In many ways government bodies are
like any large organisation, facing issues of service delivery,
efficiency, personnel and resource management. The drivers to changing
the ways in which they work are in some respects similar to private
sector companies, but also in many significant ways distinct..
These differences include:
The "Modernising Government" and
the different ways in which
"bottom line" pressures are felt
the higher ethical standards
expected in terms of corporate responsibility (social,
government's role in developing
and enforcing policy
the ownership of often
considerable amounts of
All of these points, in their own
way, can be drivers towards implementing new ways of working.
Government/e-Government programmes deal primarily with how
governmental bodies and departments interface and do business with each
other and with the public. High priority is being given to migrating
business processes into online environments, reducing paper processes
and delivering front-line services electronically. Ambitious targets have been set to be
achieved by 2005.
The new ICT-based processes which
are being introduced also have the capacity to introduce greater
efficiency and flexibility into working practices. With reduced needs
for working with paper documents and through face-to-face
communications, it is no longer so necessary to bring employees
together in centralised offices. Government officers already work
extensively in inter-departmental and inter-agency teams, travelling
extensively to make them work. The new systems being introduced should
make it easier to work in "virtual teams", and reduce the need to
travel for meetings.
Flexible location working is the
natural corollary of the Modernising Government agenda: the new
ICT-based systems can in principle be accessed from anywhere. Officers
can work closer to their clients or customers, on the move, from the
nearest available office or from home. The
challenge is in implementing flexible location working effectively, so
that staff have seamless access to all their systems and information.
At the risk of oversimplifying,
private sector organisations tend to feel the bottom line in different
ways to the public sector. No income (from sales, fees, investments),
no company. The existence of governmental bodies is rarely dependent
in that direct way on earned sources of income. To economists, money
for the public sector is a "free resource" - it is a tap that can be
opened or closed by the powers-that-be in a way unrelated to performance.
In an abstract sense, that perhaps
used to be true. These days, most government bodies are subject to
regimes that try to link performance to income. The coming of internal
markets, and competitive funding have introduced some business
disciplines, even if the game is played by some pretty arcane rules.
In addition, for some 20 years there has been downward pressures on
spending while at the same time changing demographics and increased statutory
responsibilities have increased the demand for services. But unlike Marks
& Spencer, government bodies can't just close down branches that are
Like private sector organisations,
public sector ones are constantly struggling to find the best
allocation of scarce resources. Reducing costs and increasing
productivity are two of the key drivers to introducing new ways of
But there are other bottom line
"triple bottom line"
As well as the financial bottom line, government
bodies need also to consider the welfare of staff and of the wider
world. That is, the way they operate needs to maximise the benefits
for the organisation, for employees, and for the environment and
In principle, introducing flexible work can do this.
Key to employee benefits is the enabling of a better work-life
balance. For the environment, reduced travel and resource consumption
should be goals, and dovetailing work organisation with the wider
goals of increasing access to work and promoting regeneration can lead to
benefits for society.
Employer and policy-maker
Governmental bodies often find
themselves in the position of being not only a policy-maker, but also
the largest employer in an area. This provides great scope for
practising what one preaches - or being heavily criticised for not!
Examples might include
encouraging ICT-based local
economic development, by relocating or outsourcing work into target
promoting telework as a travel
reduction measure, in the context of Travel Plans
encouraging diversity in the
workplace - using flexible work to encourage people with disabilities
or caring responsibilities to join the workforce.
In all these cases government has a
role in leading by example.
Government as property owner
Many flexible work programmes are
driven by the need to rationalise or "optimise" property use.
Government bodies, particularly local authorities, often own large
amounts of property. Much of this may be unsuitable for modern styles
of working. Authorities such as Surrey and Hertfordshire County
Councils have created new working environments tailored for ICT-based
flexible working, with their investment in new systems and property
paid for by disposal of older properties.
If flexible working is driven
solely by the desire to reduce costs, however, it is likely to cause
staff unrest and miss opportunities to improve service delivery. That
is why it is essential to bring together an inter-disciplinary team
including senior managers form HR, IT and Property/Facilities to steer
Property issues may well be more
complex than simply reducing the number of properties. Other
modernising initiatives may involve locating services or access points
for services closer to the customer. This may involve the roll-out of
one-stop-shops, or various kinds of online community facilities.
Including remote access work facilities/touch-down points for staff in
these locations can support flexible work, and enable staff to
spend more time close to the communities they serve.
A further option is what the
Americans call "facilities exchange". This involves making
arrangements whereby staff from different agencies have the ability to
work from each other's premises. As local agencies frequently work in
partnership with each other in any case, this would seem to have many
basic principles for success
Take the following example.
A County Council lays on a daily works bus to bring in people from
remote parts of the county to the county town, where all of them work
at the headquarters with computers and telephones. The majority are
involved in data processing activities, and do not generally deal
directly with the public.
Despite the merits of providing a works bus, certain
questions need to be asked about this situation:
could the work be done anywhere ?
is property more expensive in the county town than
in the area where the workers live?
would the more remote area benefit from having work
would the employees benefit from not travelling 80
miles per day?
The answer to all these questions being "yes", the Council
concerned needs to rethink the way it organises its work. The example
- which is based on a real situation - illustrates how the different
drivers come together.
Often, however, the scope for increased efficiency may
be harder to pinpoint. For this reason the following steps are crucial
in setting up flexible work schemes:
Raise awareness of the options, so discussion is
well-informed and staff feel (and are) involved, and to dispel
Gather data - how
space is used, how people work, what staff would like and what
they need to do their jobs effectively, work-life concerns, how and
why people travel
Bring together an interdepartmental group to steer
Develop a high profile pilot to illustrate the
Ensure that flexible work is tailored to improve
With everything in place, flexible working in
government can set targets to improve performance, create better
working conditions for staff, and deliver wider social and