There’s a problem with talent in the public sector. In a recent survey of 900 public sector leaders conducted by executive recruitment consultancy, Veredus, and the Society of Personnel Officers in Government Services (Socpo), almost half (48%) said their organisations were unable to attract talent at director level.
Appealing to talented managers is even more problematic – with 54% admitting their organisations struggle to find the right people, and more than three-quarters (83%) owning up to having no talent attraction plan in the first place.
Veredus’ managing director Mark Turner believes this is an ongoing problem. “Some of the senior jobs in the public sector involve some seriously interesting change management challenges that would look great on any CV, but the public sector is not good at selling itself,” he says.
With the war for talent raging across all industries, many public sector organisations suffer as they fight to shake off some age-old stereotypes that linger around working in the civil service.
“When people consider working in the public sector, they think of high levels of bureaucracy and a reduced earning capability over the long term,” says Simon Barrow, chairman of People in Business, an employer brand consultancy.
Those weighing up whether to join in the middle of their careers also fear they won’t fit in. “They think they will be regarded as specialist hired help, but never really be part of the family,” he says.
Many talented individuals don’t consider a job in the public sector simply because they are unaware of the range of jobs they will find there, according to Thomas Burke, head of consultancy at Dave, another branding specialist.
“Highly regarded finance directors, for example, won’t automatically think there are positions for them in large public sector organisations. It is unclear what types of role exist,” he says.
Burke also believes there is a widely-held belief that jobs in the public sector are somehow ‘sub-standard’ compared with those in the commercial world.
“The private sector is seen as dynamic and fast-changing, and the place where ambitious people go,” he says.
Anonymity of public life
Much of this perception, says Burke, is due to the high profile enjoyed by business leaders compared with their relatively anonymous public sector counterparts.
While entrepreneurs such as Stelios Haji-Ioannou and Richard Branson are household names, who had heard of Sir Nigel Crisp, chief executive of the NHS, before he announced he was taking early retirement earlier this month?
What’s needed, says Angela O’Connor, HR director at the Crown Prosecution Service and incoming president of Socpo, is for more leaders within the public sector to stand up and talk with passion about the rewarding job roles the sector offers and the varied opportunities that exist.
“We definitely have a problem with communicating to the outside world,” she says.
In fact, any publicity the public sector gets is more than likely to be negative, says Jan Parkinson, strategic head of HR at Gateshead Council.
“If a hospital or school closes, the media will report it, but they never mention all the good work that is done, day in day out. Their coverage is very one dimensional,” she says.
However, Parkinson admits that change is needed in some areas of the public sector, starting with recruitment.
“The process of getting a job in local government can sometimes seem drawn out,” she confesses.
Rigorous application processes and panel interviews that can take weeks to arrange serve only to frustrate candidates, especially young people eager to launch their career.
“We can do better and streamline our processes, I’m sure,” Parkinson says. “We should keep people better informed about where they are in the process, perhaps text them to say ‘thank you for their application’, so candidates are kept warm.”
The hierarchies that exist in public sector organisations also have to become more flexible if they are to appeal to the expectation of today’s high-fliers, argues Gillian Hibberd, corporate director of HR and organisational development at Buckinghamshire County Council.
“People joining organisations today want to experience a number of different roles so they have a rounded view. Some public sector organisations can’t react to this need as quickly as many private sector companies,” says Hibberd.
The rigid structure of central and local government can also stifle the ability to move highly talented individuals to the right place in the organisation. “It’s still the case that people are put into silos,” says Hibberd. “A director in social services, for example, is expected to have been a social worker who has come up through the ranks.”
Local government organisations should identify people with leadership skills and fast-track them to senior positions, says Hibberd. “But at the moment we make people tread the long and winding path.”
Going on gut feeling
The Veredus/Socpo survey also reveals a lack of formal initiatives aimed at nurturing talent in the public sector, with more than two-thirds (68%) of public sector managers confessing they rely on ‘gut feel’ to identify star performers.
Of those employed by the NHS who were quizzed, only 9% said they had a fast-track system to identify and develop talent.
When it comes to the thorny issue of remuneration, O’Connor admits private sector wage packets may in many cases be heftier. But by solely concentrating on pay, she says, people are overlooking the additional benefits of working in the public sector. Excellent pension schemes, good development opportunities and a focus on work-life balance are just some of the areas at which the public sector excels.
“Together these benefits are compelling and the public sector must do more to promote the total packages on offer,” she says.
Not alone in struggle
O’Connor also stresses it is not just the public sector that struggles to attract talent. The latest Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development report into recruitment and retention found that 86% of private sector services companies were experiencing difficulties in filling vacancies compared with 83% of public services organisations.
“We don’t live in a different world to the private sector. We are competing with them to attract the best people,” she says.
“It’s up to us to take the lead in letting people know about the huge variety of jobs that exist in the public sector and the immense satisfaction that comes with doing a job that can change people’s lives.”
A personal experience: Richard Allen at Defra
In the seven years between my first posting in ‘personnel’ and taking early retirement from HR last November, HR in the Civil Service has seen a remarkable transformation. But the challenges ahead are just as great.
When I first joined personnel in 1998, it was full of career civil servants, few of whom had professional qualifications. The approach was to establish a set of detailed guidelines and to apply them with minimal flexibility. Telling line managers that what they wanted to do was impossible was a source of pride. The concept of customer service was largely unknown. When customers were referred to, it was with disdain. It was also inefficient: personnel to staff ratios below 1:20 were not uncommon.
Since then, civil service departments have changed immensely. Most have adopted the Ulrich model as a framework for the HR function, led by the Cabinet Office’s ‘modernising people management’ programme.
Most have set up HR service centres, introduced e-HR, established learning and development programmes to increase professionalism, and focused on customer service.
Customer satisfaction levels have improved, as has efficiency. At the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, where I worked, we went from about 320 staff to some 180 and to a 1:60 ratio in two years.
In many ways the greatest challenge is still to come. HR has reformed itself, but it remains insufficiently connected to business needs, though HR business partners will help.
HR will need to challenge managers to be better people managers, while ensuring that HR understands, anticipates and supports their increasingly demanding requirements. Unless this partnership works effectively, many key HR policies – like performance management, leadership and professional skills in government – will fall well short of desired results.
Richard Allen, former director of corporate services, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs