Graduate+: Mandarins' crushing response to modern building design

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Walk into the Defence and Evaluation Research Agency in Farnborough and you are in light and spacious offices that typify state-of-the-art building design. But enter the Treasury building in Whitehall and you find a dark interior, dominated by wide corridors and private offices that use up space unproductively. Too many public buildings are like the Treasury's headquarters, and too few are like DERA's, says a recent report, and the result is lowered efficiency and reinforcement of rigid hierarchies that squash imagination and make team work impossible.

A hair-shirt mentality controls civil service premises management, which is scared that tabloid newspapers will ridicule spending on good buildings, even though they will produce happier and more effective workforces, it says. Senior civil servants remain appalled by the idea of contact with the lower orders, and demand to be isolated in private offices far away from most of their staff, contrary to modern management theory.

"Many senior managers in the civil service seemed curiously insensitive to the adverse impact on staff morale of their intellectual and physical detachment, their secretive culture, their low level of interactive communication with the vast majority of staff, who often feel disenfranchised from any significant role in decision-making processes," concludes the study from the Contemporary Design Research Centre at De Montfort University led by Gavin Turner, former director of HMSO Furniture.

Private-sector thinking that recognises the link between building design and productivity has been largely ignored by the Civil Service, and even by executive agencies that were intended to bring commercial management practices into public services. "It was our clear impression that none of the major projects we visited really took into account the ability to change the organisational culture (and so improve productivity) in the financial appraisal for the new office design," the study says.

"One large service delivery agency with several thousand (mainly operational) staff had isolated all its senior management in a completely separate wing of its large office complex - but evidently saw no connection between the structure and style of its management and a long history of difficult relations with staff and unions," Mr Turner found. "Another department admitted that a top official's insistence that all Grade 5 directors should be on one floor in their new building was having to be unscrambled with some difficulty because it had proved so deleterious to communication between management and staff."

Where open plan offices have been adopted, the priority has been to enshrine the isolation and perks of senior officials. "In one high profile department, whilst middle and senior managers retained their offices in a large modern building, staff were being crammed into a tight and dismal open plan scheme, at evident damage to morale, but on a clear departmental agenda to pare accommodation costs to the bone."

- Paul Gosling

`The Changing Government Workplace' by Gavin Turner, is published by the Contemporary Design Research Centre at De Mont fort University at pounds 45.