Creative thinking gets results

“There is a perception that working in HR in the public sector is dull,” says Andrew Foster, HR director of the NHS. “But nothing could be further from the truth.”

Foster, who has seen NHS budgets double since New Labour came to power in 1997, says many aspects of Europe’s biggest employer are going through massive change – from the IT infrastructure and legislation, to new drugs and services.

“Everything is being reformed,” he says. “With this Government’s emphasis on public services, HR in the public sector is no longer a quiet backwater.”

This point is echoed by Jan Parkinson, strategic director of HR at Gateshead Council. “You really feel like you are making a difference when you are supporting vital services such as education, social services and health,” she says.

This motivates many people who choose an HR career in a public sector organisation, according to Angela O’Connor, HR director at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). But, she warns, HR professionals entering the public sector will not find an overtly touchy-feely environment.

“HR people in the public sector have to be tough,” she says. “We are in the public eye and, compared with the private sector, are scrutinised a lot.”

And with money so tight, O’Connor says public sector HR practitioners need to be innovative.

“We haven’t got unlimited budgets – we can’t spend three weeks in the Brecon Beacons being creative,” she says.

Personnel Today asked these HR leaders what they have achieved by being innovative in the public sector.

Positives from partnership

Jan Parkinson, strategic director of HR, Gateshead Council

“Recruitment is one area where we have been innovative because traditionally, we have struggled to attract younger people – vital for our workforce planning.

“We have partnered with local NHS trusts, which also see this as an important issue, to jointly finance an advertising campaign to promote working in the public sector in the area.

“Called ‘Get on with Gateshead’, the adverts show real young people working for the council in a variety of roles from refuse collectors to lawyers. The message is obviously getting through as 500 young people attended our last recruitment fair, 10 per cent of whom were from ethnic minorities.

“We have also used the partnership approach for our training and development. A scheme called the Gateshead Public Services Academy has brought together employees from Gateshead Council, Gateshead Primary Care Trust and Northumbria University for a number of courses.

“We have had positive feedback from those who attended, especially from those at management level. They point to the cross-fertilisation of ideas and shared best practice as additional positives to come out of the sessions.”

Bar work for all

Angela O’Connor, HR director, Crown Prosecution Service

“Prior to my current role, I was head of HR for Hackney Council where we were faced with a dilemma.

“The organisation was virtually bankrupt and Ofsted reports at the time showed the reading levels among children in the borough were unsatisfactory.

“We initiated a project to train 100 council staff in literacy teaching skills. We then gave each employee a couple of hours off each week to go into primary schools and help with reading lessons.

“Before long, we saw improvements in reading levels and council staff reported feeling a direct link between their work and the people they served. It also showed HR could have a positive impact, rather than just being a cost centre.

“At the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), we struggle to recruit the best trainee lawyers and barristers because we can’t compete with many private firms in terms of the salaries we offer. To alleviate this, we now enable CPS employees, from a variety of backgrounds, to train within the organisation. This is a long-term initiative, as many employees who enter the scheme do not have degrees and will have a lot of studying ahead of them.

“Currently, we have 300 internal scholars. Those who have been given a chance to study for qualifications feel enormous loyalty to the organisation, which bodes well for the future of the CPS.

“Bringing together internally-trained employees who understand the organisation, with new blood from outside, is a brilliant combination for going forward.”

From global to local

Andrew Foster, HR director, NHS

“There has been a huge drive towards recruitment in recent years. Non-medical staff [all staff except doctors] numbers have grown by almost 250,000 since 1997 and by 59,000 in each of the past two years.

“Some trusts, such as the Ashford and St Peter’s Trust in Middlesex have adopted e-recruitment, using the internet. This has saved 100,000 and has enabled it to recruit skilled workers from abroad. For example, four radiographers recently joined the trust from Kuwait.

“Staff retention is also seen as vital and several NHS trusts in London have introduced childcare services to help employees enjoy a better work-life balance. Kings College, for example, says this has enabled it to cut staff turnover by 3 per cent and reduce the reliance on agency staff by 9,000 man hours in the past year.

“The backdrop to this is a massive drive to reform pay, which has been five years in the making. This has seen 650 different job descriptions redefined and a move to a competency-based pay system.”

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