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Is HR failing the public sector?



Yesterday People Management ran an article by a senior HR professional in the public sector regarding the skills and abilities of public sector HR teams. In a somewhat verbose and turgid rant, Graham White argues that the HR departments will “revolutionise the delivery of public sector working”. Despite the fact that I struggle to understand what is actually meant by that phrase (it has a sense of foreboding in my opinion) the sentiment is at odds with my experience.

Coincidentally, I spent the morning with a number of senior HR professionals from across the Public Sector looking at a specific element of working and proposals to make changes in that area.  The single thing that struck me coming out of the meeting was the disconnect between the thinking from this group of people and the actual experience of workers and users of their services. 

In short they were living in a bubble.

If you asked any healthcare professional what they wanted most from their employer, my guess is that they would say the ability to provide better and greater levels of care.  Funnily enough, if you asked any patient what they wanted from the NHS my guess is that they would say the same.  Likewise you could carry out the same process with Teachers and students, the Police and Joe Public and I would argue any single part of the machinery that forms our Local and Central government.

When I suggested that people should understand what their “die in a ditch” purpose was, I was met with blank looks.  I’m sure if the room had been full of people actually working to deliver, they would have told me off the top of their head without any reflection. Sadly that is, in my experience the disconnect between senior management and the battalions of doers.

And this is where I come to HR. The function should be the organisational conscience, it should be the function that has the ability to stand back and challenge as a critical friend. Instead what I see is a lot of minions marching out and “doing” to people without any sense of leadership role.

Badly changing terms and conditions as part of single spine agreements.

Handling redundancies without a modicum of respect or understanding.

Restructuring and structuring without considering the actual people implications.

Failing to address the core concerns of frontline staff.

I’m sure there are good people out there doing good jobs.  I don’t want to tar everyone with the same brush.  But if we want to get the public sector and services that we rightly deserve, the public sector and public services needs to get the leadership that it deserves. And from my experience, when it comes to HR, they are falling woefully short.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. David Palmer permalink
    01/26/2011 09:41

    Resisting prejudice is paying off! Liked it. Thanks.

  2. 01/26/2011 09:55

    My first introduction to public service HR was in the NHS six years ago. I found what should have been a unifying mantra ‘It’s all about the patients’ became a devisive one as each special interest group – GPs, Consultants, Managers, Nurses, Politicians – used it for their own, different, purposes. Each of those big groups also held myriad smaller groups who would equally war with anyone else over exactly what they meant by ‘improving patient care’. In my experience, this culture of conflict and the organisational politics which it led to is the biggest single barrier to change and improvement in every NHS organisation I have ever seen. This is an Organisational Design issue and I agree that the the solutions lie in the HR toolkit. Sadly, I have seen no NHS HR Director able to meet that need and engage the leadership at this level (‘though I have seen some CEOs willing to do so without them).

  3. 01/26/2011 11:51

    Dear HRD,

    As you know I am a ‘consumer’ of HR as I transit the redundancy process.

    I’ve been genuinely surprised that the human element of HR often gets such little attention. It’s so often the case that the ‘protocol says no’ that I’ve given up asking.

    Yet getting the people stuff right is surely at the heart of any successful enterprise?

    Beats me.

    Luckily I’ll soon have some time to contemplate all of this at my leisure.

    Don’t lose the faith.


  4. 01/26/2011 13:04

    This is a topic that I could respond to in buckets. But I’ll restrain myself to one comment.

    In the NHS, I find that closely after want after the ability to provide better care, healthcare staff want better recognition for the efforts in trying to improve the delivery of their service. This is not purely about pay: it’s about being listened to, the boss saying thank you etc. It’s the informal stuff that doesn’t cost anything to implement except a change in behaviour.

    If we managed to “crack this nut”, then we would be one step closer to “getting the public sector and services that we rightly deserve.”

  5. kevwyke permalink
    01/26/2011 15:15

    I think you’re spot on.

    I’ve got this written on my wall at work ‘cos sometimes it’s easy to forget what you really come to work for when you work in the ivory tower

    I want to….
    Improve health
    Improve patients experience of healthcare
    Reduce costs

    I didn’t make this up, i copied it from some clever Americans, not because they are American, but because it struck a cord with me and helps me remember what I come to work to do. It can challenge me, be my concience and help me test whether what I’m doing is actually making the difference I set out to. I guess it is my “die in the ditch” purpose.

    If I ask my HR colleagues what their purpose is I don’t think the answer will be the same. Maybe I’ve got to do something about that.

  6. 01/26/2011 16:27

    You’re on the button HRD both with your comments about the desirable role of HR, and the experiences of public sector managers.

    My own experience as a consultant doing work for the public sector went thus:

    First – glad to.
    Next – uteerly frustrated.
    Next – so frustrated I developed a special public sector pricing. This was normal price plus 50% to alleviate all the frustration. Unfortunately the fuckwit procurement people involved simply interpreted this as a “special price” and simply bought more of my admittedly brilliant services,convinced they were getting a deal.
    Finally – so frustrated that I decided just no more public sector assignments for me thanks.

    Money. Go where mouth is.

  7. Joe Douglas permalink
    01/27/2011 01:00

    Lol you’re quite right, I’ve seen some woefully inadequate leadership from hr within local government, but I’ve also seen some really good leadership from hr however the political and largely unaccountable political leadership in local government dont give a damn about the staff who provide services and refuse to listen to any advice, rather following political dogma instead. I’ve watched hr directors crumple in corridor assignations with lead members, its not pleasant or right but if you have a family to feed you do as your told.

  8. 01/27/2011 08:41

    @David Palmer – Thanks David….glad you stuck around.

    @Kevin Ball – Interesting and I totally agree that the problem lies with the senior HR professionals, only they can make the changes take place.

    @redundantpublicservant – Thanks for taking the time to comment and yes, your plight was one of the things in my mind when I wrote this. I honestly believe that if you cannot treat people with respect, dignity and compassion in HR then you should get the hell out of the profession.

    @karencwise – Interesting. Recognition is perhaps one of the easiest and most cost effective ways of driving motivation. So why can’t they crack it?

    @kevwyke – I’m guessing they would probably read you some sort of mission statement! 🙂

    @Henry – Haha….now that is so bloody awful that it has to be true!

    @Joe Douglas – Welcome and thanks for commenting. That is a really interesting point about lead members. I am certainly aware of one HR Director who was “removed” because they would not implement certain practices that they felt were unethical…..


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