Hybrid working is here to stay, Chisholm says

Remote work and teleconferencing also create "great opportunities" to save taxpayers money, civil service boss tells MPs
Flexible working opportunities are a "huge positive", Alex Chisholm told MPs on the Public Accounts Committee. Screengrab: Parliament TV

Flexible and home-working options for civil servants will remain available for the long term, Alex Chisholm has suggested, calling the greater flexibility that has come about during the pandemic a “huge positive”.

Speaking to MPs on the Public Accounts Committee yesterday, the civil service chief operating officer said because departments have been forced to adjust under coronavirus restrictions, “we have found that overall, at civil service level we can move towards a greater number of people working more flexibly – in some cases from home, in many cases across offices across all of the UK – which is a huge positive”.

He said MPs on the committee would recall “how many items civil servants have felt it is difficult and expensive to have to bring in everybody down to a meeting in London, face to face”.

“That is not necessary anywhere near to the same extent, as well as [maintaining] that expensive London real estate, so definitely some great opportunities there,” he said.

Asked how many Cabinet Office staff were now working from the office, Chisholm – who is also the department's permanent secretary – said the department’s headquarters at 70 Whitehall was “pretty full”, but that numbers would vary across the estate. “We’ve got quite a buzz in the office,” he added.

Also appearing before the committee, Treasury perm sec Sir Tom Scholar said numbers of civil servants attending work in person were on a “steadily rising trend”.

Chisholm was answering questions about efforts to reduce the government’s London property estate as departments open new regional hubs and increase flexible working.

He said the government had not been able to realise its “very ambitious” plans to shrink the Whitehall estate, partly because of the need to expand civil service headcount to cope with the extra workload brought about by Brexit and then the Covid crisis.

However he said officials had identified “about 100” leases in London to end, around 50 of which have been terminated or which departments are in the process of terminating.

“That’s going to save a great deal of money for taxpayers; obviously in some cases that has been offset by new properties we’re establishing as part of the Places for Growth programme,” he said, nodding to efforts to set up or expand departmental footholds in places such as Stoke, Darlington and Wolverhampton.

He said the office closures would lead to a “major net saving overall”, adding up to billions of pounds a year.

Treasury spending director general Cat Little also gave evidence to the committee alongside Chisholm and Scholar. Asked how she expected the civil service’s headcount to change, following the increase in staff in recent years, she said in the coming years she expects that number to be “lower”.

She said that in preparation for the upcoming Spending Review, officials are looking at how to “disentangle” where staff had been added because of Brexit, Covid or other reasons, which increases are temporary, and on which timescale departments will be able to return to a “more normal” contingent of staff.

Cutting consultants 'a clear aim' of the spending round

During the PAC session, MPs also quizzed Chisholm on how government is planning to reduce its reliance – and spending – on consultants.

He said there is a “strong programme [under way] to try and cut that external spend”. In previous select committee appearances, Chisholm has said the civil service will focus on building up skills internally to reduce the need to pay private firms for their expertise.

He told PAC yesterday that departments should only be using consultants where “they are bringing some unique skills or are bringing particular knowledge that we don’t have and it wouldn’t be efficient for us to have in place”.

He acknowledged the high rates of spending brought about by Brexit and the Covid crisis, but said this is now decreasing. He added that the Covid task force is not using consultants “at all now”.

“So we are reducing that and that is a clear aim of the spending round, one of the areas that we’ve focused on,” he said.

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