Work in progress

Towards a leaner, smarter public-sector workforce

The world of work is changing. It always is: from spinning jennies to PCs, working patterns are constantly disrupted. The future is no different. Today's technology can replace tasks in every sphere, from basic administration to surgery.

Government should keep up with these changes to deliver better, smarter services for citizens, Reform argues in Work in progress, published today. This means making the most of automation, while injecting a new mentality into how employees function. Innovative thinking, a more diverse skills base and services that focus on user needs are the hallmarks of tomorrow’s workforce. Technology is the tip of the iceberg.

Why change?

For public services in the UK, the status quo is not an option. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) labelled the current trajectory "unsustainable" only last month. Productivity levels have to improve drastically to revert the situation. Over the last two decades they have stagnated, while spending has increased by an average of 3.1 per cent a year (see Figure 1)

The lack of sustainability has tangible effects on the future of services, with healthcare being a case in point. The NHS Five Year Forward View sets out £22 billion of efficiency savings, but this is dependent on meeting a target of 2.2 productivity improvements annually. Since 1979 it has grown by an average of 1.2 per cent a year, making this target an optimistic one (see Figure 2).

However, it is not only low productivity levels which should spur on changes in the public sector. The UK population and the services it requires, are shifting. It is well-known that demographics are rapidly changing, with the number of people aged over 75 set to grow from 5.4 million in 2015 to 8.8 million in 2035. This changes healthcare demands. Furthermore, in areas like crime reduction, public servants need to change skill sets to cope with crimes that are increasingly happening online.


Currently the public sector is not built to adapt to changing demands. It is designed in a hierarchical way which encourages top-down management, and the distance between those at the bottom and the top is too far. This creates what interviewees for the paper called a "frozen middle", referring to middle managers who are unable and unwilling to translate ideas into action. Nowhere is this clearer than in Whitehall departments, of which none have fewer grades than 10 (see Figure 3). Deloitte research suggests that organisations should have no more than eight.

Other barriers include a lack of digital skills, amplified by a traditionalistic attitude to the role of digital and technology, a culture of risk-aversion, ineffective motivational strategies and rigid recruitment strategies.

The workforce of tomorrow


To overcome barriers to change, public services will in many ways be turned on their head. A place to start is by addressing its size. As many public-sector organisations are administratively heavy, they offer a huge potential for automation. Across Whitehall, the NHS and police, 250,000 administration roles can be automated by current technology, from websites and online chat bots to mobile phone health apps.

While automation won't be limited to these types of roles, they are the ones with the greatest potential. Technology can assist frontline roles, such as like doctors, nurses, teachers and police officers. Up to 30 per cent of a doctor’s role can be replaced by robots capable of doing anything from administering anaesthesia during simple procedures, to reading radiological scans.


Better use of technology should disrupt current working practices. Thawing the frozen middle can go further than just streamlining employee layers for some departments. Self-management models, of the type used by the Government Digital Service team, who built the award-winning GOV.UK in only 12 weeks, offer a vision of future working for several arm's-length bodies identified in the report – from the Crown Commercial Service to the National Crime Agency.

A new culture

A new culture is also needed to improve services. One in 10 people entering hospital will suffer from medical error, costing the NHS up to £2.5 billion a year. The Secretary of State for Health has an ambition for the NHS to be "the world's largest learning organisation". This means that investigative bodies should be independent of the institutions they are overseeing, and openly recognise that serious mistakes can be the result of a series of small errors. Done right, this could offer a model for other areas, like policing and the civil service.

A more open culture with a healthier approach to risk can also empower civil servants to develop innovative approaches to problem solving. 'Agile’ working – where projects take on user feedback – can be extended beyond the sphere of IT to cultivate evidence-based, inventive solutions across public services.

Getting the right people into the right jobs

The intake of employees to the public sector will become different. A more agile sector requires a more agile approach to recruitment. This involves a less rigid view of the qualifications needed of employees. For too long, the emphasis has been on securing graduates – specifically, across sectors from the Civil Service to teaching and policing, graduate programmes for high achievers have been created. While these programmes seem to be creating good outcomes on some measures, they need to be more rigorously evaluated, and costs weighed up against benefits. The UK has a relatively high level of overeducation, which is against the interest of governments and citizens alike. In future, a more diverse intake will be secured through better and broader apprenticeship programmes, and utilisation of emerging contingent-labour platforms.

What next?

This report provides high-level guidance for how the public sector of today can become the public sector of tomorrow. However, Reform recognises that challenges vary widely across individual sectors, and will therefore during this year publish individual papers on ways to reform the NHS, the police and the education workforce.