Tough at the top

first_imgTough at the topOn 19 Nov 2002 in Personnel Today Related posts:No related photos. Previous Article Next Article Comments are closed. Workingin public sector HR at a senior level is tough and demanding – organisationsnow need to function as efficiently as their private sector counterparts. Sohow do the roles of working in a local authority and for a governmentdepartment compare? Rob McLuhan talked to two high-fliers who are seeingthrough dramatic change programmesRichardAllenCorporate services director, Department for Environment, Food and RuralAffairs (DEFRA)”Ijoined Defra last year, just after it had been set up as a combination of theold Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) and the environmentsection of the former DETR. As well as merging terms and conditions, I facedthe challenge of  modernising what hadbeen one of the more old fashioned of Whitehall departments, where many of thesystems are 10 years old or more.WhenI joined the department, it was at the start of a long-running pay dispute, andshortly after I arrived, a second one-day strike took place. The problem hadbeen caused by pay differences in the two former departments that came togetheras Defra. So, one of my first priorities was to sort that out, which we didearly this year. In the future, I would like to ensure that staff are notautomatically entitled to more just because someone else is getting it, but onthe basis that we can afford it and they are delivering a good qualityperformance.Defrahas been developing a business strategy, and we are creating an HR strategicframework to sit beside it, so most of my efforts are on the policy side,getting the strategy into place and creating some early deliverables on pay andawards, and on performance management. Weare looking at developing people’s skills to meet the challenges ahead, and oneof my main activities is developing a workforce strategy. Today I will bemaking a presentation to the five departmental ministers and the managementboard on the process of identifying training and development needs. We need toknow where senior managers expect their staff to be deployed and what sort ofskills they have. We can then decide whether these are to be developedin-house, or whether recruitment is required. One element of the programme willbe to put all senior managers, and probably other managers as well, throughdevelopment centres.Weare running a Better Quality Services (BQS) review, which corresponds roughlyto a Best Value review in local authorities and is effectively a fundamentalreview of all our personnel services. We are asking what services the customerwould like us to provide, although that may not necessarily coincide with whatthey need, or with what we can afford. As well as restructuring and improvingthe existing service, there could also be more radical change, up to andincluding outsourcing.Ona day-to-day level, I have an occasional meeting or phone conversation with theminister, and I also regularly attend the management board to discuss aspectsof our strategic programme. I will also meet from time-to-time with varioussub-committees of the management board on policy issue. In the directorate as awhole, I have about 700 people, spread between London, Exeter, York, andAlnwick, near Newcastle, and will often attend team meetings in differentlocations.Modernisingthe relationship with the trade unions is an important challenge, and I talkwith their representatives quite frequently, to negotiate or liaise on mattersof policy. The old MAFF didn’t work as constructively in that area as it mighthave, so we are trying to be more open and develop a common vision. Instead ofthe old battle for power, we want to move towards to a partnership approach,where there is give and take on both sides. For instance, we have offered thema place on the steering group of the BQS review. Clearly, they absolutely opposeissues like outsourcing, but it’s better that they should know what’s going on,and have a chance to contribute to a discussion of the policy.Someof my work I do on my own – preparing a first draft of the pay and workforcestrategy for the Treasury, for instance, which I have been doing quite a bit ofat home. That involved getting reactions both in the department and theTreasury.Ialso have meetings with HR in the Treasury and Cabinet Office. That is partlyto liaise with them on matters such as the terms and conditions, andarrangements for pay, which the CO controls. But the CO also brings departmentstogether to discuss the common issues we all face. That is particularly usefulfor us, because we have quite a lot of catching up to do in some respects, andthis is a good way to exchange experiences. The CO is organising a recruitmentseminar, where there will be a presentation from someone in another departmentwhich went through a lot of the processes we face. Aproject I am particularly interested in is upward mentoring. This involvesjunior managers sitting in with seniors, observing them at work and offeringfeedback. The aim is to help senior managers with their personal developmentneeds, such as effectiveness at meetings or active listening. That is quite achallenge in what is, after all, a very hierarchical organisation, and for ajunior to tell a senior their performance could be improved requires a lot oftrust on both sides. But to me it is an innovative way of underlining that peopleare more important than hierarchy.Onereason why I am keen for this to go forward is that I have seen it work well inother departments, although admittedly at a more junior management level. Thepeople doing the mentoring were the most enthusiastic bunch I had come acrossin 30 years in the Civil Service. Aspart of the service review, we are looking at introducing intranet systems thatwill provide employee self service and other electronic functions. I would bevery surprised if this didn’t emerge as the way forward, but it will depend tosome extent on the resources available.Thekey for me is equipping managers and leaders to manage better. It is the peoplewho operate the systems, particularly the managers, who can bring about changeand make the organisation better able to meet the challenges facing us. In thepublic sector, you are never going to have big salary bonuses that reallymotivate people. But what you can do is create signals that promise rewards tothe best performers, and move them up the progression scales faster.Thisis a fascinating job with a tremendous range of challenges. As in many publicsector organisations, we do struggle with resources. But we have made a goodstart. If you came back in a year, you would see we have achieved a great deal.”JackieWiltshireHead of HR, Wokingham Council”InApril 1998, Berkshire County Council was broken into six unitary councils, ofwhich Wokingham is one.WhenI joined as head of HR in January 1999, the personnel service was in quite apoor state. Morale was low and although staff were working hard, they were notachieving what they should. So, one of my first tasks was to refocus the wholefunction, carrying out a Best Value review in personnel, and making importantchanges.Oneearly conclusion was that the HR department, with 20 staff, was too small toprovide a service to all 4,500 employees. That has been addressed byoutsourcing the education service, which means we now provide for a moremanageable 1,500 staff. However, my team does combine the personnel admin withtraining and development. It was very important to me to have the two sidesintegrated, as they are both working towards the same solutions. Inthe process of carrying out our Best Value review, it emerged that the councilas a whole has been too focused on financial management and budgets rather thanits people, which are its main resource. So we have done a lot to address that,becoming more focused on people management in order to make a difference. Myfirst priority was to find out what HR was doing and align that with what ourmanagers actually need. That involved marketing ourselves internally and to theorganisation as a whole about what personnel can do. The department was veryfocused on administration, and although that side certainly needed to improve,I wanted to provide a very different service based on strategy and policy.Butthat was quite novel for my staff, who had never had a head of HR before, andhad never really discussed what the function was all about. So before I didanything else, I had to coach them out of the administrational mind-set, andhelp them shape a different view of HR.Onecriticism was that personnel staff were very remote, and managers could not puta face to a name. We dealt with that head on. We set up an intranet site withour photos and descriptions of what we do. And we made sure we got out of theoffice and went to talk to people.Sincethen, we have also earned an excellent reputation for training and development.We have a management development course, as well as practical workshops ontopics such as time management, and how to get the most from a PC. We also givehelp with issues such as stress at work.Whenthe council restructured, it amalgamated part of the old Berkshire Council withthe local district council here in Wokingham. That meant we inherited a ragbagof old employment policies, and needed to develop a range of new ones, agreeingon rights and responsibilities, and establishing norms of behaviour.Oneof our main projects is reviewing the structure of the council. We would preferstaff to work on a corporate basis, but the reality is they are ratherdepartmental, so it is taking some doing. We carried out a consultation and areputting together a set of proposals for the councillors.Gettingdown to businessRightnow I am involved in harmonising terms and conditions, not just between whiteand blue collar workers, but also between the different elements the unitarycouncil was formed from. This project has taken a year, and I am about to gointo final negotiations.Oneof my activities is helping departments with their service plans. This year, wehave had a joint inspection by the Social Services Inspectorate and the AuditCommission, and are preparing a draft report. That is a very long piece of workto prepare for. It is a good example of what personnel does, since the trainingand development we provide for social services is crucial to the quality ofwhat that department offers.Anotherissue I have had to deal with is the fall-out from our attempt to outsource therevenue and benefits service in 1998. There were problems with the externalprovider, so it was brought back in-house in August. Having transferred our ownstaff, we now had to bring them back, which was rather peculiar. Most of themwere glad to be with the council again, but the consultations we had were quitecomplex. We wanted to change the service to make it more successful, but at thesame time had to stick to the TUPE agreements.Weare now carrying out an employee opinion survey for the second year. I am proudof this work because resources are tight, we do not use external consultants,and we did it entirely in-house. Last year’s survey achieved a 56 per centcompletion rate, which is pretty good. Each department produced an action planbased on our analysis, and we are about to have an away-day when managers willreport back on what they have achieved as a result.Aswell as managing my own department, I am the top personnel adviser at thecouncil. I am involved in anything that has people management implications,advising the chief executive and elected members. At the end of the lastfinancial year, we had a budget crisis, and had to make a savings plan. HR wasvery involved in looking at financial implications, freezing some posts andplanning for possible redundancies, although, luckily, we managed to getthrough without making any.However,the restructuring has created some vacancies, and we are now recruiting a headof property and head of legal. So a current task is to agree the arrangements,and members of my team have been popping in to see me, to check the drafting ofthe advertisements.Fromtime-to-time I will get in touch with my counterparts in other localauthorities, or deal with their enquiries. Many of them are doing similarthings to us, and we can save a lot of time by swapping information and advice.Besides the other five Berkshire unitaries, my network includes South EastEmployers, a regional umbrella organisation for local authorities.Everylocal authority is going through a Comprehensive Performance Assessment. We hadours in the early summer, and it concluded that we have done well to get as faras we have. But now we have to plan for the long term, which means beingfocused and creative. The difficulty is that resources are tight, which makesit hard to carry out step change. It is a challenge for personnel along withthe rest of the organisation.Localgovernment can be up there with the big corporate players when it comes todemonstrating best practice – the fact we were shortlised by Personnel Todayfor the award in communications strategy demonstrates this.Thisachievement is particularly satisfying because we did it by using our owncreativity and skills, rather than having money ploughed into it.”                          nlast_img read more