Room for improvement in public sector workplace management

Portcullis HouseLast week technology company Citrix announced that the UK Government could cut its property costs by a third by adopting flexible working policies. It used a Freedom of Information request to discover how much space each public sector employee in the UK is allocated and how much it costs then applied a formula to work out how this would be affected by greater adoption of flexible working. What was interesting was not just the up-front argument you would expect from an ICT provider but also the discovery that the average employee is allocated 1.1 workstations with some enjoying 1.6.

Of course it’s easy to act all aghast at the wastefulness of the public sector. I think that’s unfair in many circumstances and best left to The Daily Mail, not least because a great deal of innovative thinking about property has come out of the UK public sector in recent years, most recently spurred on by the experience of flexible working enjoyed by many staff during the Olympics. In some areas, public sector organisations have approached property management in a more progressive way than large private sector organisations.

(As an aside, whenever anybody is having a chew on the public sector for its high levels of absenteeism or other inefficiencies, often the data shows there is little or no difference between them and large private sector organisations. Often these things are a consequence of size and culture, not sector. Things are complicated.)

That is not to say that inefficiencies don’t exist and many of them are more pervasive than the extravagances highlighted by examples such as Portcullis House (pictured above). According to the data obtained by Citrix there is a discrepancy across Government departments that would indicate there is some potential for savings in basic workplace management, never mind flexible working. So while staff in the Department of Energy and Climate Change have access to 0.9 desks each, employees in the Office for Standards in Education are allocated 1.6 desks per person.

Such variations can become very expensive. According to the FOI request, Government property cost an average of around £490.40 per square metre during 2010/2011, with an average outlay of £47.9 million per department.

Citrix claims this bill could be reduced by around 32 per cent by encouraging public sector employees to adopt flexible working practices and making better use of technology. But surely it could also be reduced with a bit of basic good management and more intelligent workplace designs. We shouldn’t rush to judge individual cases because we do not know their circumstances, but the headline report indicates that there is almost certainly room for significant improvement.