HR strategy forum

Ask our experts. Personnel Today would like readers to send in their
strategic HR dilemma. All questions will remain anonymous and will be forwarded
to our strategy forum members, two of whom will provide step-by-step advice in
the magazine. Send your dilemmas to

The dilemma
Improving performance at a local authority

I have just joined a large unitary authority as HR director. The authority
provides all local government public services including refuse collection, road
maintenance, education and the social services.

Pressures on the council have been mounting. Last year, it was subjected to
an audit commission assessment and was adjudged to be ‘fair’, but there is
concern the reassessment this year will be less favourable.

This could lead to much tighter central government control, reducing the
local flexibility the council feels it needs to best serve the interests of the
local community. Managers are under pressure to deliver demonstrably better
services on tight or reducing budgets. There is also a sense of short-termism as
managers try and ‘fix’ difficulties.

Our sickness absence levels are in the upper quartile for similar
authorities, and our turnover rates are little better. Our workforce is a does
not reflect the ethnic composition of the local community and there have been
difficulties filling jobs in specific and critical areas. A recent survey
suggests staff morale has hit rock bottom.

My role is to ensure the council at least retains the previous rating under
the assessment scheme and managers are looking to me to both resolve some of
the current resourcing difficulties and to turn around staff morale. What
should my priorities be?

Solution 1
By Dilys Winn head of resources at Gloucestershire County Council

Strike a balance between ensuring you do not get sucked into the same
short-termism gripping the rest of the organisation, and getting credibility by
showing understanding of the immediate problems. Use your judgement to pick the
important things and be firm in consigning the rest to longer-term plans.

Step 1 Start with the problems you know will be detrimentally
affecting morale and therefore performance. The combination of high turnover,
high absence rates and recruitment difficulties will put real pressure on staff
and managers alike. Do you know why people are leaving, where they are going
and what measures you could take to make inroads into this? Look at current
arrangements for managing absence. Could tried and tested techniques used by
authorities to manage absence be useful here?

Step 2 Try some short-term measures to patch the critical gaps in the
workforce. Since paying higher salaries across the board is unlikely to be an
option, put together a resourcing strategy. This should combine innovative
recruitment campaigns with a serious look at whether these services could be
done elsewhere or be outsourced.

Step 3 Take ownership of the results of the staff survey. Find out as
much as you can about the root causes of staff concerns by engaging staff and
managers at all levels. Focus on two or three key issues. Develop a
communications strategy to keep staff posted about what is being changed in
response to their concerns and make sure you get the commitment of the
organisation to run follow-up surveys to measure progress.

Step 4 Make sure you know what is required to be in place for the
various inspection regimes. At the very least, you are likely to need to be
able to demonstrate that you have a published people management strategy in
place which is consulted upon, directly links with the council’s key aims and
includes proper measures to evaluate its effectiveness.

Step 5 Finally, get beyond the immediate and avoid being drowned by
short-term problems. The difficulties you found when you arrived at the
authority occurred because of a lack of longer-term strategies. You will need
to get your managers involved in some crystal ball gazing, questioning where
their services are going in the medium/long-term. Your longer-term strategy
must reflect these changes, government agendas and potential legislative
changes setting out what resourcing arrangements are likely to be needed.
Address how these will be met through skills development, succession planning,
creating sustainable sources from which you can attract new skills, and
creating an environment where people flourish and therefore choose to stay.

Solution 2
By Paul Kearns, Director PWL

The golden rule of HR strategy is never try to fix long-term, structural
problems by reacting tactically. ‘Quick fixes’ are self-defeating.

Step 1 There may be the pressure of the re-assessment looming, but it
would be better to acknowledge that the issues you have identified can only be
resolved strategically, not tactically. You will not resolve staff morale,
ethnic composition, sickness or turnover quickly, so why not openly admit this?

Step 2 Give management and the Audit Commission the reassurance that
you know your job, but stress you will need time. What option is there,
especially as you have only just joined?

Step 3 Instil confidence by making your first priority the
installation of effective systems. Better systems will improve performance in
the short run but will also have a long shelf-life. This is exactly the sort of
development the Audit Commission will be looking for. Even if they think your
present performance is poor, they are more likely to give you the benefit of
the doubt for the future if they see effective systems being built. The
simplest, most effective system to start with is the PDCA system (Plan, Do,
Check, Act). Get agreement from the chief executive for this to be implemented
immediately. Every manager should be asked to try it out at least once to
improve one of the existing HR measures you have highlighted.

Step 4 Staff morale might appear to be a priority, but it is just one
symptom of an under-performing organisation and it is not the job of HR to
‘turn it around’ for line managers. Focus on the underlying causes of poor
performance and, over time, the staff morale issue will begin to resolve

Step 5 If you need a quick win to garner much-needed support, then
follow the ‘lowest hanging fruit’ principle. Set about discovering the
worst-performing part of the authority and give it some special attention. It
will already be under a great deal of pressure, so any good ideas you have
should produce results with little effort.

How the forum works

The HR Strategy Forum, which is
supported by some of the industry’s most experienced people (see below), is
Personnel Today’s major new initiative to help readers become more strategic in
their day-to-day operations.

Over the coming months, Personnel Today will give a unique,
developmental opportunity to hone your strategic skills using a wide range of
HR scenarios submitted by senior HR professionals. Each week, our panel of
experienced practitioners and consultants will provide solutions to a typical
strategic HR dilemma. You can get involved by sending in your own problems,
marked ‘strategic dilemmas’, to

Duncan Brown, Assistant director general, CIPD

Paul Kearns, Director, PWL

Jim Matthewma,n Worldwide partner,
Mercer Human Resource Consulting

Andrew Mayo, Director,MLI

Louise Allen, Director, LAPartners

Penny Davis, Head of HR operations,

Marie Gill, Head of organisational
development, Asda

Neil Roden, HR director, Royal Bank
of Scotland

Ralph Tribe, Vice-president of HR,
Getty Images

Dilys Winn, HR director,
Gloucestershire County Council

Margaret Savage, Head of HR strategy,


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