Is the public sector different? You bet it is, because we serve the public

As I take on the presidency of the Society of Personnel Officers in Government Services (Socpo), I am often asked why the public sector is thought of as different. There are four main reasons why it is different.

The public purse

We all pay taxes that fund public sector salaries. The public sector has to ensure that taxpayers get value for money. Its workforce is perceived to have security of employment and extensive benefits. Some of this is true, but we are rarely rich in resources. I worked for one public sector organisation where we were virtually bankrupt for a long time.

I am not advocating poverty as a way of life, but the experience demanded creativity and innovation from HR people that I have never seen equalled since. My team brought in toys for reception areas, set up schemes for staff to read with school children, and developed cross-service mentoring projects, which were the envy of other organisations.

I feel strongly about value in the public sector. I want to see investment in our schools and hospitals, and I am passionate about eradicating waste and unnecessary bureaucracy. There is an obsession with project and programme management to the extent that it becomes a religion, rather than a framework. The danger is that the process becomes the focus of all activity rather than excellent service to the public.

Public gaze

Conversations with peers in other sectors are often focused on the assassins in our organisations, those who make complaining their life’s work. Private sector friends shake their heads in disbelief that we cannot chuck money at the problem and that we need to resolve things transparently. Everything we do has the world watching and needs to be seen to be fair, reasonable and efficient.

Public accountability

When things go wrong in the public sector, the outcomes can be dramatic. If a doctor makes a mistake, the patient could die. If our prosecutors or police get it wrong, our communities feel unsafe. If we let people who have not been properly checked near children and vulnerable people, disaster awaits us. No other sector has so many risks, or delivers such a breadth of services.

Public complexity

This brings us on to our customers. They range from the newborn to those reaching the end of their days; we provide education, safety, health, justice and much more.

When you leave your home you will feel our impact. Is your street clean, are your children well educated and is your community a place where you can walk unafraid? All of these outcomes reflect our success or failure.

I will never agree with those who say that it is primarily a shortage of resources that produces poor public services. I have seen inspirational head teachers in the East End of London producing amazing results. The key was their leadership.

Resources help, but they are not everything. This means that public sector HR is accountable for improving services through the performance of our people.

So we have four areas to focus on:



  • Talent management: bringing in the best available talent while developing our people.

  • Performance management for real – adult conversations on a daily basis make the difference to outcomes.

  • Not hiding behind bureaucratic policies, but producing innovative and creative HR solutions that drive business performance.

  • Modelling the right behaviour, being brave, taking risks and putting service to our customers first, second and third in everything we do.

  • Working in the public sector is a challenge sometimes, but knowing that you can make a positive impact on people’s lives makes it a compelling place to be.


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