A day in the life of… a public sector HR director

Mirriam Lawton

Mirriam Lawton, assistant chief executive, people and performance, at Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council, prefers to work quietly behind the scenes. But as lead instigator of a major change programme within Tameside’s HR division, she has had to get used to a life in the spotlight.

She sat her Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development qualification after some 26 years of public service. With a young family at the time, she completed the three-year qualification in just eight months. She had, quite simply, “got the bug”.

“I wanted to move HR to a different model – to look at the bigger picture,” she says.

Lawton got her break in 1998 when, after 15 years, the HR director retired. The council appointed a new director from the private sector, who left soon after.

Lawton volunteered to step into the breach and has been putting her grand scheme into practice ever since.

Her first task was to re-energise HR while juggling a remit to slash £400,000 per year from the department’s budget.

Lawton centralised the HR function. A corporate centre now employs 84 members of staff and handles all HR, health and safety and training needs across the council. “I took a demoralised function and built a new one in less than a year – without a single redundancy,” she says.

Six years on, and Lawton’s working day is more hectic than ever. It typically begins at 8am, checking e-mails and internal memos. By 9am, Lawton is involved in meetings, both inter-departmental and executive, and with external partners such as the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities. Between meetings she will see HR staff for coaching or to go over work programmes.

The role involves a lot of networking to ensure HR ties in with what the council is doing as a whole. “I need to know where the council is heading strategically so we can help make it happen,” she says.

Lawton’s day usually ends between 6pm and 7pm, but can be considerably later if there is a council meeting. A 15-minute lunch break between meetings is not unusual.

She acknowledges the frenetic pace and is aware of the need to strike a healthy work-life balance. “I won’t take work home if I can help it,” she says.

She has also introduced a wellbeing programme at Tameside. Employees undertake an online questionnaire, which assesses stress, eating habits and sleep patterns, among other things. A lifestyle plan is devised from the results. Staff have access to social running groups and an annual bike ride. There are exercise classes at lunchtime and a healthy breakfast programme.

The results are impressive. There has been a 30% improvement in health and attendance year-on-year since the wellbeing initiative was introduced. Employees on the programme have reported being 5% more productive at work, and they take 21% less time off sick than the average Tameside member of staff.

A key priority for the department is its people strategy, which embraces issues of equal pay and an ageing workforce. “We need to ensure there is female representation in the top 5% of jobs, and that the ethnic diversity represents the wider community,” says Lawton.

The council also has a radical ‘no redundancy’ practice, which Lawton believes will lead to a wholly different way of working.

Lawton admits the change will not be easy. “The government agenda is squeezing us,” she says. “We need the right talent in the organisation to get to the right place. It’s like chess – you’re always thinking two moves ahead.”

Mirriam Lawton’s CV

Assistant chief executive, people and performance, Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council

History

Lawton is a public sector stalwart. Her career spans 34 years and a range of responsibilities. Her first job at Tameside in 1979 was a staffing clerk, moving on to stints in administration and HR – eventually working her way up the departmental ladder.

Francesca Okosi

When Francesca Okosi joined the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in 2003, charged with bringing about wide-scale change in the organisation, the task seemed daunting.

Staff morale was at an all-time low following the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and a hostile merger with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

“The organisation was very bruised,” says Okosi. “There was a merger with two very distinct cultures, and leadership was lacking. HR was not respected in the business at all and there was real resistance from line managers to take responsibility for people. Our policy and structures were cumbersome, and IT either didn’t work or failed to support.”

Since then much has changed. HR transaction services have been relocated to a shared services centre in York and support the whole of Defra and its partner businesses. A staff cull pushed the ratio of HR to the business from 1:22 in 2002 to roughly 1:65  now.

That process highlighted the need for structured people management within the organisation. “It is clear we need a strategic framework on how we tackle people,” says Okosi. “We don’t have that.”

Okosi is working to develop a three- to five-year people strategy, underpinned by the Investors in People programme. She hopes this will provide clarity on the values of the organisation.

“We need to show staff how they will be supported to ensure they are performing at the highest level, and explain what opportunities exist for their career,” says Okosi.

“We must provide good leadership from line managers, and give staff an environment which is safe and fair, where they are proud to work and have the ability to develop skills.”

Defra has come a long way under Okosi’s guidance. The department has agreed a seven-year partnership deal with IBM to modernise the IT infrastructure and improve delivery of HR services. It has also introduced mobile working, with broadband available to staff at home, as well as laptop computers and personal digital assistants.

However, Okosi is against a long-hours  working culture. Although she frequently takes work home, she discourages staff from following her example, and even delays delivery of e-mails until the following day so staff aren’t tempted to check them after hours.

“I don’t want to give the impression to young workers that to get to a senior position you need to become a one-sided individual who doesn’t have a life outside the workplace,” she says.

Instead, Okosi tries to be a good role model. Her daily goal is a half-hour lunch break and a 10-minute break for fresh air, and she has started using a pedometer while walking to and from the train station.

At least once a fortnight, Okosi will work from home – to complete paperwork, but also to get some ‘quiet’ time. “I do some research and thinking,” she says. “At times the office is frantic, so I have one day out just to think.”

Okosi says that Defra is now a different workplace. The department is more confident, leadership and delivery has improved, as has its reputation with its customers and its stakeholders.

However, she stresses there is still some way to go. “As a department, we are part-way through the journey. We’re not the poor cousins that we were five years ago. But we are not there yet,” she says.

“It’s a challenging place to be when you have gone through huge change. People are tired but you have to tell them to keep going,” she adds.

Francesca Okosi’s CV

Director of HR and corporate services, Defra

History

Okosi has worked in some of the poorest boroughs in London, including Newham, Hackney and Brent, tackling high unemployment and major strike action. She joined central government in 2003 as director of change at Defra. She has since been promoted and is responsible for the department’s HR, estates and security functions.


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