Smart working for the public good: avoiding the butterfly effect

Smart working for the public good: avoiding the butterfly effect

Government often seems big, impersonal and resistant to change. But sometimes the smallest actions of individuals can change the course of government, and even the course of history. 

We’ve had a reminder of this recently in the UK, with a major act of democracy – the Brexit vote – which has exposed the crucial role of individual political leaders and officials.  

Many were surprised by the fact that the government had had no plan for how to implement this crucial decision to leave the EU. So, it will be down to key individuals within government – both elected and unelected - to decide how to interpret the public will on a wide range of crucial issues, from trade to immigration to government subsidies. 

That’s why there’s been so much speculation around the individuals charged with delivering Brexit, their personal agendas and qualities. How might Theresa May’s prime ministerial style shape negotiations within the Cabinet? What’s the significance of Michel Barnier’s appointment as chief EU negotiator? And will the ‘three Brexiteer’ ministers be able to share their Chevening residence amicably?

The role of the civil service has never been more important. Civil servants have been drafted from across Whitehall to form David Davis’ new Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU), which must now comb through 40-odd years of legislation and consult widely to identify Brexit opportunities and risks for every region and sector of the economy. 

The risks are considerable: there are many ‘unknown unknowns’, significant differences of opinion between ministers, and a lack of knowledge about the EU’s position. But our government needs to build a credible negotiating strategy on the basis of the best available information, to get the best deal for the UK. 

We should therefore be thinking how to facilitate the highest quality knowledge-sharing, collaborative and productive working for those key individuals. The risks of not doing so are plain. As with the old proverb about the horseshoe nail: what if one crucial political decision turned on the availability of a functioning staff directory or working printer?

Some departments already recognise the political risks that could attach when key staff are not provided with appropriate levels of IT service. For example, were HM Treasury officials to suffer even quite simple IT hiccups during the sensitive run-up to Budget day, it could result in market-moving mistakes creeping into the Chancellor’s crucial Budget speech and report to Parliament. Having a highly responsive, 24x7 IT helpdesk to support staff can mitigate those risks. 

Smart working technologies have been on the agenda for government for some time, but often in the context of cost reduction as departments try to reduce their use of costly office space. Most have a patchy record when it comes to facilitating true smart working, which needs to go beyond remote working and hot-desking to encompass activity-based working, unified communications, and advanced tools for social collaboration and knowledge discovery. 

As our policymakers address the biggest political challenge of a generation, smart working technologies should be part of the infrastructure which protects them – and all of us – from the butterfly effect of avoidable mistakes.