Government HR directors hampered by Whitehall mandarins

Bright HR chiefs at the Civil Service are being hampered by senior leaders unwilling to make “unpopular decisions” to improve leadership, recruitment and skills gaps, a former HR chief at a major department has warned.

The latest round of Whitehall capability reviews across five departments have highlighted once again core problems with people management and HR systems. The problems have prevailed since 2007 when the initial reviews took place, meaning “little lessons have been learned” – despite the Civil Service hiring at least 25 private sector HR chiefs to iron out problems.

Francesca Okosi-Arimah, the former HR director at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said she was unsurprised and disappointed at the latest review. But she added that it was impossible to blame HR this time round, when they had come up against a “brick wall” from the leadership team.

Okosi-Arimah, who left Defra in 2008, told Personnel Today: “There has been a complete turnaround in HR, you can’t continue to blame the HR function.

“The early [2007] reviews led to HR casualties and HR held its hands up. But it is about leadership in the organisation too. You can put in all the processes you want in HR, but if there isn’t the commitment to own those decisions by the top leadership team it won’t work.”

Senior managers need to radically change how they recruit people, so that the best people managers, and not necessarily the best policy makers, make it to the top, Okosi-Arimah said.

“The prevailing culture is to promote people who are bright in policy but who aren’t good leaders. Managers don’t want to make the unpopular decision of dealing with people who are underperforming, or aren’t clear with what good performance looks like.”

Okosir-Arimah admitted she was a lone voice in trying to change procedures. “I should have built stronger allies and made sure leaders were on the same page – but it was a lonely place to be and I wasn’t able to make my mark.”

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman, speaking on behalf of all departments, said: “The reviews have found good examples of HR stepping up its game, but there is still more to do. The model covers a range of capability issues and HR has a key role to play in helping to improve departmental capability in some of these.”

What the capability reviews found

  • Department for Culture, Media & Sport: still has leadership problems
  • Department for International Development: still has problems with financial and risk management
  • Defra: still has poor engagement/morale
  • Foreign and Commonwealth Office: “self-service” HR model isn’t working
  • Ministry of Defence: line managers are still ignoring HR’s performance management systems

Source: Capability Reviews 2009

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