The terms ‘high profile’ and ‘HR’ are rarely synonymous. But Angela O’Connor, chief people officer at the new National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), winner of several HR director awards and something of a ‘face’ of the HR profession, bucks the trend.
O’Connor, who is also president of the Public Sector People Managers’ Association, made her mark as HR director at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the government department responsible for the prosecution of most criminal cases in England and Wales.
During her time at the CPS, O’Connor made a number of significant changes, including revamping the IT infrastructure streamlining 10 CPS service centres into five business units, producing savings of £1.5m and averting a formal inquiry by the Commission for Racial Equality by brokering a deal to eliminate discrimination in recruitment.
O’Connor also launched the Prosecution College, a national recruitment strategy, and introduced an interactive, flexible e-learning programme at the CPS.
The CPS won or was nominated for 16 awards during O’Connor’s reign. She personally won both the Daily Telegraph’s Personnel Director of the Year award and Personnel Today’s HR Director of the Year award in 2005.
After four years at the CPS, however, O’Connor started to get what she refers to as “that twitchy feeling”. She said her role at the CPS had begun to move towards maintenance rather than change management.
“I’d done so much at the CPS – although there was still a lot to do. I’d also had four different senior-level HR roles and I wanted a change,” she said.
“I loved the CPS because it’s generally about stuff that happens in our daily lives. But I knew I wanted a national role and something more externally focused.”
When O’Connor was approached about a role at the NPIA, which was then still to be established, she knew she wanted to go for it.
She is passionate about personal safety and felt that a high-profile role in the police service would be an effective way of getting involved in the area. “Safety is a fundamental need and it affects us all. We want to feel safe when we’re out and about, and not worried about our family or friends,” she said.
The NPIA – operational from April – was set up to help create a national set of management and training standards within the service, as well as co-ordinating an IT infrastructure. It will work with a number of partners, including the Association of Chief Police Officers, police authorities and the Home Office.
O’Connor said: “[The NPIA] comes from a feeling in the police service that things were not working in the way they needed to and that services to policing were not joined up.”
In each of her HR roles, O’Connor has made a point of immersing herself in the day-to day business that concerns the workforce. And as chief people officer, she is similarly clear about her primary objectives. “I don’t do HR – I’m completely externally focused. My time is spent out there with the force HR directors, getting to know people,” she said.
O’Connor plans to provide a consultancy service to the police services’ 43 HR chiefs, develop a coherent people strategy and establish a relationship with its partners. “I’m one of the non-police people, so I can ask the really stupid questions,” she said.
“Anyone can write worthy words on the back of a fag packet but I want to develop a really effective people strategy. The key is engagement and getting people on board.
“I want to provide a service to the force HR directors, but not in a command and control way. I’m here if they need me but – if they think what I’m doing is complete crap – they can go their own way.”
Despite having spent more than 20 years working in the public sector, O’Connor insists that she would not be opposed to working in the private sector. “I don’t see the private sector as some alien world full of money-grabbing hedonists,” she said.
O’Connor is, however, clear about her motivations for working in the public sector. She becomes emotional when remembering a defining moment in her career, as head of HR at Hackney council, visiting a flat where an elderly resident had died.
“On the mantelpiece, there was a photograph of this man in his early 20s in his Army uniform. Everything in this flat was perfectly tidy with all his things lined up on the mantelpiece. But the council estate outside was like some kind of Orwellian nightmare. I remember thinking: ‘How can we let people live like that?’, and realising the impact we can have on people’s lives.”
O’Connor is, in some respects, on a one-woman crusade to change the face of the public sector.
“I don’t like to see people getting caught up in incompetent systems. I want to know what difference I can make to the front line. Part of my job is knocking down the doors and cutting out the bureaucracy,” she said.
But she remains somewhat modest in her quest. “There’s so much I don’t know that it scares me,” she said.
Nov 2006-present Chief people officer, National Policing Improvement Agency
2002-2006HR director, Crown Prosecution Service
1999-2002Head of HR, London Borough of Enfield
1988-1999Head of HR, London Borough of Hackney
1983-1988Personnel manager, London Borough of Haringey