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Sat, 23 January 2021

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Moving the civil service out of London will require new thinking on how we access data quickly and securely

Moving the civil service out of London will require new thinking on how we access data quickly and securely

Covid-19 has irreversibly changed our relationship with work and the office. | Credit: PA Images

Duncan Greenwood, Vice President & General Manager NEMEA | VMware

5 min read Partner content

2020 is the year in which a fundamental shift in how we interact with each other and the workplace finally arrived.

Splitting work between home and the office is no longer a temporary fix, it is a new reality — all organisations should turn their attention to ensuring this way of working is as effective and secure as possible. 

This applies as much to those working in the public sector and the civil service as it does to private sector workers. 

Over the course of the pandemic, employees have increasingly seen the benefits of remote working. According to polling by Opinium, nearly two thirds of people who worked from home during the initial national lockdown expect to be doing so more frequently afterwards. 

A further survey by academics at Cardiff University and the University of Southampton found that 88 per cent of employees who worked at home during lockdown would like to continue doing so in some capacity.

A more flexible workforce which can function remotely is something that the Government should welcome for a number of reasons. 

That doesn’t mean permanently working from home, but it does mean a more balanced and flexible approach to working, splitting our days more effectively between home and the office in a working style more responsive to both employee and company needs. 

Recent research from VMware suggested that those working in this way have seen a 29% boost in employee productivity and a 24% increase in morale.  

Whitehall should be no exception to this shift in working practices. A more flexible workforce which can function remotely is something that the Government should welcome for a number of reasons. 

Firstly, it absolutely aligns with their plans to shift civil servants out of London and into the regions.

The presence of a greater number of highly qualified workers in different parts of the UK, including in ‘office hubs’ in the nations and regions, could increase pay and productivity levels in towns and cities, boosting local economies outside London and the South East. 

Secondly, moving out of Whitehall could lead to significant savings for the taxpayer as the Government reduces the size of the public sector estate.

According to the Cabinet Office’s own figures, public sector office space in Wales, for example, costs around a third of the price per person per year than London. It is a policy which literally pays for itself.

Thirdly, fewer civil servants travelling in and out of the capital would have significant environmental benefits. Remote working would support the Government’s net zero carbon commitments and set an example for a green economic recovery. 

There is, however, a significant barrier to making this a reality. The UK’s digital infrastructure simply is not ready to manage this mass transition to remote working.

Employees in the private and public sector need secure access to applications, data and services. This is particularly important for civil servants dealing with vast quantities of data, much of it highly sensitive, including health records, benefits details, and residency statuses.

Even within Whitehall itself, outdated IT systems mean that civil servants across different departments often struggle to access applications and share data. 

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Steve Barclay, recognises this challenge. In a speech to the Onward think tank, he noted that in future the Government would be “addressing legacy IT and investing in the data infrastructure we need to become a truly digital government.”

Improving accessibility for civil servants working in offices and homes across different parts of the country will present an even bigger challenge. At the moment outdated infrastructure is a limiting factor when it comes to the ability to scale and adapt to the change required.

Many public sector bodies have been unable to support large numbers of remote workers at all. For example, one large public sector organisation had up to half its staff unable to work for a period of time due to the inadequacy of its IT systems.

That is why the government – as part of its plans to upgrade the UK’s digital infrastructure – should expand its definition of what this term means.

Covid-19 has irreversibly changed our relationship with work and the office. This is as true for civil servants as it is for those working in the private sector.

Broadband and mobile networks are a start, but an expanded digital infrastructure approach should include anything which enables secure remote access to data, systems, and apps at the level of individual organisations.

Supporting the development of strong digital foundations across the public and private sector will provide employees with the support they need to do their job securely anywhere, on any device, at any time, including in their own home. 

That would enable a future in which civil servants can perform their jobs remotely whilst ensuring their devices can speak to each other, in different locations and across departments. 

Is the DWP employee using an Android phone able to access the same app with their counterpart in the Treasury who is using an Apple device? 

Is the official in the Department of Health able to input the most up to date data on Covid cases using an older Excel app no longer used in other departments?

Ultimately, employees won’t be able to work as efficiently as possible without systems and apps that are interoperable. 

Covid-19 has irreversibly changed our relationship with work and the office. This is as true for civil servants as it is for those working in the private sector.

The Government should use this as an opportunity to accelerate its plans to radically reform Whitehall and relocate tens of thousands of civil servants to different regions of the UK.

To achieve this, the Government has to ensure its workforce has the digital capability to do their jobs as efficiently and as securely as possible. 

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