NHS HR in the firing line over workforce planning

HR needs to shoulder some of the blame for workforce planning blunders in the NHS, according to the new head of the Healthcare People Management Association, Deborah O’Dea.

Deborah O’Dea, HR director at St Mary’s NHS Trust in west London, takes over the presidency of the Healthcare People Management Association (HPMA) next month.

She starts her new role at a time of unprecedented change in the NHS – the unions are complaining of creeping privatisation, wide-scale workforce reductions are seemingly the norm, and new funding and policy reforms are bringing fresh challenges. Only last week, health secretary Patricia Hewitt admitted there was a sense “that many people in the service no longer know where it’s going”.

While the HPMA might not be known to many outside the HR community in the NHS, O’Dea insisted that it was a thriving, national body with a lot to offer.

“An organisation like the HPMA can offer a professional focus, good opportunities for networking and making sure best practice is shared across the health service,” she said.

O’Dea’s immediate priorities are strengthening the association’s membership in London and the South East and fostering greater links with NHS Employers, the body responsible for pay and workforce conditions in the health service.

Working together

“It’s important we continue to meet with NHS Employers and clarify how we work together,” said O’Dea. “Giving real value to the membership doesn’t come by us both doing the same thing,” she said. “We are discussing what is best for the HR community, what is going to happen to HR director networks and the way we communicate with members in the future.”

Alastair Henderson, NHS Employers’ deputy director, said there were many issues on which NHS Employers worked closely with the HPMA and he was pleased with the way the relationship was developing. “O’Dea is a high-profile HR director who will provide the HPMA with an energetic and enthusiastic leadership,” he said.

O’Dea admitted that all was not well in the NHS, and HR had to shoulder some of the blame for the bad headlines generated by the current staffing crisis.

“HR could have done rather more to get workforce and financial planning better aligned,” she said. “We should collectively wipe a bit of egg off our face because of the situation at the moment.”

With almost 25 years’ experience in the NHS, O’Dea said there was an element of history repeating itself with workforce planning failures.

“This lack of alignment is something that feels a bit the same. I can remember in the late 1990s when the recession fell away and we found we had no nursing staff. We had to recruit from abroad as the service hadn’t understood what was happening in the economy,” she said. “HR needs to learn those lessons because we get knocked off our perch every time.”

While the appointment of Tesco’s Clare Chapman as workforce director-general may have raised some eyebrows elsewhere in the service, O’Dea is thrilled.

“I think it’s an exciting opportunity for the NHS. I gather she is a great strategist,” said O’Dea.

“I am interested in Tesco’s strategy from an HR perspective and how it became so successful. It has gone for complete customer focus, employed people 24/7, and staffed-up at peak times, often in out-of-town locations.

“Someone who has worked through that massive cultural change, can only be a good thing. It will be interesting to see if the lessons Chapman has learned can be applied to an organisation like the NHS, where 80% of the staff are professionals.”

But what does Chapman’s appointment say about the state of HR in the NHS?

“I think it’s a shame there weren’t outstanding internal candidates that could be regarded better than her,” she said. “There must have been a point when the interview panel had to weigh up the options: a safe pair of hands that had been in the NHS for some time who they knew was very capable, or bring in somebody with a world-class reputation. It must have been a difficult decision.”

But despite the current workforce and finance problems and the selection of an ‘outsider’ for the top job, O’Dea is certain HR in the NHS is not on the critical list.

“It’s very good overall. The NHS is totally people-focused. Our product is the knowledge and the skills of our staff,” she said.

Exciting times

“For HR professionals, that means we are the most exciting place to work and, because of that, the NHS has attracted absolute excellence in the function.”

However, some big challenges lie ahead. And for a lot of HR professionals and management teams, turning struggling organisations around to make them buoyant again will cause a few sleepless nights.

“It has to happen because it’s too painful to work in organisations that are struggling financially. You have no money to create anything better for patient care,” said O’Dea. “Being in a trust that breaks even and meets its targets feels like a much better place to be than one that doesn’t.”

O’Dea’s background

O’Dea joined the NHS in 1982 as deputy personnel manager at Central Middlesex Hospital after a number of HR roles in the retail and engineering sectors. She has held a number of senior HR roles in the NHS in west London and has been an HR director since 1991. She joined St Mary’s Hospital in 1999 and was a member of the first cohort of HR directors to undertake the service’s national HR leadership programme.

She has been chair of the association of UK University Hospitals HR directors group, a member of the Department of Health’s national HR capacity group, and holds a CIPD fellowship.

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