Flexible working ‘a huge positive’ of pandemic, says civil service chief

Written by Beckie Smith on 15 September 2021 in News
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Alex Chisholm salutes benefits of homeworking options

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Flexible and home-working options will remain available to government employees for the long term, civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm has suggested, calling the greater flexibility that has come about during the pandemic a “huge positive”.

Speaking to MPs on the Public Accounts Committee this week, Chisholm said that, because departments have been forced to adjust under coronavirus restrictions, “we have found that overall, at civil service level we can move towards a greater number of people working more flexibly – in some cases from home, in many cases across offices across all of the UK – which is a huge positive”.

He said MPs on the committee would recall “how many times civil servants have felt it is difficult and expensive to have to bring in everybody down to a meeting in London, face to face”.

“That is not necessary anywhere near to the same extent, as well as [maintaining] that expensive London real estate, so definitely some great opportunities there,” he said.


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Asked how many Cabinet Office staff were now working from the office, Chisholm – who is also the department's permanent secretary – said its headquarters at 70 Whitehall was “pretty full”, but that numbers would vary across the estate. 

“We’ve got quite a buzz in the office,” he added.

Also appearing before the committee, Treasury perm sec Sir Tom Scholar said numbers of civil servants attending work in person were on a “steadily rising trend”.

During the PAC session, MPs also quizzed Chisholm on how government is planning to reduce its reliance – and spending – on consultants.

He said there is a “strong programme [under way] to try and cut that external spend”. In previous select committee appearances, Chisholm has said the civil service will focus on building up skills internally to reduce the need to pay private firms for their expertise.

He told PAC yesterday that departments should only be using consultants where “they are bringing some unique skills or are bringing particular knowledge that we don’t have and it wouldn’t be efficient for us to have in place”.

He acknowledged the high rates of spending brought about by Brexit and the Covid crisis, but said this is now decreasing. He added that the Covid task force is not using consultants “at all now”.

“So, we are reducing that and that is a clear aim of the spending round, one of the areas that we’ve focused on,” he said.

 

About the author

Beckie Smith is acting deputy editor of PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this story first appeared. She tweets as @beckie__smith.

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