Tough at the top

in public sector HR at a senior level is tough and demanding – organisations
now need to function as efficiently as their private sector counterparts. So
how do the roles of working in a local authority and for a government
department compare? Rob McLuhan talked to two high-fliers who are seeing
through dramatic change programmes

Corporate services director, Department for Environment, Food and Rural
Affairs (DEFRA)

joined Defra last year, just after it had been set up as a combination of the
old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) and the environment
section of the former DETR. As well as merging terms and conditions, I faced
the challenge of  modernising what had
been one of the more old fashioned of Whitehall departments, where many of the
systems are 10 years old or more.

I joined the department, it was at the start of a long-running pay dispute, and
shortly after I arrived, a second one-day strike took place. The problem had
been caused by pay differences in the two former departments that came together
as Defra. So, one of my first priorities was to sort that out, which we did
early this year. In the future, I would like to ensure that staff are not
automatically entitled to more just because someone else is getting it, but on
the basis that we can afford it and they are delivering a good quality

has been developing a business strategy, and we are creating an HR strategic
framework to sit beside it, so most of my efforts are on the policy side,
getting the strategy into place and creating some early deliverables on pay and
awards, and on performance management.

are looking at developing people’s skills to meet the challenges ahead, and one
of my main activities is developing a workforce strategy. Today I will be
making a presentation to the five departmental ministers and the management
board on the process of identifying training and development needs. We need to
know where senior managers expect their staff to be deployed and what sort of
skills they have. We can then decide whether these are to be developed
in-house, or whether recruitment is required. One element of the programme will
be to put all senior managers, and probably other managers as well, through
development centres.

are running a Better Quality Services (BQS) review, which corresponds roughly
to a Best Value review in local authorities and is effectively a fundamental
review of all our personnel services. We are asking what services the customer
would like us to provide, although that may not necessarily coincide with what
they need, or with what we can afford. As well as restructuring and improving
the existing service, there could also be more radical change, up to and
including outsourcing.

a day-to-day level, I have an occasional meeting or phone conversation with the
minister, and I also regularly attend the management board to discuss aspects
of our strategic programme. I will also meet from time-to-time with various
sub-committees of the management board on policy issue. In the directorate as a
whole, I have about 700 people, spread between London, Exeter, York, and
Alnwick, near Newcastle, and will often attend team meetings in different

the relationship with the trade unions is an important challenge, and I talk
with their representatives quite frequently, to negotiate or liaise on matters
of policy. The old MAFF didn’t work as constructively in that area as it might
have, so we are trying to be more open and develop a common vision. Instead of
the old battle for power, we want to move towards to a partnership approach,
where there is give and take on both sides. For instance, we have offered them
a place on the steering group of the BQS review. Clearly, they absolutely oppose
issues like outsourcing, but it’s better that they should know what’s going on,
and have a chance to contribute to a discussion of the policy.

of my work I do on my own – preparing a first draft of the pay and workforce
strategy for the Treasury, for instance, which I have been doing quite a bit of
at home. That involved getting reactions both in the department and the

also have meetings with HR in the Treasury and Cabinet Office. That is partly
to liaise with them on matters such as the terms and conditions, and
arrangements for pay, which the CO controls. But the CO also brings departments
together to discuss the common issues we all face. That is particularly useful
for us, because we have quite a lot of catching up to do in some respects, and
this is a good way to exchange experiences. The CO is organising a recruitment
seminar, where there will be a presentation from someone in another department
which went through a lot of the processes we face.

project I am particularly interested in is upward mentoring. This involves
junior managers sitting in with seniors, observing them at work and offering
feedback. The aim is to help senior managers with their personal development
needs, such as effectiveness at meetings or active listening. That is quite a
challenge in what is, after all, a very hierarchical organisation, and for a
junior to tell a senior their performance could be improved requires a lot of
trust on both sides. But to me it is an innovative way of underlining that people
are more important than hierarchy.

reason why I am keen for this to go forward is that I have seen it work well in
other departments, although admittedly at a more junior management level. The
people doing the mentoring were the most enthusiastic bunch I had come across
in 30 years in the Civil Service.

part of the service review, we are looking at introducing intranet systems that
will provide employee self service and other electronic functions. I would be
very surprised if this didn’t emerge as the way forward, but it will depend to
some extent on the resources available.

key for me is equipping managers and leaders to manage better. It is the people
who operate the systems, particularly the managers, who can bring about change
and make the organisation better able to meet the challenges facing us. In the
public sector, you are never going to have big salary bonuses that really
motivate people. But what you can do is create signals that promise rewards to
the best performers, and move them up the progression scales faster.

is a fascinating job with a tremendous range of challenges. As in many public
sector organisations, we do struggle with resources. But we have made a good
start. If you came back in a year, you would see we have achieved a great deal."

Head of HR, Wokingham Council

April 1998, Berkshire County Council was broken into six unitary councils, of
which Wokingham is one.

I joined as head of HR in January 1999, the personnel service was in quite a
poor state. Morale was low and although staff were working hard, they were not
achieving what they should. So, one of my first tasks was to refocus the whole
function, carrying out a Best Value review in personnel, and making important

early conclusion was that the HR department, with 20 staff, was too small to
provide a service to all 4,500 employees. That has been addressed by
outsourcing the education service, which means we now provide for a more
manageable 1,500 staff. However, my team does combine the personnel admin with
training and development. It was very important to me to have the two sides
integrated, as they are both working towards the same solutions.

the process of carrying out our Best Value review, it emerged that the council
as a whole has been too focused on financial management and budgets rather than
its people, which are its main resource. So we have done a lot to address that,
becoming more focused on people management in order to make a difference.

first priority was to find out what HR was doing and align that with what our
managers actually need. That involved marketing ourselves internally and to the
organisation as a whole about what personnel can do. The department was very
focused on administration, and although that side certainly needed to improve,
I wanted to provide a very different service based on strategy and policy.

that was quite novel for my staff, who had never had a head of HR before, and
had never really discussed what the function was all about. So before I did
anything else, I had to coach them out of the administrational mind-set, and
help them shape a different view of HR.

criticism was that personnel staff were very remote, and managers could not put
a face to a name. We dealt with that head on. We set up an intranet site with
our photos and descriptions of what we do. And we made sure we got out of the
office and went to talk to people.

then, we have also earned an excellent reputation for training and development.
We have a management development course, as well as practical workshops on
topics such as time management, and how to get the most from a PC. We also give
help with issues such as stress at work.

the council restructured, it amalgamated part of the old Berkshire Council with
the local district council here in Wokingham. That meant we inherited a ragbag
of old employment policies, and needed to develop a range of new ones, agreeing
on rights and responsibilities, and establishing norms of behaviour.

of our main projects is reviewing the structure of the council. We would prefer
staff to work on a corporate basis, but the reality is they are rather
departmental, so it is taking some doing. We carried out a consultation and are
putting together a set of proposals for the councillors.

down to business

now I am involved in harmonising terms and conditions, not just between white
and blue collar workers, but also between the different elements the unitary
council was formed from. This project has taken a year, and I am about to go
into final negotiations.

of my activities is helping departments with their service plans. This year, we
have had a joint inspection by the Social Services Inspectorate and the Audit
Commission, and are preparing a draft report. That is a very long piece of work
to prepare for. It is a good example of what personnel does, since the training
and development we provide for social services is crucial to the quality of
what that department offers.

issue I have had to deal with is the fall-out from our attempt to outsource the
revenue and benefits service in 1998. There were problems with the external
provider, so it was brought back in-house in August. Having transferred our own
staff, we now had to bring them back, which was rather peculiar. Most of them
were glad to be with the council again, but the consultations we had were quite
complex. We wanted to change the service to make it more successful, but at the
same time had to stick to the TUPE agreements.

are now carrying out an employee opinion survey for the second year. I am proud
of this work because resources are tight, we do not use external consultants,
and we did it entirely in-house. Last year’s survey achieved a 56 per cent
completion rate, which is pretty good. Each department produced an action plan
based on our analysis, and we are about to have an away-day when managers will
report back on what they have achieved as a result.

well as managing my own department, I am the top personnel adviser at the
council. I am involved in anything that has people management implications,
advising the chief executive and elected members. At the end of the last
financial year, we had a budget crisis, and had to make a savings plan. HR was
very involved in looking at financial implications, freezing some posts and
planning for possible redundancies, although, luckily, we managed to get
through without making any.

the restructuring has created some vacancies, and we are now recruiting a head
of property and head of legal. So a current task is to agree the arrangements,
and members of my team have been popping in to see me, to check the drafting of
the advertisements.

time-to-time I will get in touch with my counterparts in other local
authorities, or deal with their enquiries. Many of them are doing similar
things to us, and we can save a lot of time by swapping information and advice.
Besides the other five Berkshire unitaries, my network includes South East
Employers, a regional umbrella organisation for local authorities.

local authority is going through a Comprehensive Performance Assessment. We had
ours in the early summer, and it concluded that we have done well to get as far
as we have. But now we have to plan for the long term, which means being
focused and creative. The difficulty is that resources are tight, which makes
it hard to carry out step change. It is a challenge for personnel along with
the rest of the organisation.

government can be up there with the big corporate players when it comes to
demonstrating best practice – the fact we were shortlised by Personnel Today
for the award in communications strategy demonstrates this.

achievement is particularly satisfying because we did it by using our own
creativity and skills, rather than having money ploughed into it."                          n

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