HM Revenue & Customs’ recent progress in embracing new technology, introducing new hubs and offering staff flexible-working opportunities offers a blueprint for other departments, according to a report from the public-service-focused think tank Reform.
The tax agency’s implementation of “smarter working” principles has seen 25,000 of the department’s close-on 70,000 staff receive tablet computers so that they can work wherever they are, at a time of their choice.
HMRC is also at the forefront of the government Hubs Programme, and is targeting the consolidation of its operations to 13 regional hubs by 2027 – a huge scaling down from the 600 offices it had in 2005 and the 144 it operated in the last financial year.
The Reform report notes that HMRC’s new Croydon hub, which opened in September last year, offers different types of workspaces – such as shared spaces for collaboration, quiet zones for intense work, and video conferencing so that staff can participate in meetings without being in the building.
While the report suggests that smarter working changes can assist in breaking down “silos” between departments – because of the co-location of staff from different departments in the same building, it also warns that change should be driven by more than the desire to make savings from better use of space.
Report co-author Daniel El-Gamry said experience at HMRC – which is the civil service’s third-largest spender in estate terms after the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Justice – showed that it was vital for staff needs rather than new technology to be in the driving seat.
“User-centred design is crucial because it embeds a culture of empathy with the employees’ actual needs, identifying their routine work challenges to create relevant solutions,” he said.
“Therefore, rather than technological change being driven from the top, it is tailored around the needs of individual staff members.”
The report said initiatives such as HMRC’s distribution of tablets gave staff “more authority and autonomy” on how and when they worked.
It added: “This is important for generating buy-in for wider smarter working transformation by showing that technology can respond to the everyday demands that employees are facing in their roles.”
HMRC permanent secretary Jon Thompson said the report showed the department was making “excellent progress” towards becoming a smart working organisation.
“We’re improving the service that we give to taxpayers and the experience for our people working in HMRC,” he said.
While the report said smarter working offered Whitehall a potential paradigm shift away from its traditional top-down leadership models towards a greater culture of “collaboration, staff empowerment and flexibility”, it also noted that the civil service was lagging behind the private sector in some ways.
The report said many of the innovations employed by HMRC’s hubs programme were being employed by private sector firms of comparable size three or four years ago.
It added that HMRC was still 50% over the Cabinet Office’s target for space allocation per staff member – which it said was six square metres, according to the government’s The State of the Estate in 2016–17 report.