Government’s battle for the future of work

Written by PublicTechnology staff on 26 April 2022 in Opinion

Despite the best efforts of some ministers, the profound changes brought about by the pandemic still offer a singular opportunity to radically rethink how the civil service operates. Dods Research asked more than 200 officials for their thoughts.

Credit: padrefilar/Pixabay    Image has been altered

It hardly needs reiterating that the pandemic – particularly the white heat of the initial response in spring 2020 – brought profound changes to how government works. It had seemed evident that those changes would resonate long into the future, as the incredible efforts of officials in responding to coronavirus appeared to demonstrate definitively how much can be achieved by a distributed workforce, and how little the location of a worker matters to the quality of their work.

Over the last year – as restrictions have lifted and many employees have begun venturing back to their offices, at least some of the week – senior government leaders have also often endorsed the concept of a future in which hybrid working models are the norm. Some of the infrastructure of the civil service has also begun to adapt, with HM Revenue and Customs, for example, enshrining in their standard staff contract the right to work from home two days a week.

But, all the while, certain MPs and ministers have gradually ramped up their anti-homeworking rhetoric. This culminated with a recent letter from two Cabinet Office ministers, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Barclay, to all secretaries of state across government, asking them to demand that their departments staff begin returning to offices immediately. It is a request that has already been acted upon by Nadhim Zahawi, and it cannot be too long before at least some of his cabinet colleagues follow suit.

Staff capability is also a major issue for digital initiatives, with lack of internal expertise, retaining skilled staff, and a lack of training all becoming even greater challenges in the past year, according to our research.

Their demands will surely be met with resistance from unions and perhaps from large numbers of rank-and-file civil servants too. Not to mention facing the challenges posed by limited office space, and the crucial role of flexible working models in retaining in-demand skills and the staff that possess them.

Against the backdrop of a looming battle over how government works, PublicTechnology sister organisation, Dods Research, conducted landmark research into current trends and priorities for the future.

In partnership with SAP Concur, we surveyed more than 200 decision makers from a range of departments – in a survey that replicated and built upon a study we performed last year.

Some 78% of respondents told us that ongoing widespread flexible or homeworking is their primary expectation for how government works over the next two years while – in figures that have risen noticeably in the last 12 months – 64% believe more of their colleagues will have flexible working hours, and 63% anticipate an increase in hotdesking.

These numbers illustrate the challenges that the likes Rees-Mogg and Barclay face in trying to enforce their demands that civil servants return to their offices more-or-less full time.

Equally, there are major obstacles to overcome for those who advocate reform.

Legacy systems remain a significant barrier to tech-enabled transformation, according to 55% of those who took part in our survey – two percentage points more than last year’s figure. 

Staff capability is also a major issue for digital initiatives, with lack of internal expertise (rising from 36% to 49% in the last 12 months), retaining skilled staff (32% to 46%), and a lack of training (29% to 44%) all become even greater challenges in the past year.

These working hurdles – and many more – will need to be overcome to determine not just how government works, but whether it works: for both its employees and the citizens they serve.

The findings of our research and all the major issues it addresses will be discussed at a PublicTechnology webinar discussion taking place at 10.30am on 5 May. The hour-long event – which is free to attend – will allow attendees to listen in and put their questions to an expert panel comprised of government technology leaders, independent experts, and representatives of SAP Concur.



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