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BIS: Office closure plan is bad policy

“We do not take this decision lightly," said Martin Donnelly, the civil servant in charge of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), when making the shock announcement to staff on 28 January that BIS plans to close its Sheffield site by January 2018. I work in BIS Sheffield and listened to this announcement in utter disbelief. I feel compelled to write about this but have to do so anonymously. This would cost Sheffield around 250 high-quality, high-value policy jobs, and the rest of the country around 100. BIS has said it could decide about Sheffield as early as March, mid consultation. To be clear, the job roles won’t stop. They will all be done in London instead, as BIS intends to move all policy jobs to London, that already over-heated labour market where these jobs aren't needed. No evidence, no cost-benefit information and no detailed options have been offered to back up the proposal. All major BIS policy decisions must have all of these and be open to scrutiny. In this case there is no transparency and an almost contemptuous refusal to allow scrutiny of the decision-making process, even when pressed in Parliament by Sheffield MPs. BIS also refuses to publish the £200,000 report by consultancy firm McKinsey which supposedly informed the plans. The Department states it wants to "modernise the way BIS works, reduce operating costs, and deliver a simpler, smaller department that is more flexible and responsive to stakeholders and businesses". Internally, it says it's about being "close" to ministers. There is no explanation of how any of BIS's plans will make sure it does a better job for ministers or the public, or how they will save money. If saving money is the spur, Sheffield wins hands down. But there is another principle at stake here - that policy thinking and creation should not become an insular and isolated activity undertaken only in London. Civil servants, who inform and advise ministers, and regularly feed in new policy ideas for events such as budgets, statements and speeches needing announcements, will all be London based if BIS forges ahead. The public and the country get a better service from policy development which includes real world experience and diverse perspectives from across the country. A Northern policy base is invaluable for this. Good policy development by its very nature must include a wide range of views and experience. This proposal to move all policy to London is a prime example of bad policy, and it also runs counter to the recognition in Government that a better civil service is “full of people from different backgrounds, experiences, and attitudes, who approach the same problem in different ways,” as Matt Hancock, the cabinet minister responsible for civil service reform, said this February. Civil servants in BIS Sheffield have proven for decades that we can work successfully with ministers on areas like higher education, further education and small business support, ironically including work on the 'Northern Powerhouse'. We did not have to sit by their side, day in, day out, to deliver the work. It's an even greater irony that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has publicly stated it can only work from one location in London. Despite pushing 'smarter working', it can't work across two policy hubs, or with civil servants in different parts of the country, although multi-site working is second nature to most modern businesses. Yet it wants to lead the nation on innovation. The idea that it can send a man into space but can’t work with staff in Sheffield is risible. BIS has the chance to lead Government here, because it has an HQ outside London. It should build on that. Instead it intends to retreat to the dark ages, where work can only be done when people are sitting next to each other. Quills might be optional. If you think this is all beyond ridiculous, please sign and share the petition (link below) and write to Sajid Javid, BIS Secretary of State, via your MP (or he won't see your letter), to ask him about BIS's rationale. Feel free to use any of the points in this article. Pictured: Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for BIS )

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