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Understanding the government estate

Perspectives from public sector leaders and the frontline of public services

The dawn of this new decade has inevitably piqued debates around the future of government and public services. Most commentators point to the possibilities arising from government better using its data, the potential of 5G connectivity and the impact of artificial intelligence on services like the NHS. But few recognise the foundational importance of the public sector estate on government’s ability to deliver – and how it is likely to change in the decade ahead.

In our annual State of the State report, Deloitte and the think tank Reform explored the UK public sector from the perspectives of the citizen, the public  sector leader and the frontline of public services. Those three perspectives each offer observations on the public sector estate – its buildings and its land – and how it needs to evolve.

 
The frontline perspective

Let’s start with the view from the frontline. For The State of the State, we ran an online crowd conversation with 240 public-facing professionals including nurses, teachers and police officers. They gave us real insight into their day-to-day experience of public sector offices, hospitals, schools and police stations as workplaces.

When we asked our crowd to rate their working environment, 74 per cent said that they were happy with where they worked. Then we asked them to tell us about it, and the responses were far less encouraging. Typical responses included:

  • Buildings are old, dark and dingy
  • It’s too small and too cramped 
  • I would love the staffroom to have a window
  • It’s a 1960s building and not fit for the 21st Century
  • It’s a Victorian building that has not been modernised

This gap between that quantitative satisfaction level and qualitative responses suggests that frontline professionals recognise the shortcomings of their workplaces but don’t let those shortcomings stop them from delivering for the public. One member of the crowd summed up that stoicism by telling us ‘I’ve got a desktop, a printer and a coffee machine – I’m sorted’.

While that attitude is testament to the spirit of the public sector’s frontline, these frontline observations put a spotlight on deficiencies in the current estate and how it needs to improve. When we asked our 240-strong frontline crowd to name one improvement they would like to see in their workplace, 39 cited basic environmental needs like ‘better lighting’ and ‘greater ventilation’. That shows why programmes like the government’s Health Infrastructure Plan, which sets out a five year programme to modernise the NHS primary care estate, are long overdue.

 

The public sector leader perspective

To understand the public sector leader perspective in The State of the State, we interviewed fifty senior figures in government and public services. Their views combined first-hand experience of the government estate, managerial reflections on the impact of workplaces on staff, and strategic insight on the wider social and economic importance of the public sector estate. From those interviews, we made three observations.

First, the government’s estate strategy has evolved substantially in the past decade. Just as the first half of the 2010s were characterised by austerity in public policy, so too were the government’s estate strategies of 2013 and 2014, which emphasised cost-reduction and consolidation. The strategy that followed in 2018 had moved on to recognise the need for public sector buildings that support better productivity, greater collaboration and smarter working – and not just cost-cutting.

That shift is hugely encouraging for the future of the Civil Service in particular, if government can turn its strategy into reality. As one civil servant told us, “productivity, better use of space and staff engagement are the drivers, which all have implications for recruitment and retention”. Whitehall interviewees were enthusiastic about the establishment of the Government Property Agency which has, as one senior civil servant said, “moved government away from a fragmented approach to the estate”.

Our second observation from interviews with public sector leaders is that long-standing plans to move civil servants out of London are – with continued commitment from ministers and permanent secretaries – about to gain momentum. Of course, these plans are not new. A review of civil service relocation concluded in 2004 that government departments should keep their presence in London to a necessary minimum, in the interests of savings alone.

While significant steps have already been made, including the development of regional hubs, the potential for moving civil servants out of Whitehall has yet to be realised. And that potential is not just about cost-savings – it would help government access a wider talent pool from across the UK, and it would boost local economies.

However, several interviewees told us that renewed commitment from government, and its focus on ‘levelling up’ the UK, is giving fresh momentum to relocation plans. As one senior civil servant told us, “the Civil Service is imbalanced with far too many people in London and the South East – especially senior people. Now is the time to grasp that nettle”. So we may well see an announcement on relocation as part of the Budget this month, or in the Spending Review later this year. 

The third observation we made from our interviews is that longer-term thinking is crucial. Several interviewees told us that the government needs to be prepared to invest in its estate over decades, and not just within spending review cycles. That doesn’t just mean long-term thinking about finance and maintenance – it means having a long-term view on usage as well. As one Director General said in an interview, “it’s hard to move people to a new office if no-one has a plan for their workforce beyond next Thursday afternoon”.

Another long-term consideration is the environmental impact of the government estate. The latest State of the Estate report from the Cabinet Office points to some serious progress on government’s own green commitments including a 40 per cent drop in the government’s waste production and a 62 per cent drop in its paper use since 2009-10. However, if the UK is going to meet its commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, more fundamental changes to the public sector estate will be needed. Much of the government’s existing estate is less efficient than its newest buildings and State of the Estate highlights a mixed position across departments. As with buildings in every sector, and with households across the UK, significant changes are going to be needed over the three decades to 2050.

 

The citizen perspective

The final perspective in our State of the State research is from the citizen, which is informed by a survey of 1,360 UK adults conducted by Ipsos MORI. Of course, the citizen view of the public sector estate is limited by their experience of it – but our survey identified a significant feeling of inequality in terms of infrastructure spending across the UK. As the chart below shows, the majority of people in Wales and in the North of England feel that their region gets less than its fair share of spending on public infrastructure, and close to half the public in Northern Ireland and Scotland feel the same.

As the government begins to roll out its ‘levelling up’ strategy to put the UK’s regions on a more equal economic footing, this survey result highlights the full extent of public perception about geographic inequality. It also illustrates the extent of the opportunity – and it will be fascinating to track responses to this question in the years ahead.

For more insight and data, visit The State of the State.

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