How the UK Public Sector is leading the way in office design and management

While the Government gets on with its now long standing objective of reducing the UK’s financial deficit, the media remains fixated on certain cost cutting measures and their relative successes and failures.

However, there is one policy area that tends to get overlooked in all of this, even though it has been demonstrably successful. It is the rationalisation of the enormous public sector estate. So successful has this been in the UK, that other countries are following suit and the Government could reasonably argue that the public sector is leading where the private sector should follow.

Last summer, the UK Cabinet Office laid out its successes in black and white with the publication of its State of the Estate Report which showed that central Government has reduced the size of the public sector estate by 2 million square metres since 2010. The report claims that this will boost economic growth and save a total of £1.2 billion. During 2013 alone there was a 500,000 square metre reduction in the size of the estate, £240 million was saved on running costs, there was a 7.6 percent reduction in the cost of office space per employee office space per employee was down from 13 square metres to 11.9 square metres, carbon emissions were down by 14 percent, and waste was down by 15 percent.

Not only is the Government focussing the attention of all of its departments in making these sorts of economies by rationalising and divesting space, it is also leading the way in professionalising the skills needed to make such economies happen. In February of this year the Cabinet Office published its Property Profession Competency Framework which is described as ‘an outline of the skills required to manage property assets at both operational and strategic level.’ The skills outlined in the initiative now appear in job descriptions for property asset management roles and be used in appraisals.

This isn’t just about space saving however. The Government has also introduced a range of initiatives designed to reshape public sector buildings and transform the working cultures that they host. Typical amongst these was a recent Parliamentary report that, amongst other things, called for a new approach in the way facilities are designed to deliver better services in a more cost effective way. The report Restarting Britain 2: Design and Public Services was the result of an eight-month investigation led by the Design Commission along with politicians, designers and civil servants.

The same sort of thinking is being applied at a local Government level too. Local authorities are not only being asked to find new ways to procure goods and services, for example by pooling resources with neighbouring authorities, they are also being asked to adopt working methods that deliver better services to their residents and have more in common with coworking spaces than traditional offices.

This is the thinking behind one of the UK’s most innovative property strategies, the One Public Sector Estatescheme which was established two years ago in twelve local authority pilot areas to encourage departments to share offices and other property. The programme was extended last year to another 15 authorities across the country with the Cabinet Office claiming that the pilot schemes had already saved around £21m and that the sale of property freed up by the scheme would eventually raise an additional £88 million. Each local authority taking part in the scheme is expected to apply local knowledge to make more informed decisions about the use, development and divestment of public sector property. The onus is on delivering more efficient solutions which might include the sharing of property and the sale of land as a way of boosting local economies and promoting development.

All of these outcomes may have drawn the attention of legislators in the US, where laws are now being passed to encourage a similar approach to the more economic uses of real estate and the professionalisation of workplace management.

In May, a report from the Judicial Conference of the United States claimed that organisations in the US judiciary have achieved significant savings with an ‘aggressive space and rent reduction initiative’. The study found that departments were well on their way to reducing building space by three percent.

The report appeared shortly before the congressional Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved legislation to further reform the way federal office space is managed, procured and occupied, claiming it had already save $2.5 billion with a series of ad hoc initiatives. The Public Buildings Reform and Savings Act of 2015 has been introduced to reduce and consolidate space, divest buildings, improve oversight of facilities management, negotiate better and shorter lease terms with the aim of saving billions of dollars each year. In particular the legislation is looking to capitalise on the fact that the leases of properties with around one hundred million square feet of space are due to expire within five years.

The scale of the public sector estate in the UK, US and elsewhere inevitably means that the potential savings involved in these kinds of approaches are vast. Even so, the thinking behind them provides a salutary lesson for organisations of all sizes and in all sectors about the possibility of using an innovative approach to save space and resources as well as introduce better ways of working and delivering services.