Three years ago, I wrote about moving from one part of government to another – physically a short and pleasant walk across the park, in every other way a series of irritating obstacles.
Now I am going back the other way. The park is just as glorious as it ever was and the walk just as pleasant. Most of the irritations and anomalies are still there too, but some small things have changed which point, a little uncertainly, in the right direction.
There is for example a new single government pass, which in principle gives me access to most building across central government. But the single government pass I have issued to me in one department has had to be replaced by a near-identical pass issued to me in another. There are the first faint signs of access to other departments’ directories – but only so far to a tiny handful of departments, and with little sign of that becoming anything like a single directory any time soon. Otherwise the change is much the same. There will still be a lurching shift between payrolls with a P45 at the boundary point. The office IT will still be totally different, with nothing more sophisticated to join the old and the new than an out of office message on one email account pointing to another.
In one critical respect, the walk back across the park will be a walk back in time. The last couple of years have seen a revolution in the internal IT systems of Cabinet Office, which I am proud to have played a part in and which is deservedly award winning. Lightweight, modern kit optimised to support collaboration and flexible working hasn’t just stripped out cost, complexity and aggravation, it’s made a real difference to how people work. For a mixture of reasons – some better than others – it’s not like that across the park.
Updating internal IT for the benefit of staff can easily seem like the poor relation of digital change. Compared with the scale, impact and excitement of projects to deliver radical improvement in services to the public, more inward focused change can feel like small beer. More importantly it is rightly subject to the challenge that we should prioritise scarce resources on improving the lives of citizens, not the lives of civil servants.
That though increasingly feels like a false choice. That’s partly because the Cabinet Office experience shows pretty clearly that being better, faster and cheaper is a completely attainable goal. It’s also because it’s harder than it need be to deliver better services externally if the tools available internally lag a generation behind. More subtly, but fundamentally much more importantly, it is in nobody’s interest to get trapped in the past. The obvious and much cited reason for that is that it will be impossible to attract and retain people of the calibre we need if we can’t provide the tools which they find normal, but while that’s important it’s far from being the whole reason. The more the working environment of government is impermeable and inflexible, the more that will influence the wider culture and the harder it will be to develop the civil service we need for a twenty-first century world.
All of that is part of the thinking behind the slogan, technology at least as good as people have at home. That never felt like quite the right emphasis to me, so I adapted it to technology good enough for work, partly because work is what we are focused on here and partly because better technology has absolute value as well as relative value. It helps people be much more flexible about where they work, making a real contribution to optimising the balance between work and life. It lets people use the tools which are the right ones for the tasks they have. It fosters the values of inspiration, confidence and empowerment which underpin civil service leadership.
So a working environment which is better integrated across government, delivers better tools which support the way in which people want and need to work, is designed for continuous improvement rather than lurching change once in a generation and as a result delivers better value for taxpayers is an ambition very much worth holding to. But I suspect getting there won’t be a walk in the park.