The publication in the UK of The Way
We Work - A Guide to Smart Working in Government
is a sign that the machinery of government is
modernising and starting to embrace new ways of
But how about elected representatives? It seems that
while the civil service moves from the 20th to the
21st century, those elected to govern us are still
struggling to move out of the 19th.
Perhaps more than any other profession,
politicians and their close political advisors have
an ingrained culture of beng physically present in a
particular Place, and an intensive meetings culture
based on archaic rules and practices.
And that Place - with a capital P - is a Place
imbued with history and symbolism, holding within it
the corridors of power and the greasy pole (as
Disraeli called it) to the top. To be there is to
an ingrained belief that the only way to be
effective is to "be there". It's a belief with long roots,
going back to the days when being present at the
royal court was the way to have influence, gain
position and protect yourself from enemies.
Still you will hear people say that it is
essential to be present - not only for votes in the
chamber and in committee, but for the social
interaction too. The bar, the lunches and dinners,
the chance meetings, as well as being able to be in
contact with top civil servants. In the UK there's a
convention that civil servants advising ministers
should not be based more than 10 minutes away from
All that would be fine except - do we think we
are being governed effectively?
So - is it working?
There seems to be something of a consensus across
much of the Western world that governent is not
working well. In addition to specific problems such
as expense scandals and corruption, there is a
widening gulf between representatives
and those they represent.
And many of the things the public find
disagreeable, such as the boorish behavior in
debates and especially at Prime Minister's Question
Time, are grounded in a toxic culture of having to
be physically present in the Place and to behave in
a way that is conventional for that Place.
This culture of 'being there' is expensive, and
an invitation to pile on the expenses: second homes,
long distance travel, hospitality and more.
The UK is by no means the worst for this. Across
the Channel the European Parliament doubles up the
archaic practices by dividing its activities between
different physical locations in Brussels and
Strasbourg - three locations if you include the
Scretariat being in Luxembourg. In the digital age
there can be really no excuse for such nonsense.
Most of all, voters feel an increasing disconnect
between their representatives and themselves. The
Scottish referendum debate and the rise of the UK
Independence Party are characterised by constant
sneering and sniping at the 'Westminster elite', who
are characterised as privileged, self-serving and
out of touch.
Politicians need to get smarter
It's time to turn things round. Elected
representatives, from presidents and prime ministers
down to humble backbenchers, need to work smarter.It
will lead to more effective government and a better
return for the tax payer.
In the age of the Internet, government can
operate from anywhere, and work on a much more
The changing nature of work means that:
- Interaction with civil servants, aides and
other officials need not be face to face –
elected representatives should rethink their
roles as being a part of various overlapping
virtual teams, according to their
- Committee work and reviewing or preparing
legislation and regulatory decisions should by
default take part through modern conferencing
and collaboration techniques, enabling virtual
and hybrid virtual/physical meetings
- Travel for meetings can be radically
reduced, and the need for second homes largely
eliminated, leading to savings on expenses and
improved work-life balance for legislators
- Elected representatives should be able to
take part in votes and debates from remote
locations as a matter of course
- Work can be carried out from home,
constituency offices or in any of the myriad
government and local government premises in the
local area - and from wherever politicians
happen to be working at the time
- The culture and etiquette of meetings and
debates should provide equality for remote
- Briefings, policy development and
communications with officials should become
Many politicians do already use the new
technologies to work in different places, and social
media for campaigning and PR. The challenge is to
extend those working practices to the heart of how
we are governed and how we are represented.
It's time to tell our legislators: "Go back to
your constituencies and govern from there".