The biggest HR project since the 1940s

A great post from Karen Wise recounts a conversation she had with a senior HR manager in the civil service who is trying to prepare her organisation for spending cuts of somewhere between twenty-five and forty percent.

Among the challenges she faces are the sheer logistics of making so many people redundant, the cost, given that most will get three years pay, the reluctance of many employees to relocate when offices are closed, the potential loss of skills and directors who, despite all the evidence, seem to think that such a drastic downsizing can be achieved without any compulsory redundancies.

Similar problems are being faced by HR professionals across the public sector and, as Karen says, they will have a rough ride ahead. Managing the downsizing, though, is only half the battle. If the government is serious about the radical re-configuration of public services, the HR challenges will be massive.

The government’s vision of a more localised, flexible and responsive state, where social enterprises, charities and the private sector become more involved in the delivery of services, implies a significant restructuring of public sector organisations. Some public servants will be transferred to these new organisations. Even those that remain on the state payroll may find themselves working for completely new types of public body. Joint ventures between the NHS, local authorities, government departments, charities, social enterprises and outsourced service providers could see large numbers of people changing employers. Old pay-scales and grading structures will be trashed, old HR policies binned, new terms and conditions implemented, new agreements negotiated with trade unions and new organisation structures designed. Many people, such as the GPs who are about to become healthcare commissioners, will have to acquire new skills very quickly.

The cultural and behavioural changes will be an even greater challenge. Silo-based, territorial organisations, where status is defined by the size of a manager’s budget, are not going to become fluid, innovative and collaborative operations overnight. Already, Total Place, or place-based budgeting, the scheme to encourage public sector bodies to collaborate to create more efficient services, has run up against public sector tribalism. Local authority bosses have accused both the NHS and some government departments of refusing to share resources and information. Charities have expressed concern about the scheme being dominated by local politicians.

Clearly, the public sector will need a massive shift in assumptions, attitudes and behaviour if the promised transformation of public services is to be achieved. Some public servants will find it hard to make this shift and will quit. More of a problem will be those who tip their hats to the new constitution while carrying on pretty much as before.

All this change will take place against a background of increased trade union militancy, labour unrest and industrial action. At the same time, HR professionals will be expected to merge their departments’ transactional activities into shared service centres and halve the ratio of HR staff to employees.

Public sector HR professionals face a daunting task, then, but this is not really surprising. The public sector is a people intensive business. It cannot change unless the people in it change.

Last month, when Patrick Butler described the restructuring of the public sector as “the biggest public management challenge since the creation of the welfare state and the NHS” he wasn’t exaggerating. Perhaps ten to fourteen percent of the public sector workforce will lose their jobs but almost all state employees will be affected in some way by the restructuring. Add in those who work in the public sector but are not employed by it and it is fair to assume that one in four workers in the UK will be touched in some way by the reconfiguration the public sector over the next four years. Terms and conditions will be changed, workplaces relocated, employing organisations merged and de-merged, reporting lines and responsibilities changed and, crucially, expectations of performance raised. Many people’s working lives will change and it will be the job of public sector HR professionals to manage and facilitate that process.

A few people will do very well out of all this. Some public sector executives will make names for themselves over the next five years or so as, most probably, will the consultants who advise them. Those with the required skills who find themselves in the right place at the right time will see their reputations enhanced. Some twenty- and thirty-something managers will gain the sort of experience that will fast-track their careers. And, as in any major upheaval, a handful of charlatans and carpetbaggers will make a killing too.

We don’t know what the public sector will look like in five years time but we can be sure that it be a lot different from today. Whatever the end result, this transformation will affect a huge number of people. It is, indeed, the biggest people management project since the Attlee government created the welfare state and the NHS. When we look back on it, as in all epic tales, there will be heroes, villains and fools. They are all out there now, waiting for their parts to be written.

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2 Responses to The biggest HR project since the 1940s

  1. Pingback: The biggest HR project since the 1940s - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Simon says:

    When we look back on it, as in all good stories, there will be heroes, villains and fools. They are all out there now, waiting for their parts to be written.

    The heroes will look at the lines and adapt them to the circumstances to achieve the desired goals.

    The villains will be writing their own lines and unashamedly ignoring the goals.

    The fools will be those who can’t tell the difference.

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