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Changing the way people work in government

...and the way government works

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 "e-Government" agenda(s)

  • the different ways in which "bottom line" pressures are felt

  • the higher ethical standards expected in terms of corporate responsibility (social, environmental, etc)

  • government's role in developing and enforcing policy

  • the ownership of often considerable amounts of property.

All of these points, in their own way, can be drivers towards implementing new ways of working.

Modernising government

The Modernising 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.

"Bottom line" pressures

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 struggling.

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 working.

But there are other bottom line pressures too.

The "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 society.

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 areas

  • 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 flexible working implementation.

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 advantages

Some 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 located there?

  • 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 misconceptions

  • 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 implementation

  • Develop a high profile pilot to illustrate the benefits

  • Ensure that flexible work is tailored to improve service delivery.

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 environmental benefits.


This article provides part of a special focus on new ways of working and the use of ICT in the public sector.

Other related articles are Planning in the Information Age, and Communities and ICT.

Further relevant resources can be found from our Modernising Government index page.

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