Sharing civil service smart-working secrets

Written by Luke Heselwood on 5 October 2018 in Opinion
Opinion

HMRC has been lauded for its adoption of flexible working tools and practices. Luke Heselwood of think tank Reform believes the department’s Whitehall peers could learn from the tax agency’s example

The civil service is determined to transform the way it works. 

In his independent review for the Treasury, Sir Michael Barber called for a new approach to how public services are delivered. He argued that to inform spending decisions, there must be more focus on public-sector processes and delivering better outcomes for citizens.  

Commenting on the review, cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood argued: “I firmly believe that we should seize this opportunity to bring about a lasting change in the interaction between spending departments and the centre, with a shared commitment to delivering public value.”

With next year’s Spending Review fast approaching, which will set out departmental spending across Whitehall, securing maximum value from every pound spent will be a central aim of the civil service in the coming months.


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The government’s smarter working initiative is one way of achieving this. Smarter working is an approach to work that empowers staff to choose how, when, and where to work, and to provide appropriate spaces and technology to facilitate this. By doing so, it aims to drive greater efficiency and effectiveness in the workplace.

Reform’s recent report assesses HMRC’s implementation of smarter working principles to empower staff, improve productivity, and promote collaboration. As the third-largest government department by headcount, HMRC’s adoption of smarter working demonstrates the potential for reform within large public-sector organisations.

Empowering staff
Smarter working can help to empower staff members to choose how, when, and where to work. For example, it promotes flexible working that enables staff members to choose a working pattern to fit their individual work-life balance.

This can have a positive impact on diversity and inclusion. It can help staff members with parental, carer or other responsibilities to fit work around these commitments. Ismail Ghafoor, a cybersecurity apprentice at HMRC, said that flexible working has enabled him to observe Ramadan.

The adoption of new technologies in HMRC has helped staff members to be more flexible and autonomous. The department has given 25,000 employees an electronic tablet – enabling them to choose how, when, and where to work.

Jon Thompson (pictured left), permanent secretary of HMRC, has stressed the importance of user-centred design when it comes to the adoption of technology. Thompson has said that he wants staff to have “as much input into the design of the systems as possible”. 

By doing so, it can ensure that technology is tailored to the specific needs of staff members.

Improving productivity
Smarter working can also help to address the civil service’s productivity conundrum. Flexible working, for example, can offer a healthier work-life balance with positive effects on productivity. In a survey of more than 2,000 employees, 54% argued that flexible working enabled a better work-life balance and a quarter said it made them more productive.

By improving connectivity and speeding up processes, technology can improve productivity. Through the adoption of AI and robotics, HMRC has hit its target of 10 million automated transactions ahead of schedule. 

As the third-largest government department by headcount, HMRC’s adoption of smarter working demonstrates the potential for reform within large public-sector organisations

Promoting collaboration
New technologies are also helping HMRC to create a more collaborative work environment. Videoconferencing platforms, for example, mean that space and distance are less of a barrier to communicating and collaborating with colleagues across the country. 

The utilisation of the estate is central to HMRC’s smarter working programme and for promoting collaboration. Through its commitment to the hubs programme, which plans to shift operations to 13 regional hubs by 2027, HMRC has already reduced its estate from 600 offices in 2005, to 144 in 2016-17.

About the author

Luke Heselwood is a researcher at the think-tank Reform who works across public services, with a focus on social justice. Reform recently published a report: Smarter Working in public services: the HMRC experience so far.

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