Smarter Working: Whitehall’s quiet revolution

27 September 2018

In his seminal report for the Treasury on unlocking public value, Sir Michael Barber dared Government to try “something new and radical and different” in how it operates. One way this is developing in Whitehall is through Smarter Working.

Smarter Working “aims to drive greater efficiency and effectiveness in achieving job outcomes through a combination of flexibility, autonomy and collaboration, in parallel with optimising tools and working environments for employees.”

Today, Reform is publishing a report on Smarter Working in public services: the HMRC experience so far, which explains what practical steps public-sector organisations can take to implement Smarter Working. Using evidence from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the third largest civil service employer, the paper demonstrates the potential of Smarter Working to transform how government is managed and organised.

This transformation is unleashing an autonomy revolution, empowering staff to choose when and how to work. Daniel Pink’s research has found that autonomy motivates employees to think creatively once they are no longer restrained by traditional workplace controls, such as presenteeism. This helps the public sector compete with the private sector because, although it is often unable to offer equivalent pay, autonomy creates a sense of empowerment that can attract the best talent.

One way HMRC is empowering staff is by equipping them with 25,000 tablets so they can work wherever they are, at any time. This is crucial to an organisation as geographically spread as HMRC, with around 140 offices nationwide. Jon Thompson, Permanent Secretary, wants HMRC employees to have “as much input into the design of the systems they use as possible” to make their jobs easier. This point is crucial. HMRC uses technology to meet to the actual needs of their staff, which means technology is more likely to generate buy-in from employees.

Technology designed to meet every day need is also at the heart of confronting what Sir Jeremy Heywood, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service, has called Government’s “perennial challenge”: public sector productivity. John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the Civil Service, has praised HMRC for “trailblazing the adoption of artificial intelligence and robotics for mass-repetitive tasks.” As well as reducing departmental administrative spend, this frees up time for employees to spend on more rewarding tasks, those that require human intelligence and decision-making, such as project management.

Smarter Working is the lynchpin to delivering the Government’s aim of joined-up services by 2020. It is centred upon improving collaboration across teams and between government departments. In this regard, HMRC is leading Government efforts to relocate more civil servants from around 800 office across the country, into 20 major Government “hubs”. These are campuses of multiple departments operating under a single roof, supported by smaller offices nearby and easily accessible by transport. This drive uses the estate as a tool to help reduce one of the most resilient barriers to public service reform, the stubborn siloes between government departments.

Delivering Smarter Working demands a cultural shift in public leadership. Such a shift appears to be underway. As Sir Jeremy Heywood says his “job as a leader is to send a signal that you won’t get shot down for producing a radical idea which is a bit surprising and unusual.” The hope, therefore, is that more public service leaders will follow suit.

Smarter Working is one such radical idea, already materialising, that empowers people to adapt in an era of constant technological change. Reform’s paper shows how this empowerment, along with collaboration and flexibility, is revolutionising Whitehall.

Daniel El-Gamry, Researcher, Reform

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