Across the private-public divide

For John Marsh, group HR and change director at the Home Office, more often than not, the working day begins with controversy

It is a job that requires a minimum of 12 hours a day and, more often than not, they begin with controversy. This time, the Home Office is being publicly panned for the massive growth in its staff numbers.

For John Marsh, the man charged with the welfare of those 4,500 workers, it is just another day at the office.

“What other organisation is going to be constantly on the front of the papers?” asks the 40-year-old group HR and change director.

And what other HR job would be more fraught with Byzantine politics, publicly-sensitive challenges, and lightning-rod issues?

For HR specialists working in the business world and contemplating a shift to the public sector, Marsh has some telling advice. Although the aims of HR remain the same whether public or private, the challenges can be markedly different. Above all, a corporate manager making the switch will need to be flexible.

“They do have to be able to adapt themselves to the different culture and the politically-complex environment,” Marsh told Personnel Today.

The workplace politics can be convoluted and even hazardous, but that is nothing new for private sector HR specialists. The difference comes down to influence and its exercise across the blurred boundaries of large public bureaucracies.

“Decision-making is less transparent and obvious and you have to be able to adapt to that,” he said. “We don’t always have absolute clear governance written down in a way that businesses might have.

“It’s not so much that we are very closed about the way decisions are made, but there is perhaps a requirement to be more consultative.”

By consultative, read ‘wary’. A multi-million pound mistake made in a large business that would barely start a ripple outside of a shareholders’ meeting would be political dynamite in the public sector.

Marsh is quick to point out that the corporate world has its share of potholes, too. “I don’t know if it’s more fraught [in the public sector] when you look at private sector companies and the challenges they face,” he said.

The unrelenting, and sometimes overbearing, pressure on some HR directors to help generate profit for an organisation can make work just as difficult for managers in large corporations.

The skills gained in such high-pressure corporate environments are invaluable, believes Marsh. By comparison, many HR managers in Government did not have the specialist skills personnel directors in the business world took for granted.

“There is still a preponderance of generalists,” said Marsh. “People who aren’t even necessarily HR specialists, or people like me, who have gradually gravitated that way.”

That deficiency was being addressed by attracting experienced corporate talent. Marsh points to the move by Julian Duxfield, the former HR director of Carlsberg UK, to the Department of Transport as a good example.

The Home Office too is one of many departments that has benefited from bringing in outside managers.

“They are far more adept at being able to [question things] than some people who have been in the Home Office longer,” Marsh explained. “They have been able to point things out and challenge us.”

Of course, there are immediate costs for anyone crossing the private-public divide.

“There will always be a salary trade-off for people wanting to come to the public sector, but I think the business objectives of whichever organisation you are working for are a motivation,” Marsh said. “You only have to look at the Home Office – its business objectives make a difference to people’s lives.”

Making a difference to the working lives of his staff has been the most demanding part of Marsh’s job since he took up his position two months ago.

A massive staff cutback of more than 30 per cent, or 2,700 workers, will be carried out over the next three years.

“The most difficult part at the moment is trying to get the tension right between reducing the numbers and, at the same time, saying to staff this is still a good place to be working, and we want to invest in your skills and your development.”

No doubt, it is a job any HR professional, public or private, would find tough.

By Paul Yandall

Marsh’s Biography

2004 Group HR and change director, Home Office

2003 Acting HR director, Home Office

2000 Head of personnel management, HM Prison Service

1999 Head of HR strategy, HM Prison Service

1986 Joined HM Prison Service


MA Industrial Relations, University of Warwick, 1986

BA (Hons) 2:1 History, University of Bristol, 1985

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