Civil service workplace reform too slow, leaders confess

The civil service has been too slow to improve the working conditions of staff, civil service leaders have admitted. Speaking at Civil Service Live last week, they pledged that much more will be achieved over the next year.

By Joshua.Chambers

11 Jul 2013

Responding to a question about poor-quality IT systems, cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood told a London plenary: “We’ve got to be honest with ourselves: of the various promises we made in last year’s Civil Service Reform Plan, some have gone more slowly than others.”

“One of those that’s gone most slowly – in fact, it hasn’t gone anywhere at all – is a modern workplace,” he continued. “And you’re absolutely right, it’s very much a part of the prioritisation for the next year. We’ve got to give that more attention – not just the physical workspace, but also the IT.”

Meanwhile, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude told civil servants that “when I talk about modern terms and conditions, one of the things I think about is giving civil servants technology that actually works well, and makes it easier to get the job done rather than more difficult.” He also reiterated his call for security passes that can ensure that “when you go from one bit of Whitehall to another, you don’t wait around to be allowed in.”

These improvements are “basic things that actually aren’t that hard to do,” Maude said, and “one of the frustrations that we all have is that we haven’t made nearly enough progress on those things, because they make a real difference to people’s daily lives.”

Jon Thompson, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defence, told the Bristol event that his department will do more to improve the IT systems used by its staff. “In my opinion, we do not have a satisfactory internal digital agenda: a technology agenda that enables people to work in a much more modern way,” he said. Thompson added that he intends to get more value out of the department’s main IT supplier, HP.

Thompson also said his department will improve its training offer for civil servants. He said that in 2009-10, “a short-term decision was made to slash [learning and development spending], and I think that was a mistake. That is my perspective. I spoke against it at the time: I think at a time when you’re reducing the number of people you have, then you’ve got to invest in [learning and development].”

He added: “This year, despite the fact that the budget’s gone down, the board’s put several million pounds into further learning and development, because I think that’s incredibly important to try and improve people’s skills to be able to do jobs in a better way. Have we got this right? In our case: no, we don’t. Are we trying to tackle it? We’re trying to tackle it.”

Bernard Jenkin, the chair of the Public Administration Select Committee, told a London session: ‘I am astonished how little training margin there is in the civil service.” He added that in the civil service “it is not assumed that you build in some redundancy so that people can be away for training – and no private business could operate like that.”

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