Whitehall should embrace, not fear automation, says civil service CEO

Written by Tamsin Rutter on 27 January 2018 in News
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John Manzoni tells civil servants that use of RPA could create more time for work with customers

Credit: Cabinet Office

For the civil service, “process automation is something to embrace rather than fear”, according to the organisation’s chief executive.

In a speech this week outlining the steps Whitehall is taking to become “the best civil service in the world”, John Manzoni (pictured above) pointed out progress in tech in delivering Universal Credit and “the biggest courts reform programme in the world”. He also said the aim was to make 100 government services available digitally by 2020.

Manzoni, who also serves as permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office, told civil servants that robotic process automation could help “create more time to spend on customer-facing work”, such as in Jobcentres. He added that the Government Digital Service Academy is training 3,000 civil servants a year, and the Data Science Campus in Newport will eventually produce up to 500 qualified data analysts for government.

The civil service chief said that transformation depends on restructuring the workforce, and that changes to the way civil servants are remunerated will be brought in to encourage them to stay in their posts for longer, while non-policy roles that have traditionally been undervalued or missing from the workforce will continue to be elevated.

In particular, he insisted that changes over the past two years to the civil service’s commercial function had mitigated many of the risks of the collapse of contractor Carillion.

“We were watching – as we do with all suppliers – and the response of officials to the profits warning in July 2017 was immediate,” he said.


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As well as resetting the relationship between government and the private sector, Manzoni said stronger skills in areas like project management, delivery and commercial are “critical” to a better working relationship with politicians – who need to be able to believe that the civil service can implement policies as well as draw them up.

“If what the civil service does is policy and only policy, over time and in subtle ways it changes the dynamic between the politicians and the civil service in a way that I think is detrimental to this country in the long term,” he said.

A key part of the transformation of the civil service is the plan to close 600 government offices and move thousands of civil servants to 20 regional hubs, Manzoni added.

The government’s proposal for redistributing civil servants around the country is expected in the spring. The revised estates strategy will set out plans to move officials to 20 strategic hubs equipped with the latest technology, flexible working facilities, and cheaper running costs than legacy property.

By 2020, 35,000 people will be settled into the first 10 hubs, where teams from different departments will collocate in the same offices to encourage more joined-up working.

“It’s pointless having the best people, with excellent skills and relevant experience, if we don’t put them in environments where they can flourish and make the best use of their talents,” Manzoni said.

"By 2020, these ten hubs will accommodate around 35,000 civil servants; and, by 2023, our plans will have reduced the number of government buildings from around 800 to just 200," he said. "Changes of this sort are generating new opportunities for civil servants. And they’re changing how we think about work – raising our sights above departmental boundaries, and enabling more collaborative behaviour."

 

About the author

Tamsin Rutter is senior reporter for PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this article first appeared. She tweets as @TamsinRutter

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