Shocked but unawed by UK waste warriors

Military strategists call it ‘shock and awe’ – an actual or threatened
assault of sufficient scale to demolish the enemy’s will to resist. The UK’s
political parties seem to be adopting a similar strategy in their war on public
sector waste.

A leaked report shows that the Government’s chief waste-buster, Sir Peter
Gershon, head of the Office of Government Commerce, has identified potential
annual efficiency savings of around £15bn, which would see at least 80,000 jobs
shift from so-called administrative roles, including HR, to ‘frontline delivery
positions’ (News, 24 February). Not to be outdone, the Conservatives got
business troubleshooter David James to make an estimate of waste, and he
described the £15bn target as ‘unambitious’.

Confronting the waste-warriors is an army of public sector staff whose
co-operation is needed to generate any savings, but whose intransigence could
stand in the way of reform. The ‘shock and awe’ tactic of quoting big numbers
of job losses seems so far to have been more successful at creating opposition
than winning hearts and minds. Not surprisingly, the Public and Commercial
Services union, which represents many of the staff directly in the firing line,
has already responded by saying that job cuts on the scale said to be proposed
by Gershon would be unacceptable. But the CIPD, which strongly supports moves
to boost public sector efficiency, is also concerned by what might happen if
the war on waste turns out to be simply one of attrition.

Gershon, for example, claims the public sector typically spends two to three
times more per HR worker than those in the private sector. He therefore
recommends shifting to a leaner, fitter, more professional and cross-functional
pool of HR staff, with those surplus to requirements retraining to become
specialist nursing or teaching assistants elsewhere in the public sector. While
there is clearly room to boost the strategic role of public sector HR, a large
cull of staff would hinder, rather than help, the wider aim of improving the
quality of public services.

How can it be right to distinguish HR roles from ‘frontline delivery’ ones?
Gershon himself accepts that job losses caused by his efficiency drive would
require special measures to mitigate the human and financial costs of
redundancy. But who is to handle this if not a well-resourced pool of HR
professionals? And who will ensure that redundant employees are trained and
developed to be redeployed to the frontline in hospitals and schools, and be
empowered, enabled and energised to deliver high-performance outcomes?

Those preparing to go to war on waste should hold fire until they can answer
these key questions.

By John Philpott, Chief economist, Chartered Institute of Personnel and

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