New technology is changing the public sector workforce for the better, says Louis Coiffait. There may even come a day when an app will find that last-minute supply teacher…

Reform this week publishes a report on the public sector workforce, Work in Progress. It describes how the workforce is changing, but also how these changes must accelerate to meet the demands and expectations of modern citizens. It has clear insights for education, in Whitehall and schools.

First, the report highlights just how the workforce matters more than anything else in public services.

Ensuring that people with the right skills and behaviours are in the right roles, is central to the success of students and the satisfaction of staff. The school workforce, which is the second largest in the public sector, cost £29.4 billion in 2014-15 – 70.2 per cent of the total schools’ budget.

If there’s one thing to get right, then the workforce must be it.

There could be a rating and review system, for teachers and schools

If school leaders and governors can’t find the right people to fill their vacancies, or the budget to pay their salaries, it can be hard for them to think creatively and long term about their staff. But I’ve seen how some are already managing to do exactly that.

New technologies, sustained investment in professional development, and regularly updated processes offer an opportunity to increase the “productivity” of all staff.

For instance, routine tasks such as arranging appointments, can be largely automated – with some schools already offering self-service calendars online and tablet computer check-in onsite.

This probably won’t mean every receptionist and administrator is replaced overnight, rather that more of their core tasks are automated – resulting in lower staff numbers and a changing job. It also explains why most of us now bank online or use automated terminals.

Digitised administration also reduces or eliminates paper communication that require costly printing, postage and manual data entry. Schools are increasingly communicating via digital apps with parents, which can be more effective and less time-consuming than phone calls and letters.

Complex tasks can be augmented, allowing staff to focus on the things that only they can do and that really make a difference – like teaching. We’re already seeing how next-generation MIS systems can rapidly analyse data, spot patterns and make predictions to save staff time, allocate resources, and inform decisions.

We also predict that soon the education system will see a new generation of “contingent-labour” or “gig economy” platforms – think Uber or Deliveroo, but for directly employing supply teachers or exam invigilators.

In practice this might mean agency staff are largely replaced by an online platform that allows schools and supply teachers to connect directly and immediately through an intuitive app. Schools could quickly refine their search by subject, experience level or different feedback measures.

Likewise, the supply teachers might be able to filter opportunities by working pattern, hourly rate, travel time or feedback. It could feature an appropriate rating and review system, for both teachers and schools. A simple version of this currently allows Uber drivers or Airbnb hosts to rate their customer and so encourage good behaviour. To deal with any data and tax issues, a national platform might be government-owned, with elements then contracted out. This would also ensure the same standard information was available to everybody.

This will be controversial and rightly raises questions about the quality of both delivery and jobs. But it also offers a chance for more flexible and focused work – all at a lower cost, with far smaller agency profit margins. It should also suit those people who prioritise flexible, portfolio work. The social care sector has trialled such approaches and found benefits compared with traditional agency models. Such platforms might also create new entry routes to careers in education, diversifying the workforce and its skills further.

Some of these changes can be challenging, but this isn’t about robot-teachers – it’s about making sure all public-sector workers, especially in education, are empowered to use the latest tools and thinking.

This public-sector workforce report allows observations and lessons to be drawn from across different services. Reform will next look in more depth at how these high-level recommendations can be translated into leaner, smarter police, NHS and education workforces. Watch this space.