Publication Digital Machinery of government 6 February, 2017

Work in progress. Towards a leaner, smarter public-sector workforce.

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Public services fail when employees fail. This is the dramatic lesson from a number of high-profile errors in recent public-service delivery. In many instances, quality is compromised not because of individual incompetence, but the way the workforce is structured and organised.

The inverse of this is also true. When public services succeed, it is often due to excellent working practices. Getting this right across public services is crucial to delivering value for money for services: 50 per cent of day-to-day spend in the public sector is on employees. Continually evaluating and updating workforce size, structure and skills is therefore essential to deliver public services that meet the changing needs and expectations of users, at the lowest possible cost to taxpayers.

Public services must respond to a population with increasingly complex demands − people are living longer, technology is changing the way they behave and inequality remains stark in many public-sector areas, from education to health. Addressing these issues within a tight fiscal envelope requires a dramatic improvement in productivity and effectiveness. This importance has not gone unrecognised: the Coalition Government promised to cut public spending without affecting service delivery by improving productivity levels. However, although complex to compare, it appears that while productivity has grown economy-wide over the last two decades, it has remained flat in the public sector.

Outcomes must also be considered when evaluating the public-sector workforce. After all, productivity increases are meaningless if services do not meet the needs of citizens. This paper therefore considers how workforce productivity can be improved, as well as how workers can achieve the right outcomes. Combining the two would achieve value for money.

This paper evaluates recent governments’ approaches to workforce design across the National Health Service (NHS), education, central and local government and the police. To do so, interviews with 17 experts from across government, public-sector bodies, academia and industry were conducted, alongside an analysis of public and private data, including Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. The aim is to outline a case for change in Part 1 of the paper, before suggesting high-level themes for reform in Part 2. This approach will pave the way for Reform to set out more detailed recommendations for specific sectors, including the NHS, education and policing, in subsequent papers.

The report finds that the current workforce is a legacy of past approaches. It is built around siloed attitudes of yesterday’s governments and fails to embrace technology and new ways of working to meet users’ needs in the most effective ways. A traditionalist mentality fails to cultivate a culture of change: mistakes are covered up, risk-aversion is rife and leaders have not built the workforce around the needs of users. That there is one receptionist for every GP should be alarming in a world in which online banking is the norm.

A new approach is needed. Public services should deliver outcomes that matter to users, and meet expectations of interacting via technology. This approach would see services designed around users and render at least 248,860 administrative roles redundant. The accuracy of decision making can be further improved by using artificial intelligence to make healthcare decisions and by understanding why mistakes that, for example, cause 10 per cent of hospital patients to suffer from medical error, are made. Securing the right people to do this is essential. New recruitment practices, such as increasing apprenticeships and using ‘gig’-economy platforms to better organise workers can inject innovation into service delivery. In short, this is a framework to make twenty-first century services fit for twenty-first century citizens.


  • Automate administrative roles where appropriate, including in the Civil Service to make Whitehall “diamond-shaped”. Employ technology to improve the efficiency and quality of front-line and strategic roles.
  • Disrupt hierarchies through fewer management layers and self-management models.
  • Cultivate a learning environment by empowering leaders to learn from mistakes, rather than attribute blame. Public services should make better use of randomised-control trials and agile working patterns.
  • Empower leaders to motivate employees as they see fit, unencumbered by rigid pay and performance management structures and role definitions.
  • Introduce new recruitment patterns, including targeting non-traditional entry routes, such as apprenticeships and digital contingent-labour platforms, to attract a wider skill base.

You can also watch Kate Laycock, Emilie Sundorph and Alexander Hitchcock provide an overview of the report in our short video: