By Colin Marrs

21 Apr 2017

An epiphanal moment in Saudi Arabia prompted Sherin Aminossehe to swap life at a major global architecture practice for the civil service, where she now leads the Government Property Unit. She spreads the word to Colin Marrs

As I sit down, I wonder if there has been a booking blunder. Sherin Aminossehe faces me at one end of a table that could easily seat 40 in the ornate surroundings of the Chancellor’s Room. Deep in the Treasury building, chancellors have actually tended to avoid the place, Ken Clarke once comparing it to “the worst kind of municipal mayor’s parlour”. Aminossehe’s informal and friendly manner creates intimacy, but the overabundance of elbow room seems ironic, given the Government Property Unit chief operating officer’s focus on making efficient use of government office space. 

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To be fair, the room is often needed for much larger press briefings, and Aminossehe is bullish about her focus on reducing the amount of floorspace taken up by officials. We meet three months after the unit announced that 5,700 civil servants are to move from Whitehall to a new building in Canary Wharf. That facility is one of a number of new multi-department “hubs” announced in the government’s estates strategy, updated in 2014.

The programme is partly aimed at reducing office costs – the strategy compared the £35,000 cost per civil servant of a Whitehall building with a figure of just £3,000 in outer London. But, Aminossehe says, it also allows the government to take better advantage of an increase in home-working among its staff. “In general, we work on a ratio of eight desks to 10 staff but we think that some of our hubs could work at seven to 10. If you look at the really good buildings across Whitehall, but also across government, some are working as low as six to 10 very successfully.” 

"We probably don’t need as many civil servants in Whitehall as there are now: it’s about not cutting the size for the sake of it, but having the right size and making efficiencies at the same time"

So what’s the trick? On top of the desk sharing enabled by flexible working arrangements, Aminossehe says that GPU is gradually reducing the amount of room devoted to individual workstations. Across government, the GPU has dropped the recommended space per desk from 10m2 to 8m2, with “more stringent standards” for the new hubs. “IT helps,” she says, “but also having really good quality communal space within the hubs so you don’t have to have a ginormous amount of space around your desk”. 

But is the subtext here actually a slow abandonment of Whitehall by government departments after hundreds of years’ residence? Sherin denies any such move, saying market forces (high central London rents) are only part of the equation. “It is important to think of Whitehall as a campus environment,” she says. “At the end of the day, parliament is here – you have the division bell – so there will always need to be a critical mass.”

However, she says that the civil service does have to be adaptable. “I can’t give you a number and say ‘we have to have this amount of floorspace’,” she says. “We have always said, however, that we probably don’t need as many civil servants in Whitehall as there are now. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that, but it’s about not cutting the size for the sake of it, but having the right size but also making efficiencies at the same time.”  

It took a near-death experience to bring Aminossehe to the civil service. In 2010, her job as senior vice president at HOK – the architectural firm behind the London 2012 Olympic Stadium – took her to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. She was due to present plans for a flood alleviation strategy to the city’s mayor, but before the meeting, rain started falling. The deluge was unremitting and before long the architect found herself waist-deep in water.

“At one stage I was standing on what I thought was a muddy roundabout but then realised we were 10m up and were standing on the roof of a building,” she says. “I thought ‘if I get out of this in one piece then I want to do things differently’. We finally got to safety after about three hours of swimming and, as I was drying off, it struck me that I was doing a lot of paper-based plans for people who weren’t really interested in implementing them. I wanted to do something, back in my own country – the UK, where I was accountable and able to make a real difference.”

Six years after joining the Cabinet Office, Aminossehe’s ability to influence the shape of the government’s property strategy is expanding. She is the senior responsible officer for the creation of a new Government Property Agency, which began operations in April, and will become the main sponsor for the programme.

The move is part of the creation of a “new property model” for government, which will centralise ownership of the government estate. The agency will charge market-level rent for any freehold assets owned by departments. Ministers hope this commercially-driven approach will encourage the disposal of surplus land and office space, while allowing more strategic oversight of the whole government estate.

Aminossehe is keen to stress that the agency’s role is to coordinate and assist, rather than direct departmental property strategies. “The needs of the department have also got to be paramount,” she says. “It shouldn’t just be someone from the centre saying ‘we want to move you to (fill in the blank)’. That’s why we engage so closely with the departments and that’s why each department will have an intelligent client function which means that they can have that relationship.”

Aminossehe is coy about how large the new agency will become and the levels of headcount reduction it will enable. “In total, between the agency and GPU we have got around 140 staff at the moment,” she says. “Obviously what is going to happen is the GPA is going to build up this capability and people are going to transfer in from departments as well, but it is not going to be an agency of thousands and thousands of people. It is still going to be at the right size and relatively small.”

Initially, just two departments – the names of which have yet to be revealed – will move property to the agency, with an aim of getting all departments on board by 2020. Initially, only “general purpose assets” such as offices and warehouses, will be transferred. “It will take to the end of this parliament to transfer all of those relevant assets in,” Aminossehe says. “We don’t want to do it in a hurry. We want to make sure that due diligence is done and that the agency is designed correctly as well, that is it showing its worth as a department.”

Aminossehe does not underestimate the scale of the move, but says she is happy with the support from other branches of government. She says: “I think there are always challenges with any shared services and we’ve been working very closely with the Cabinet Office, the Audit Risk Committee, the National Audit Office and the Government Internal Audit Agency to make sure that all those lessons learnt from previous shared services are very much applied to what we are doing.”

Such coordination is nothing new for Iranian-born Aminossehe. Since 2013, she has been working with regeneration quango the Homes and Communities Agency on the Public Sector Land programme. The aim has been to identify government land which could be sold off, with a target of raising £5bn in capital receipts by 2020 and delivering 160,000 homes. “We have the target for the capital receipts, HCA and DCLG have targets for new homes but it is such a close, symbiotic relationship so the two can’t be looked at separately,” she says. 

The process has not gone completely smoothly, however. In November, the Public Accounts Committee criticised the pace of the land disposal programme. It said that by March 2016, only 5% of the number of homes promised had been delivered, with wild variations in the performance of individual departments. 

Aminossehe admits that “there are always pressures” but defends the unit’s record. “The question of pace is fairly multi-faceted,” she says. “Since 2010, we have disposed of around £3bn worth of land – 2,100 buildings and pieces of land - which is a fair amount. The important thing is to make sure that we are seeing a clear pipeline and if there are issues with the disposal, to be able to deal with that quickly and make sure we are getting it to market in the right time.” 

"After you have had a Saudi prince call you at 3 o’clock in the morning on Saturday saying they want to change the airport location, not a lot fazes you"

Maintaining good relationships with developers is also important. “To avoid frustrations from the private sector side to make sure that we engage with the private sector in the right way,” Aminossehe says. “If they know something is coming then they’re less likely to go ‘we don’t know what’s happening and, therefore, it’s not moving very fast’.”

Aminossehe’s sensitivities to the needs of the development industry were finely-honed during her previous career in private practice. She says this experience has also helped her adjust to her new life in Whitehall. “As a consultant you are very much in the service industry looking at what clients want,” she says. “In a way, it is the same as working with ministers as well as senior stakeholders across government. After you have had a Saudi prince call you at 3 o’clock in the morning on Saturday saying they want to change the airport location to where the racecourse track was and near the mountains, not a lot fazes you.” 

But does Aminossehe worry about the risks inherent in property management? In January, during another brush with the PAC, she was challenged by committee member Kwasi Kwarteng, who said of the GPU: “You are suggesting that there is a new body that will hold assets… It seems to me a risk when we have civil servants playing the property market.”

“It’s not about playing the property market,” Aminossehe insists. “It is about a group of informed, qualified, professional individuals doing what is actually their job. It’s not as if we are taking a random person in the office and going ‘what do you fancy buying today?’ It is making an informed choice.”

Risks are inherent for the private sector as much as government, she says. “It’s about making sure that you get the best deal for government at the time, being able to leverage with the power of government’s buying positon collectively, and making sure that the deal is done as well as possible.” Clever deals, she says, leave some room for a property downturn. “If something happens, you can take advantage of negotiating to lower rents for example,” she says.

The image – indeed the reality – of the property industry is of one dominated by white, middle-aged men in suits. Aminossehe, who is also head of the property profession within government, says she is keen to make a contribution to helping change the balance. “I do mentoring and coaching because it is something that is really important to me,” she says.

While the civil service needs to constantly rethink its working practices and its culture to encourage diversity, the solution, she believes, lies with policies directed towards catching female and ethnic minority staff at the earliest stage. “For the profile of the property industry overall to change it needs to change at grassroots level, so you need to attract a broader base of people whilst they are at school and are thinking about what they want to do in the future,” she says. “If, at the junior graduate end, you are getting a more diverse intake, then that culture’s going to change anyway.”

To this end, the property profession under Aminossehe’s watch is currently in the final stages of investigating the creation of a property fast stream to identify graduates from any discipline. The programme could also involve surveying and facilities management apprenticeships and graduate schemes for entrants with degrees accredited by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Aminossehe hopes to start promoting the scheme later this year in time for a 2018 launch.

Those joining through the programme will not just help shape the civil service in response to the age of mobile working, but benefit from the changes it brings. Aminossehe says her government-issued laptop is “fabulous”. “It’s amazing – not something you can usually say about government IT. I actually show this to some of our private sector consultants and when I see the clunky stuff they are carrying around. I feel a little smug, which is kind of nice.”

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