This article, from 2014, argues that legislators (not least in the UK) need to get on board with smarter working. The nature of the work ought to make it a natural fit – however, archaic assumptions and behaviours still dominate.
During the pandemic, some aspects of parliamentary work have been conducted virtually. However, the government have made it clear that they will be returning to traditional ways as the default way of working.
Archive article: OK Legislators – it’s your turn!
While Civil Servants start to work smarter, elected representatives have working practices rooted in the distant past. It’s time to change
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 working.
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 being 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 have arrived.
There’s also 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 Parliament.
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 government 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 behaviour 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 Secretariat 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 distributed basis.
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 responsibilities
- 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 participants
- Briefings, policy development and communications with officials should become paperless.
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”.
*[Note from April 2021] This guidance has been largely superseded by the Cabinet Office/British Standards publication PAS 3000: Smart Working Code of Practice. Both publications are substantially the work of Flexibility.co.uk.