We have to attract the best people
HR leaders should seize the opportunity provided by increased scrutiny from CEOs to prove their true value, says Karen Grave, president of the Public Services People Managers Association
HR leaders are well placed to explore the three questions at the heart of every successful transformation. What do we do? Why do we do it? And how do we do it?
What does success look like for public sector HR directors? In my view, we need to be a vibrant voice contributing to any debate that has a fundamental impact on our staff and helps us work more effectively and deliver high quality services. At a time when every public service organisation is being challenged to reinvent itself – not once, but often – HR leaders are well placed to explore the three questions at the heart of every successful transformation. What do we do? Why do we do it? And how do we do it?
The people risk has become more acute in public services in recent years, especially in local government. Every HR colleague I know in local government has had to manage at least a handful of major (and minor) transformations since 2010. They are doing this at a time when, since the abolition of the audit regime for local authorities, there is less oversight of these organisations, a change that is already causing real problems. The increased pace of change and budgetary pressures are also affecting colleagues across central government, Blue Light, the third sector and education.
Across the public sector as a whole, the question ‘what does good like?’ must, in part, be answered with evidence. Yet can evidence-based management work in what people increasingly refer to as a ‘post truth world’? In reality, the truth is like the sun: we can hide from it, but isn’t going away.
We work in an environment where the ever increasing public demand for services is not always accompanied by a clear understanding of what we do and why we do it. The old adage that people are entitled to their own opinions but not to their own facts has never been more apt. Yet holding to our ‘truths’ is much more of a challenge today because so many of us only listen to voices – in the media, social media and society – that confirm our inbuilt biases.
For those of us in public service, truth still matters. But we have to accept that, in the public sector, ‘good’ does not automatically mean ‘lowest cost’. We are accountable to our customers, the public, but we need to make savings that are sustainable in the longer term. Where we may be losing people, we need to be sure we are letting the right people go, in the right way and that the data we use to help make those decisions is good. We need to recognise that it will be much harder to successfully transform organisations if we have cut HR and organisational development to the bone.
There is a capacity issue here. HR directors in the public sector are tackling complex issues around transformation and delivery, so it is hard to find the space to take a more strategic view. If you study crisis events in the public sector, it’s clear that the warning lights didn’t start flashing on the day of the event itself, they were there right at the beginning. It is critical that HR leaders and their teams can collect data, analyse it and provide value-added insight so they can detect those warning lights sooner.
This is why it is so important for us to create the right culture and instil the right values. Many leaders who talk about culture see it as something that can be shoved into a box. In reality, culture is reflected in everything the organisation does – from the manner in which strategy is developed to the way people behave.
HR doesn’t always get a fair hearing. The myth that it is a soft, fluffy, not terribly efficient or helpful function, is not as prevalent as it was. But it does linger on in parts, mostly because people, often unjustifiably, are frustrated with what they see as unhelpful process, jargon and acronyms.
Very few people tell the finance department to stop using abbreviations and acronyms. As for people processes and jargon, we need to make it clear that sometimes this is necessary and comes with our being accountable for managing people risk.
It’s not that HR sees itself as terribly important and needing acronyms to justify itself; rather, it’s the risk management that is important. When we talk about disciplinary procedures, for example, the meaning of the words we use has to be absolutely clear and precise. If we don’t manage the people risk correctly, the damage to an organisation’s reputation can be devastating and enduring.
With rising expectations, growing workloads, austere budgets and greater scrutiny from CEOs, it is easy for HR leaders in the public sector to feel overwhelmed. Yet the fact that more CEOs are challenging HR reflects a growing realisation of the function’s true value. The best HR professionals will seize the opportunity to create an ‘employee brand’ that can help public service organisations attract, retain and inspire the best staff.
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