Changing the culture

Cara
Davani describes the challenges she faces as head of HR for the London Borough
of Tower Hamlets. Roisin Woolnough reports

When
Cara Davani took on the job of head of HR at the London Borough of Tower
Hamlets earlier this year, people warned her it would be tough. "I had a
number of people say to me that this was the worst HR job at this level,"
she says. "It’s an incredibly deprived area, there are 10,000 staff and
there hadn’t been anyone occupying my job in a permanent capacity for two and a
half years. Although there had been interim consultants doing this role and
there was a basis for an HR strategy, that absence of someone permanent created
real leadership problems with HR and problems in terms of consistency."

The
first thing Davani needed to do was establish where the council was at and
where it was going. "A key thing I wanted was to have a good understanding
of the direction the organisation was going in so that I could then work out
how to shape HR," says Davani.

Tower
Hamlets council has worked hard to improve its services and image over the past
few years and Davani says those efforts are paying off. "We have more
regeneration and development in this borough than in the rest of London put
together." While Davani is pleased about all the regeneration initiatives,
they have also made her job harder because HR needs to provide the framework
within which to achieve the necessary changes. "The council has a great
programme for accelerating improvement, but HR is not in that good a position
yet," explains Davani. "We are trying to support the organisation and
trends of moving upward and at the same time, getting ourselves in HR to an
acceptable standard."

The
area is made up of a very diverse mix of communities – more than 70 per cent of
under 16s belong to minority ethnic groups and 93 different languages are
spoken in the borough. The council recently won a Government award for
community cohesion and for improving relations between the different
communities. One of two London boroughs to achieve Beacon status, Tower Hamlets
was praised for tackling the fragmentation of its various communities and for
transforming its social services – now one of the country’s top 20 improving
services.

The
council also did well in the Government’s new performance league tables for
local authorities in England as well, achieving the second highest rating
(good) and the Audit Commission praised the extent to which the council has
improved its services. The education services were singled out as being the
fastest improving in the country – at three times the national average rate of
improvement.   

HR
was also singled out in the Comprehensive Performance Assessment, but as an
area that needed improvement. "While we as a council came out well in
terms of service provision, what came out was that one of the weaknesses has
been HR," says Davani. She thinks this assessment process has actually
made it easier for her to push through reform and explain why change is needed.

To
implement any changes, Davani knew she needed senior management support so she
organised an away day for 25 of her top managers. She presented what she felt
was the framework for the way to move forward, talking about which structures
were right and which were wrong. "I got huge buy in then," she says.

Davani
has encountered a fair bit of resistance to her change programme, but she says
that this initial senior level buy-in was crucial to ensuring change could
happen.

"The
clear message I was giving is that we’ve got to change," she says.
"Staying as we were was not an option as we were failing to deliver what
we needed to deliver." Had they not changed, Davani thinks the HR service would
have been downgraded or outsourced altogether. "The activities of the HR
function would have shrunk and it would have become a very operational service
only."

Fortunately,
Davani likes a challenge and has got used to overcoming resistance in previous
jobs.

"In
a lot of my roles I’ve been involved in reviewing and creating HR units from
scratch or in places where there hasn’t been much respect for them. I enjoy
that."

Having
reviewed the provision of services in Tower Hamlets council, Davani then embarked
upon a fundamental restructuring of HR across the organisation. She now has a
head of HR strategy, a head of training and development, a head of payroll and
pensions and head of HR operations, all of whom report to her.

While
most other London boroughs have been busy decentralising their HR activity,
Davani has actually centralised part of hers. However, she has left education
and social services decentralised for now because she considers them to be
effectively run units.

The
other departments have their own head of HR, but they ultimately report to her.
Some departments have been merged, such as payroll and pensions, because of
duplication.

 "I did it purely because we want
consistency and to raise standards," she explains. "I am a strong
advocate of centralising HR activity, enhancing efficiency and making sure
there is not duplication of efforts. I would like to demonstrate that we can
successfully provide an improved service from the centre."

In
the past, Davani says there had been a tendency for the different departments
to act autonomously and while that may have worked on a local level, it also
impacted on the organisation as a whole.

Profile
raising

Davani
thinks the whole process of reviewing the council’s services and establishing
the role HR has to play within that has actually raised the profile of HR.
"Organisations need to understand the key contribution that HR can make
within their organisation, particularly in terms of moving change forward and
the strategic agenda. That had not been fully understood in this organisation
but, positively for me, there is a new chief executive who is incredibly
committed to HR."

The
review process highlighted recruitment as a real problem area and one of
Davani’s key aims now is to improve the council’s ability to attract and retain
staff. She has joined forces with other public sector organisations in the
borough – the police, Jobcentre plus, NHS, education authority, fire service
and housing association – to devise strategies to improve recruitment and
retention and make the public sector a more popular career option for local
people. She thinks there is a lot of work to be done overcoming the image
problem that the public sector suffers right across the UK. These stereotypical
views are often even more pronounced in deprived areas.

 "We are tackling the public perception
of working in public sector organisations," she says. "The
traditional view is of it being a place where people can take it easy, don’t
have to work too hard and are there for life. And that it’s bureaucratic and
not a desirable place for an up and coming ambitious young person to work. That
couldn’t be further from the truth. In particular, there are some black and
ethnic minority people who will avoid certain professions, so we are trying to
overcome those barriers."

Originally,
the various bodies came together for what was supposed to be a one-off seminar,
but the initiative proved so successful, that it has become a more long-term
partnership. A series of roadshows are planned from mid-October to the end of
December, promoting the public sector as employers, particularly to young
people. There will be different events, such as a session in a mosque and an
initiative to attract more disabled people, and the Council has created some
glossy brochures, detailing the different careers possible in the public
sector. "We have some case studies to focus on particular careers in the
public sector," explains Davani. "Say someone wants to become a
social worker, we can show them a case study. We want to create a different
image and these will be feel good stories."

The
council has secured around £40,000 in Government funding through a
Neighbourhood Renewal Bid to finance the project, although some of that is
earmarked for another initiative – developing a joint management and leadership
programme with the local primary care trust, specifically aimed at black and
ethnic minority groups.

Housing
is another area that needs attention. Davani says they are giving residents the
chance to decide who looks after their housing service. "It’s a major
strategic review of the housing service," she says. "And it could
have huge staffing implications for us in terms of TUPE."

Gaining
credibility

Davani
thinks legislation is one of the big bugbears of HR. "The sheer volume of
it is affecting my job," she says. 
She worries about the potential for more employment tribunals, but right
now, she is feeling pretty pleased with the changes she has made and the effect
they have had. "I have been keen to raise the profile of the HR service
and it already has more credibility than it did at the beginning of the year.
That’s a real personal achievement."

But
then, Davani says, she is used to having to prove herself and gaining
credibility through her achievements.

Having
recently turned 30, she has twice been recruited by employers sceptical about
her age. "The people wanted to see me and were interested in what I had to
say, but they thought I was too young to do a director’s job," she says.
"Both those people recruited me and I feel very pleased that I’ve managed
to gain the credibility I’ve gained in terms of employers I’ve had at the age
I’m at. People think I’m young to be doing this job, but I like a challenge"

Although
Davani regularly attends board meetings at the council, she is not actually a
member of the board. For her next job, she intends to be a boardroom player and
not necessarily in the public sector. "I’m not sure the private sector
would have me now because I’ve been in the public sector so long, but I really
believe in the corporate vision. Primarily though, I want to be on the board of
a large organisation. Or taking it one step further, I would be interested in
looking at more corporate roles, incorporating HR. An assistant chief executive,
say."

For
now though, she is enjoying the experience of working in a London borough and
believes passionately in the public sector ideals – if only people would stop
complaining. "We need to lose this culture of people complaining about
their organisation," she says.

Tower
Hamlets Factfile


There are 17 wards in Tower Hamlets


The population is around 185,000 and is predicted to increase to more than
203,000 by 2006


Tower Hamlets has the second highest proportion of under-16s in London at just
under 30 per cent. More than 70 per cent of these belong to ethnic minority
groups


A little over 25 per cent of the Tower Hamlets population is Bangladeshi, one
in 12 is black, plus there are sizeable Chinese and Vietnamese communities


Unemployment stands at around 12 per cent, compared to 3.6 per cent for the UK
as a whole and 5.6 per cent for London

Tower
Hamlets HR’s key role

HR
needs to help the council achieve the following aims:


Build local vision and direction


Enable community involvement


Secure improvements in services and standards


Ensure equality, access and inclusion


Manage conflict and competing demands


Make the best use of resources


Account for performance and service quality

Curriculum
Vitae Cara Davani

2003  London Borough of Tower Hamlets service head
of HR

2000
– 2002  Director of HR, Suffolk College

1998-2000  Personnel Manager, Tendring District Council

1996-1998  Personnel Officer, Tendring District Council

1991-1996  Various personnel officer roles, Suffolk
County Council social services

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