This week, civil servants are testing out home working. Is it for the Olympics, or is there a bigger game afoot?
It is the first of three “planning exercises” conducted in the run up to the Games, when staff across Whitehall and the public sector will be ordered not to commute to work for up to seven weeks. It has been lampooned and treated with suspicion, but could mark a real change in public sector working patterns.
Preparing for the worst
According to Department of Transport, around £6.5bn has been invested in upgrading and extending transport links to increase capacity and improve services in preparation for the Games. The entire transport infrastructure is complete, and in operation.
But even all this effort might not solve potential problems, as up to 800,000 spectators and 55,000 competitors, officials, staff and members of the media will travel to and from Olympic venues each day. There are going to be traffic jams, delayed trains and missing buses. In this respect, the Olympics can be compared to the effect of a general strike, or an especially heavy snowfall.
“Across Whitehall, government departments are making plans to positively change 50 percent of commuting, business travel, deliveries and collections during the Games and, to make sure our plans are fit for purpose, we are running a test week. The lessons learned on different working practices and using IT more smartly will help us become a more flexible and effective workforce,” explained Francis Maude, Cabinet Office minister.
Working from home is not the only solution designed to ease the congestion during the Games. The exercise calls upon civil servants to change routes of going into work to avoid hotspots, or to walk or cycle instead of taking public transport. Another, less popular option is to relocate to office spaces outside of London.
A permanent move to home working
Depending on the success of Operation StepChange, there are those who advocate making these reforms permanent. This could transform the civil service as we know it – and that is getting the interest of some of Britain’s political classes.
Officials are apparently skeptical about the need for a major test: “The amount of planning for not coming to the office is ridiculous,” said one widely-quoted but anonymous “official”. “Working from home is not exactly rocket science but we are approaching it as though we were preparing for nuclear war.”
Some welcome the future change, when the civil servants have been weaned off their office and desk: “Of course they can do it… just as I have been doing for the last 30 years,” writes Richard North, British political author and blogger for the British Freedom Party. “But it takes something like a potential gridlock to make it happen on a larger scale. The good thing is that we might get a legacy from the Games that might be worth having.”
Others are suspicious. If there’s any sign of unusual government-related activity, there will always be people who can tell you what it is really all about: “These unprecedented “planning exercises” are particularly handy to iron out problems which may be encountered in the event of a dirty bomb or biological attack on London or other Olympic event areas, exercised to retain a form of functionality,” says blogger Captain UKIP.
That’s right, Operation StepChange is really a preparation for an imminent terrorist attack, though we have been told (see below) that Captain UKIP is not giving an official line from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).
If civil servants rely on videoconferencing, it would mean less traffic on the streets, but a lot more traffic online. The question remains: can London broadband networks handle this, or are we set for seven weeks of painfully slow Internet speeds?
The StepChange exercise will run from 6 February until 9 February.