By Richard

03 Apr 2014

Given the rhetoric surrounding the shift to the modern workplace and the importance of centring technology around the users rather than the producers, why has progress stagnated?

Theoretically the ‘Digital by Default’ agenda and the shift to the modern workplace proposed by the UK government is a commendable idea.

The Civil Service has labelled this as a priority yet, according to Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, one of the Civil Service reform agendas that has “gone most slowly – in fact, it hasn’t gone anywhere at all – is a modern workplace.”

A recent survey, conducted by Civil Service World on behalf of Unify, found that only 32 per cent of Civil Servants have seen workplace modernisation move up the priority list since July 2013 and only 29 per cent say that they have had access to new technologies that have helped them work more efficiently in the last three years.

Given the rhetoric surrounding the shift to the modern workplace and the importance of centring technology around the users rather than the producers, why has progress stagnated? The answer can be found in a myriad of reasons with one underlying theme; a significant disparity between strategy and implementation.

Smothering productivity with kid gloves

A major reason for the slow progress has been the fact that the Civil Service has yet to find a balanced approach that addresses the practical elements of securely accessing information in a manner that meets the controls as defined within the security policies. When embracing new technologies and ways of working, security is a very significant consideration. However, there is a delicate balancing act to be performed between securing sensitive information and allowing civil servants to work effectively and to their fullest potential. Seventy-four per cent of respondents believe that less restrictive controls within the workplace would significantly improve their productivity, and this is not an opinion solely reserved for the younger generation. In fact, slightly more senior civil servants (77 per cent) than junior civil servants (73 per cent), take this point of view. This lack of supporting tools that enables access to information is a key reason why employees are being held back with 46 per cent citing this inability to use and share information as a key barrier to progress and 20 per cent stating that it prevented them doing their jobs effectively.

Despite the impact security is having on productivity, only nine per cent of civil servants have seen substantial changes being made to develop a more balanced system. To let the Civil Service work to its full potential, government departments must approach security in a different way. Employees must view security as an enabler rather than a complicated and frustrating barrier to productivity. The implementation of Security policies through the required controls must change to reflect the needs of the modern workplace which allow for greater interoperability, openness and increased productivity which is what the PSN was designed to do, as opposed to prohibiting progress.

Seeing the wood for the trees

Security constraints are not the only reason the government’s digital strategy is floundering. The strategy has not been clearly communicated across central departments, with staff unable to identify with new digital initiatives. Less than 40 per cent of civil servants think their departments have taken a clear lead when it comes to implementing new digital strategies and only 52 per cent know who their Digital Leader is. Even within the IT department there is a lack of clarity with 28 per cent of respondents working in these roles who are unaware of the digital initiatives that their department is implementing.

These statistics underline the gap between strategy, communication and implementation as far as the ‘Digital by Default’ agenda is concerned. Considering that only 36 per cent of civil servants believe their department has the skills to achieve the shift to digital, there is a need for greater internal communication on projects and progress. To improve external communications with UK citizens, the Civil Service must first ensure that it communicates these new strategies effectively within Central Government. Regardless of the complexities that are involved within the adoption of these new technologies, if employees are not aware these changes it would be impossible to realise the benefits.

Strike while the iron’s hot

Once a decision has been made, where new technology is to be embraced, it must be implemented swiftly to ensure maximum benefit. Yet, when asked, 86 per cent of civil servants responded that they were not happy with the pace at which technology was being rolled out. Even those working in the IT department struggled to take a more positive view with just 20 per cent of civil servants working in such roles feeling the implementation process was swift enough to bring departments up to speed with the modern workplace.
Central government has identified three key criteria for the modern workplace agenda: access to information, applications and mobility. Yet with just 24 per cent of respondents feeling that they are able to share information efficiently and five per cent able to access relevant applications and tools on mobile devices, this goal is clearly compromised.

Reaching the modern workplace

So, there is a clear gap between strategy, communication and implementation when it comes to the government’s digital by default agenda, but how can departments turn this around and ensure their staff are working in a truly modern workplace?

First and foremost, the benefits the new technologies bring need should be clearly communicated and then they should be embraced by all rather than brushed aside. As the government great financial austerity axe hits harder with each swing, savings cannot come from people alone, and therefore it has to come from the new technologies areas that the Private sector have been benefiting from for years. With new technologies coming online daily, if Central Government do not adopt and communicate a clear strategy, which defines the core principles, then the Government will be continually playing catch up. It is this catch up process that will ultimately cost the tax payers even more money than it does currently. With the adoption of mobile communicating such as ByOd, et all and the advent of new standards such as WebRTC, overall it will facilitate the ‘Digital by Default’ agenda and allow Civil Servants to communicate with members of the public at an achievable cost, rather than hundreds of pounds and deliver significant time savings for departments. But the key with such technology is to make sure it can be implemented on a department’s own terms. This requires greater internal communication which is currently not commonplace across the board.

What is clear is that strategy must be followed by swift implementation. Individual departments have a responsibility to make clear to civil servants the objectives of this strategy and ensure there is follow up on progress of them. Otherwise, the modern workplace agenda will not have the substance required to make significant improvements in the way that the Civil Service serves the British public.

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