Empowering staff and improving productivity: HMRC’s smart working lessons for Whitehall

HMRC has been at the forefront of the government’s smarter working agenda, and is attempting to change the culture across one of government’s biggest organisations. There are lessons for other departments in the progress so far, says Luke Heselwood

Photo: Ruskin Square

By Luke Heselwood

02 Oct 2018

The civil service is determined to transform the way it works. In his independent review for the Treasury, Sir Michael Barber called for a new approach to how public services are delivered. He argued that to inform spending decisions, there must be more focus on public-sector processes and delivering better outcomes for citizens.  

Commenting on the review, Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood argued “I firmly believe that we should seize this opportunity to bring about a lasting change in the interaction between spending departments and the centre, with a shared commitment to delivering public value.”

With next year’s Spending Review fast approaching, which – will set out departmental spending across Whitehall, securing maximum value from every pound spent will be a central aim of the civil service in the coming months.


The government’s smarter working initiative is one way of achieving this. Smarter working is an approach to work that empowers staff to choose how, when and where to work, and to provide appropriate spaces and technology to facilitate this. By doing so, it aims to drive greater efficiency and effectiveness in the workplace.

Reform’s recent report assesses HMRC’s implementation of smarter working principles to empower staff, improve productivity and promote collaboration. As the third largest government department by headcount, HMRC’s adoption of smarter working demonstrates the potential for reform within large public sector organisations.

Empowering staff

Smarter working can help to empower staff members to choose how, when and where to work. For example, it promotes flexible working that enables staff members to choose a working pattern to fit their individual work-life balance.

This can have a positive impact on diversity and inclusion. It can help staff members with parental, carer or other responsibilities to fit work around these commitments. Ismail Ghafoor, a cyber security apprentice at HMRC, said that flexible working has enabled him to observe Ramadan.

The adoption of new technologies in HMRC has helped staff members to be more flexible and autonomous. The department has given 25,000 employees an electronic tablet – enabling them to choose how, when and where to work.

Jon Thompson, permanent secretary of HMRC, has stressed the importance of user-centred design when it comes to the adoption of technology. Thompson has said that he wants staff to have “as much input into the design of the systems as possible.” By doing so, it can ensure that technology is tailored to the specific needs of staff members.

Improving productivity

Smarter working can also help to address the civil service’s productivity conundrum. Flexible working, for example, can offer a healthier work-life balance with positive effects on productivity. In a survey of 2,000 to 3,000 UK employees, 54% argued that flexible working enabled a better work-life balance and a quarter said it made them more productive.

By improving connectivity and speeding up processes, technology can improve productivity. Through the adoption of AI and robotics, HMRC has hit its target of 10 million automated transactions ahead of schedule. In 2017, its Automation Delivery Centre won IT Project Team of the Year Award at the UK IT Awards.

Promoting collaboration

New technologies are also helping HMRC to create a more collaborative work environment. Video conferencing platforms, for example, mean that space and distance are less of a barrier to communicating and collaborating with colleagues across the country. 

The utilisation of the estate is central to HMRC’s smarter working programme and for promoting collaboration. Through its commitment to the Hubs Programme, which plans to shift operations to 13 regional hubs by 2027, HMRC has already reduced its estate from 600 offices in 2005, to 144 in 2016-17.

As John Manzoni has argued, these changes are not only an attempt to reduce the cost of the estate, but to create an environment that is more efficient and collaborative. In HMRC’s Croydon hub, opened in September 2017, it offers different types of workspaces and technologies to enable cooperation between team members.

Cultural shift

Underpinning these developments is a cultural shift that embraces different ways of working. Indeed, smarter working challenges the traditional top-down structure of the Civil Service by giving staff members autonomy over their work.

HMRC has been at the forefront of the government’s smarter working agenda. However, the department, and the civil service more widely, still have a way to go in fully embracing smarter working. It will require civil service leaders to adopt its principles and ensure that its practices become widespread.

Smarter working can help to break down the traditional silos of government, with more shared spaces and technology. By doing so, it can improve service delivery and help to reach Sir Michael Barber’s aim of achieving maximum value for every pound spent.

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