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Talk about changing the government

Public Policy Forum online debate - barriers, solutions and 10 top tips

How is government shaping up to flexible working? Here at Flexibility we know there's an increasing amount of interest from managers, staff and policy-makers in government bodies - we can tell that from the registrations for our newsletters and in the emails we get.

Further evidence comes in the recent online debate organised by the Public Policy Forum, a BT-sponsored body that hopes to accelerate the process of modernisation in public bodies. The debate, called "Click, Debate, Connect: Fit for Work" took place entirely over the Internet, and brought together some 300 people who registered to take part. The participants included people from the public, private and academic sectors.

The debate brought out examples of the barriers to flexible work in the public sector, as well as examples of the benefits. Coming in for particular criticism in the report of the debate (see information box on the right) are the culture of the public sector:

"The public sector has a rigid, slow-changing culture that does not lend itself to flexible working. A culture of central control means managers feel they need to be in close control of their teams and there is a perception that this is far easier if the team is constantly present between the hours of 9 –5.In local government in particular, efforts towards flexible working are in danger of being undermined by a lack of understanding of the benefits it offers"

....and "departmentalism":

"There is a need for flexible working to be viewed across all government policy aims, from environmental targets to transport policy. Departmentalism makes this tough. What we saw in the debate were several small-scale pilots but an absence of real commitment to make it happen on a larger scale".

Solutions

So solutions have to focus in particular on changing mindsets, and in having a "holistic" approach. At the moment, modernisation often focuses on large-scale IT projects ( - many of them of dubious value, we fear). The kind of changes to working practices which need to accompany new approaches to service delivery.

But, the report argues, it's government policy already - even if the practice is a little slow to follow. And from April 2003, there will be new rights to request flexible working for people with caring responsibilities. It would be ironic if the response to this from the government employers were slower than from the private sector.

Ten Top Tips

One stream of the debate asked for participants top tips to make flexible working successful. The summarisers have come up with the following list (- for further detail download the summary report):

  1. Agree a clear strategy – as with any project, senior managers need to state their current practices, aims and the transition issues between them, a possible course of action and a desired outcome.
  2. Health and safety first – protect home workers by ensuring their remote work stations are ergonomically sound.
  3. Be responsive to home life as well as work goals – not everyone is inclined to work from home because of space, distractions or a need for company. Flexible working means operating from anywhere, not just at home.
  4. Face-to-face: a crucial part of the mix – while remote working can be highly productive, sometimes face-to-face meetings are needed.
  5. Home workers are team members too – help them to develop personal relationships with their colleagues through meetings, email, telephone conversations and chat rooms.
  6. Management review: the doubter as contributor – the move from “presenteeism” to output-based working which accompanies flexible working is often more difficult for managers than for staff but if resistance is tackled early, doubters can be persuaded to contribute ideas rather than objections.
  7. Guidance and appraisal (don’t put them off for life) – all public sector employers should ensure their employees who work flexibly are supported and trained to cope with their different working environment and adequate appraisal systems should be maintained.
  8. Flexible working is not a skiver’s paradise – by establishing clear policies for all available working options, managers can prevent both flexible workers and those still based in the office from perceiving flexible working as an easy option.
  9. Flexible working should not be a hacker’s paradise – so security policies should be extended to flexible working arrangements and staff should have these written into their contracts.
  10. Allow time for ‘unproductive’ activities – these help to bolster morale and increase a sense of community. Not all communication between remote workers must be task-oriented and schedules should be generous enough to allow more informal exchanges.

We leave the final word to Fred Perkins, chair of the Public Policy Forum and chief operating officer at The Stationery Office:

“Flexible working seems finally to be moving from rhetoric into reality. There are examples in the private sector where benefits from flexible working have genuinely been delivered to both employee and employer.

With the public sector more committed than ever to embrace ICT-enabled transformation, we hope the report findings help public sector organisations see it as opportunity, rather than challenge. We've gathered together some key elements of practical support, essential in trying to deliver to an increasingly demanding public.”

Further Information

You can download the report from here:

Summary report
(pdf file - 82kb)

The Public Policy Forum was set up in November 2000 to bring together leading public policy and decision makers with independent experts, think tanks, academics and successful industry figures to identify and address the modernisation of government and the improvement of public services.

The Forum is backed by the Innovation Research Centre at Lancaster University Management School.

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