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PA OPINION

Beyond Whitehall: focus on people to make civil service relocation a success

Relocating civil servants out of London has been an ambition of various governments over the past 50 years. While some of these efforts have been successful - only 20% of civil servants are now based in London - most of this relocation has focused on government delivery arms or back-office functions moving out of the capital. The result has been a continued London-dominance of senior roles and those conducting policy work; 68% of senior civil servants and 64% of its policymakers remain based in London. Importantly, Government ministers also spend most of their time in London, with the ministerial code requiring arrangements to be put in place when they are away from Whitehall.

The Government’s ambition to relocate a further 22,000 civil servants by 2030, with over 1,000 of them being Senior Civil Servants (SCS) is unique. The aim is for more senior, traditionally London-centric policy roles to move out of the capital and it is part of the Government’s broader ‘levelling up’ agenda, meaning it has real priority. Furthermore, the pandemic has challenged our perceptions of work and the blend of physical and virtual working.

Some major changes have already been announced such as the creation of MHCLGII in Wolverhampton and the economic campus combining staff from HM Treasury, the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy and Department for International Trade in Darlington. Our analysis shows that so far, the Government has outlined plans to meet ~25% of its 2030 target with most of the larger departments having already set out their proposals.

Much of the public discourse in response to these announcements has focused on ‘jobs’ or the buildings and places chosen for relocation. While this is very important; we believe the key element that will make or break this proposed change is the people involved.

There are four key areas which require further consideration:

1. Purpose, mission and objective
The aim of this Government in relocating further sections of the civil service is not just reduced cost, but a refreshed purpose for the civil service: bringing Government decision-making closer to the people and grasping the impact of ‘place’. With purpose an ever-increasing factor in employee satisfaction, anchoring these changes in a clear organisational purpose will be crucial.

Leaders of these changes will need to clearly articulate the rationale for change and secure support from those they are looking to relocate. With staff having different perspectives, and each relocation challenge different, the case for change will need to balance the relative factors of improved delivery, cost, access to talent and the development of careers. This case for change must also go beyond the practical detail of roles and locations; it must create an excitement about locations outside of London and the importance of those locations to the organisation’s purpose. How is the relocation expected to affect culture and decision-making? Is the ambition for a stronger link to the local community in which that department is based or the UK as a whole, and how will that be achieved? Explaining the change in these broader terms will make it far more purposeful, and significant, for the department’s people.

2. Shaping culture
Relocation is about more than just about buildings or workspaces, it’s about culture – the way things get done - too. The existing civil service bodies that are based outside of London broadly fall into three types of organisation: operational delivery services, technical experts or local/regional experts. Each of these groups have common cultural characteristics which enable their mission and purpose. For example, the Met Office, headquartered in Exeter, has helped to establish a strong local labour market with close links to the local university and community.

The current Government’s ambition is for something new; the creation of policy hubs outside of London seen on a par to their Whitehall colleagues. While ‘second HQs’ have existed before, such as the Department for International Development (DfID) second HQ in East Kilbride, they have not done so at the scale envisaged. This will require a clear focus on the desired culture of these new departmental locations; departments will need to consider what values and behaviours are important to them, any possible differences to their London HQs and how to embed these values locally. They will also need to consider how to connect with their locality and bring that insight into their work.

3. Deliberate decisions on talent and skills
Each department will need to make deliberate decisions about the talent and skills it requires, and how much of this talent it would like to relocate or attract within the new region. The Office for National Statistics (where only 10% of its staff relocated to Newport in 2006), and the Met Office (which achieved an 82% relocation rate following its move to Exeter in 2003) provide two examples at either end of this spectrum.

The Government’s ambition is not just for the relocation of existing London-based civil servants, but a change in the make-up and thinking of the civil service itself. In his 2020 Ditchley Speech, Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster asked: “Should we not also be better at recruiting our policymakers from those overlooked and hitherto undervalued communities?” The recent Social Mobility Commission report which highlighted that 72% of are from ‘privileged’ homes demonstrates the scale of the challenge.

While some departments have already started to advertise roles in their regional sites, this ambition is unlikely to be achieved by chance or by relying on attrition and usual civil service methods of attraction and recruitment. To be successful, civil service departments will need to think critically across the talent lifecycle, considering attraction and recruitment approaches, how to onboard and develop new joiners, and the extent to which departments would like their people to move between jobs (in the public or private sector) in that particular region. Coordination between departments to create a critical mass of skills in different regions, and consideration of cross-government working amongst an increasingly dispersed workforce will also be important.

4. Leading by example
Though estates, IT and other factors are important, this is fundamentally a people change challenge, with leadership of the change a crucial enabler. Creating effective change leadership will require:

  • Visible change leaders: persuading existing SCS to move, as well as recruiting new SCS outside of London will be important in showing the way for other staff. Ministers can also lead this effort such as the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government pledge to create ministerial offices at Wolverhampton. The Government should go one step further and actively change the ministerial code so that time away from London is reflected as the norm rather than requiring ‘arrangements’ to be in place when ministers are away from the capital.
  • Create a network of advocates: change networks are becoming increasingly important in the successful delivery of change, particularly ones that relate to identity or control. Securing the support of a group of advocates who can demonstrate the benefits of the new approach early, would have a significant effect on the support for the move.
  • Ingenious engagements, with a focus on the middle: New and innovative ways of explaining the case for change and helping people to ‘feel the future’ will be required. In particular there must be a focus on the middle managers, often at Grade 6 and 7 level, who are likely to be significantly affected.

The Government’s relocation ambition is a bold one. With the citizen having clearly witnessed the important role of the state over the past 18 months, and with the political priority given to this agenda, now is a unique opportunity to achieve this ambition and to make the change stick. If Government departments put people at the heart of this change, it has every chance of success.

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