Smarter government: time for the politicians to walk the walk

1 October 2018

All government departments and agencies have a mandate from the Cabinet Office to modernise the way they work. It’s called ‘Smart Working’ and is backed by a commitment to meet a standard of excellence in the British Standards publication PAS 3000: Smart Working – Code of Practice. This sets out a cross-sectoral view of what good looks like.

It involves adopting ‘flexibility as normal’, using new technologies to rethink meetings and reform processes, becoming primarily paperless, and radically reducing the amount of property, travel and resources involved in the business of doing government.

We live at a time when it is no longer essential for people to commute into offices to do much of their work. Instead of moving people to work, work can take place from any location that is appropriate to do so. This involves a shift in traditional mindsets, focusing on results rather than presence.

This is the context for a radical reduction and rethinking of the government estate. The Whitehall estate will be reduced to no more than 20 high quality buildings operating as one campus on Smart Working principles. Departments will also share resources in around 20 shared ‘government hubs’ around the country. The first ones are already operational.

Many government departments and agencies have made big strides. The Ministry of Justice as well as introducing Smart Working at its London HQ has set up 42 ‘commuter hubs’ to reduce the need for employees to commute into London. And there are a range of digital initiatives to streamline processes and modernise working practices in the justice system.

For some other organisations, though, it’s proving to be a tougher process, battling entrenched conservatism or a culture of slowness.

It’s also the case that the closer you get to the political process, the more working practices don’t just go back to the last century, but a century or two earlier.

While supporting the changes for the Civil Service, ministers and those who immediately advise them seem resistant to walking the walk as well as talking the talk. Being physically close to Ministers (in case they want something) and to Parliament is written in stone. It sometimes seems as if those involved have not heard of the telephone, let alone the various conferencing technologies being rolled out across departments.

With the decanting of Parliament for extensive refurbishment, it seems the ideal opportunity for the politicians in the Lords and Commons to get on board and work smarter.

I recently witnessed the absurdity of a debate in a near-empty Commons chamber, followed by a full house of MPs converging from all corners for the vote. Perhaps some of them watched the debate on screens around the building. The reality is, however, they could have participated and voted from anywhere.

In fact, most parliamentary business and interactions with advisors could be done from anywhere, using the same technologies as the Civil Service.

So rather than simply relocating all the anachronisms of national political life to another London building, I propose MPs spend more time in their constituencies and interact with Westminster for the most part remotely. It would require many changes to antiquated procedures, but now is the time to do it. They could even work from the new government hubs, when they need to.

Rolling out ‘remote government’ in this way should have the pleasing by-product of making our representatives less remote to the people who elect them. Which could only be a good thing.

Andy Lake advises governments and business on Smart Working, and is the author of the Smart Working Handbook (which can be found at http://www.flexibility.co.uk/).

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