The long road ahead

Julian Duxfield, HR director at the Department for Transport (DfT), has a very challenging job on his hands. But for a man just back from rock climbing in Spain, it’s one he knows he can handle.

As part of the government’s public sector efficiency drive, his department is committed to saving 785m per annum by 2007-08. He is also fully engaged in setting up an HR and finance shared services centre by August next year (Personnel Today, 29 November).

Duxfield was headhunted for the job two years ago while working for brewing giant Carlsberg. It came at a good time for him. “I was thinking I would like to try a different environment to test my skills,” he said.

Public sector move

Before moving into the public sector, Duxfield spent most of his HR career in the consumer goods industry with Unilever. “It’s an environment where it’s pretty easy to identify what success looks like,” he said. “You’ve increased sales, increased market share, relaunched the brand, and everyone thinks it’s great.”

Identifying success in central Whitehall departments is not quite so easy, said Duxfield. “It’s much harder to say very clearly what you’ve delivered and tell staff what you’ve achieved.”

Duxfield is acutely aware of the demands he and his peers across the Civil Service are currently experiencing. “There is a lot of pressure from the top of government, be it from Tony Blair about modernisation, or Gordon Brown about reducing headcount and the Gershon agenda,” he said.

He is at pains to point out that the Gershon review of Whitehall efficiency is not just about headcount reduction. “It’s making sure you are building skills, increasing performance and capacity,” he said. “As part of that, we’ve got pressure on resources, just like any other organisation has got pressure.”

The “hatchet man”

Implementing the programme has led to some in the DfT labelling him a “hatchet man”, brought in from the private sector. “[They’ve] had some scepticism about my motives,” he said. “People have accused me of just doing the job so I can put another tick on my CV. That actually hurts.
“I genuinely like the people I work with; there is a commitment to the public service ethos,” he explained. “A lot of people really believe they are doing something that is for the public good.”

Aside from the Gershon work, Duxfield was hired to bring more contemporary HR thinking into the department. Whitehall HR functions have traditionally been seen as keepers of the rulebook, very process driven and focused on being staff ambassadors, rather than supporters of line management.

“HR is now asking how we can deliver something that is right for the business overall, and not purely right for the employee. So that’s the sot of shift I’ve brought,” he said.

This includes a more focused approach to managing talent, succession planning and tapping into different talent pools across government. Duxfield and his boss, the DfT’s permanent secretary, David Rowlands, want a more flexible, professional department focused on delivery. This means recruiting people from outside the Civil Service, but only to a certain degree.

“It’s too crude and simplistic to say that the public sector needs more private sector experience,” Duxfield said. “I think you need some because you get an injection of different thinking. But you run the risk of a backlash because existing people within the organisation think their skills and experience aren’t valued. There needs to be a mixture,” he said.

Duxfield admitted that, because of the new shared services centre, which will see more than 300 HR jobs lost, his department is feeling “vulnerable”. His team will be integrated in April 2007, and Duxfield recognises it will mean a change in the way it works.

“We will have a burden lifted from us after the transactional activity disappears. But at the same time, we have got increased expectation that we will provide more professional support to the department. That is quite new for the Civil Service,” he said.

Sickness absence

Duxfield is also refreshingly honest when it comes to admitting the department’s shortcomings.

Recent Cabinet Office figures put sickness absence at the DfT at 7.5 days lost, well below the overall average of 9.1 days. “I think our sickness absence is higher than those figures, but we are in discussions with [the Cabinet Office] about how we measure it,” he said.

If bringing corporate experience to the public sector ultimately leads to more openness and accountability in government, then long may it continue.

Duxfield’s CV

  • 2003 HR director, Department for Transport
  • 2000 HR director, Carlsberg UK
  • 1996 Company HR manager, Unipath
  • 1994 Group HR manager, Unilever UK
  • 1990 Personnel manager, Lever Industrial

Crossing the divide: private to public sector

“Switching from the private to the public sector has been a great experience for me,” said Duxfield. “The Civil Service has a big HR network to tune into, with people doing very similar jobs in different departments. From a networking point of view, you get very good support. It also opens your eyes to a different sector, and is a new challenge.
“It’s nice to work in an environment that can genuinely make a difference to people’s lives and experiences. There is something very satisfying about doing that,” he said.

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