job at once, giving some staff really tough choices.
Second, senior officials and indeed ministers will need to demonstrate that civil servants outside London aren’t, in practice, second-class citizens. Officials in the Treasury and elsewhere watch very carefully who gets what job and who gets early promotions. If there’s a bias towards London-based staff, don’t expect many people to volunteer for a stint elsewhere.
That said, some jobs will be hard to move. I can’t personally see how a minister’s private office could be outside London, though someone might correct me. And some meetings will still have to be face-to-face.
And finally, the benefits will be bigger if staff cluster in a relatively small number of locations and make efforts to build links with other public services in the area.
Like most aspects of civil service reform, decentralisation requires both practical and cultural change. It’s not worked well in the past, but because of the new ways of working accelerated by the pandemic, I am optimistic that this time, it will really take hold.
Andrew Hudson is a former chief executive of the Valuation Office Agency and director general of public services at HM Treasury. He currently chairs the Centre for Homelessness Impact