Technology vs ideology: what will define the future of government work?

Written by PublicTechnology staff on 7 June 2022 in Features

A recent PublicTechology webinar discussion saw an expert panel examine the major issues that will shape how civil servants work for years to come

Credit: Nasim Ahmed/CC BY-SA 4.0

“Now we are getting back to ‘normal’ – but our working practices aren’t going back to normal,” according to Claire Harrison, chief technology officer at the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.

At the start of the pandemic, the MHRA’s ways of working were swiftly and radically reshaped – an overnight transformation that was replicated at many government agencies, as well as businesses around the country.

“Collaboration tools had to be rolled out very quickly – but being mindful of capacity, network and security issues,” Harrison says. “But it worked much better than anyone might have anticipated.”

During a recent webinar discussion, hosted by PublicTechnology and SAP Concur, Harrison and her fellow panellists explored how public-sector organisations have adapted to new ways of working and how they can best accommodate and support their workforce going forward.

The event came on the back of a study conducted by our sister organisation, Dods Research, which surveyed 200 decision makers from across a range of departments.

A large majority of respondents expect the changes and adaptations of the past two years to resonate long into the future: 78% expect to see ongoing widespread homeworking or hybrid working at the their organisation, while 64% anticipate a more flexible approach to working hours, and 63% believe there will be more hotdesking.

Although the study was conducted just a couple of months ago, the flexibility-friendly environment that informed it has shifted once again, with cabinet ministers – including the PM – imploring officials to return to their desk en masse. Critics of the back-to-the-office drive have included union leaders, as well as politicians from across the spectrum. Many civil servants that tuned into our webinar also voiced their frustration with recent ministerial rhetoric, with several asking why there is such vehemence in the push to get officials to return to departmental buildings.

Beckie Smith, deputy editor of Civil Service World, tells attendees that some “quite old-fashioned ideas about what work looks like” persist among certain ministers – and journalists.

“There’s this myth that if you’re working from home, you’re not working – which we know isn’t true,” she says. “It is seen as easy political capital to come out and push civil servants to go into the office. Particular ministers have really taken this up as a cause: Jacob Rees Mogg, the minister for government efficiency is very pro-office working. There is a feeling at the moment that at least some of the drive to get people in at least some of the time is driven by slightly arbitrary targets, rather than organisational needs – and I think that is going to be a point of contention for many.”

Need for skills
Returning to a working culture that prioritises presence in the office is unlikely to help departments solve a digital and data skills shortage that, according to our research, is worsening at a worryingly rapid rate.

When Dods conducted the same survey a year ago, 29% cited a lack of training as a major roadblock for their digital ambitions; this figure has now risen to 44%.

A similar increase was reported for staff retention – which is now seen as a big challenge by 46% of digital professionals, compared with 32% a year ago – and staff capability, which has risen from 36% to 49%.

But the biggest challenge of all remains legacy technology, which was picked out as a barrier to transformation by 55% of our survey respondents – a rise of two percentage points on our 2021 study.

This is a problem that, at least, is well recognised and, following the commitment of £2.6bn in the recent spending review, has the means to pursue a solution. 

Nick Herring, senior business development manager at SAP Concur, says that, for public bodies looking to move away from ageing systems “it is a challenge – and I don’t think anyone is under any illusion how difficult it can be to move off an old server, or service”. 

“It might be that no-one knows what was on it, or people no longer know how to code it. Then there are integrations with other services or hardware.”

For SAP Concur, “it is all about how can we transform and help our customers move into a digital world”, he adds.

For many of the software firm’s public sector customers, it can be easier than expected to at least begin the journey toward digital reform. Starting out with one application that can be easily moved transformed.

“We are cloud-first, and we are very proud of how quick and seamless the transition can be: we are talking about a three-month, rather than a three-year project,” Herring says. “It is trying to do a very quick benchmark and work out how can we get you on that cloud journey. A lot of our customers are using their travel and expense journey as a quick win.”

A digital profession that, against the backdrop of a skills shortage and a creaking technology estate, is expected to play a key role in delivering a government-wide reform – which we will be exploring in a follow-up webinar, taking place on 23 June – will surely welcome anything that constitutes a “quick win”.

But, then again, Harrison points out that, however government works in the future, even the most sophisticated technology can be simpler to work with than the people that use it.

“Because we are all humans, we all have our different working styles and different priorities… it is really about the culture, and taking all that into account,” she says.

“The techie bit is the easy bit – it always is”.

You can register for free to watch the full on-demand recording of this webinar discussion, or to download the full research report  – you can also register for a follow-up event on 23 June in which PublicTechnology, SAP Concur and our expert panel will examine: Technology, transformation, and talent: How can government meet its biggest modernisation challenges?



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