Whitehall must change its hierarchical workforce mentality and embrace technology, says Reform think tank

Written by Rebecca Hill on 6 February 2017 in News
News

The public sector needs to use technology to reform its workforce by disrupting hierarchies, adopting new recruitment processes and automating administrative roles, a think tank has said.

Whitehall needs to reform its management style and automate administrative jobs - Photo credit: PA

In its report Work in Progress, the right-leaning Reform think tank argues that technology could allow up to 250,000 public sector jobs to be automated – which it said could save government up to £2.6bn from the 2016-17 wage bill.

However, the report said that “cutting numbers should not be seen as an end in itself”, adding that technology should only replace jobs where it can deliver a better and more cost-efficient service.


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The report, which was published today, criticises the current government’s workforce structure for being too hierarchical, with a siloed approach to working and too many layers of management.

This includes a “frozen middle” of managers that are “unwilling to execute ideas without guidance from above”, and a general mindset that doesn’t allow the government to adapt its approaches to meet user needs.

Instead, Whitehall should be diamond-shaped, with some administrative roles automated and a much wider use of technology to improve the efficiency and quality of front-line and strategic roles, for instance by making better use of data in delivering services.

Reform cited HMRC’s reduction in administrative staff – the department has cut numbers from 96,000 to 60,000 over the past decade – as an example of a department working to this diamond-shaped model.

However, HMRC has also come in for heavy criticism for its approach to reducing headcount, after misjudging its timings when in 2015 it cut staff numbers before new technology was properly embedded, leading to a collapse in customer service and the need to recruit more staff.

Although Reform does not mention this directly, the think tank said that headcount reductions must be done “strategically”.

Creative and technical skills

The report also laments a lack of skills in the civil service. This includes the struggle to recruit people with digital and technical skills – something that has been repeatedly raised by other government watchdogs and think tanks – but Reform also emphasised the importance of ensuring that all civil servants with problem-solving roles are capable of using and developing technology to meet user needs.

In addition, the report called for an increased focused on “non-traditional” skills, such as creativity and innovative thinking – with the latter being attributed to an aversion to risk and a culture that sees some senior leaders regarding technology as simply IT systems instead of a crucial part of service transformation.

Reform also criticised the government’s inability – or unwillingness – to learn from its mistakes, which the think tank said should be seen as a chance to have feedback and improve services.

“Leaders, including politicians, are wrong to 'bury' critical reports where that criticism is a valuable insight into public service operation,” the report said.

“A traditionalist mentality fails to cultivate a culture of change: mistakes are covered up, risk-aversion is rife and leaders have not built the workforce around the needs of users.”

Instead, Reform advocates Whitehall adopting a more agile working approach, with people employed on a project-specific basis – citing the creation of GOV.UK by a team of 16 people within 12 weeks and immediate feedback used for performance management, rather than “cumbersome annual appraisals”.

"Leaders are wrong to 'bury' critical reports where that criticism is a valuable insight into public service operation."

The report also recommended that government aims to empower its leaders, and suggests that it looks to the private sector for strong leaders that can drive a change in organisational culture.

They should be given more flexibility in the way their organisation works, for instance by being allowed to change the way they motivate staff – which may be personal satisfaction or external rewards. The target-based regimes that are common in the civil service “undermine both leaders and the motivation of front-line staff”, the report said.

This flexibility should also extend to recruitment practices, the report said, including offering them “some freedoms over public sector pay limits” – something that is often raised as a barrier to recruiting digital experts into the civil service.

Reform also said that the government could make better use of apprenticeships to fill digital gaps, as well as suggesting that lessons could be learned from the gig economy, saying that organisations with seasonal peaks, such as HMRC, could recruit additional capability at those peak times.

Commenting on the report, Richard Sargeant, director of transformation at ASI Data Science, told PublicTechnology that, "without reform, many public services will become ever more expensive and less useful to people compared to private sector alternatives".

He added that artificial intelligence "holds enormous promise for improving public sector productivity and for providing the sorts of services that people now expect in their everyday lives".

However, Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, stressed that although technology could help enhance public service delivery “human knowledge, skills and input remain crucial”.

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