Smarter working and the public estate: Progress and pitfalls

smarter working
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Tom Shrive, CEO of askporter offers insight into why smarter working in the security of the public estate is important in 2022 and beyond

Like every sector and industry, the public estate – from courts, prisons, and job centres to schools, health facilities, and offices – has seen huge movements towards digitisation and smarter working due to the pandemic.

Although it’s been two years since the first lockdown, this is far from old news. New technologies and practices can be adopted rapidly, of course, but ensuring that they achieve their promised levels of efficiency is a far more challenging and long-term task – one that many organisations are only now starting to address.

Such has been the case for the UK’s public estate – an enormous collection of 300,000 properties that have an especially urgent need to create savings and efficiencies, given that they’re funded by the taxpayer.

Just a glance at the Cabinet Office’s “State of the Estate 2019-20” report suggests as much. The report quickly establishes that March 2020 brought with it “the rapid requirement to adapt service provision” via “investment in our digital capabilities and modernisation.”

However, the report goes on to note that the public estate’s operating costs rose by 1.1% during precisely this period of digitisation – a substantial figure, considering that the overall value of the public estate is now over £500 billion, with all the high operating costs that this huge sum implies.

This doesn’t mean that embracing new technologies can’t unlock those much-needed efficiencies in the public estate – but it’s a great reminder that the tech needs to come hand-in-hand with strong processes and one eye firmly fixed on the human side of property management.

The advantages of modernisation for smarter working

There’s no question that COVID-inspired changes to working practices, when backed up by the right technology, can make the public estate more manageable.

Remote work is an obvious and much-discussed example of this principle in action, with the likes of call centre staff shifting from offices to their homes while facilitated by teleconferencing tech like Zoom – at the pandemic’s height, areas like London saw nearly half of all employees working remotely some of the time (according to the Office for National Statistics).

And, while staff were busy vacating formerly key properties, the people using government services found themselves increasingly willing and able to embrace digital methods for performing formerly in-person tasks like paying parking fines. Changes like this undoubtedly have the effect of reducing some of the public estate’s costs.

In fact, the State of the Estate report offers some very tangible evidence to that effect. In a discussion of job centres, the report says that the Department of Work and Pension’s (DWP’s) property cost per claimant was reduced in 2020 due, at least in part, to an increased emphasis on online services which allowed the DWP to “support more people at any one time.” (1)

However, implementing this kind of technology – whether it be teleconferencing with a view to remote working or digital capabilities that enable more efficient support for users – is only half the battle.

After all, as I mentioned above, operational costs increased at a time of widespread digitisation – and, as a recent Institute for Government report pointed out, the failure of the government’s contact tracing app “shows that technology alone is no substitute for a well-designed service.” (2)

“COVID-19 may have opened our eyes to new and more efficient ways to manage estates, but to fully realise the efficiencies promised by new tech, we need to strike a balance between the power of automation and the people – whether they be employees, users, or taxpayers – that underpin them.”

On top of this – or, perhaps, overlapping with this – we must address the human cost of smarter working, which can undermine any efficiencies gained if they aren’t handled sensitively and strategically.

The systems, processes, and people of the public estate

The human aspects of the public estate’s various transformations are particularly noticeable when it comes to practices such as self-service. There are, of course, a huge range of advantages attached to self-service processes – whether they’re delivered through online forms or AI chatbots – including, as the DWP’s success implies, the ability for potentially hundreds of people to get the services they need simultaneously. A human just cannot do that.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a human involved in the process, however. The people using these kinds of services (especially public estate services, in fact) may need a personal touch – perhaps to deal with a particularly complex issue, or perhaps even to address the loneliness that many have experienced throughout the pandemic.

The act of automating services doesn’t eliminate human beings from either end of the equation – and, in many cases, automation and digitisation can be looked upon as a means of freeing up employees from menial tasks to deal with the aspects of their work that require emotional intelligence and an empathetic approach.

Crucially, this recognition of the human element of tech transformations in the public estate can augment, rather than drag down, the all-important efficiencies demanded by the taxpayer.

Employee churn, for example, is high in the public sector, with analytics firm Cendex noting public sector turnover at 15.6% in 2020 compared to the information sector’s 4.7%

This leads to a loss of skills combined with a constant need for training and onboarding. With the right tech and systems in place, however, knowledge can be maintained and systemised – and, at the same time, automation can grease the wheels of the training process, making new hires more competent, more confident, and (by extension) less likely to leave.

COVID-19 may have opened our eyes to new and more efficient ways to manage estates, but to fully realise the efficiencies promised by new tech, we need to strike a balance between the power of automation and the people – whether they be employees, users, or taxpayers – that underpin them.

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