Chris Last interview: How HR GPs can help find the cure

As the number of people out of work soars closer to two million, the Department for Work and Pensions and its national Jobcentre Plus network have their work cut out. HR director Chris Last talks about how the recession has changed his immediate priorities.

This time last year, Chris Last had just joined the largest Civil Service department in the UK. Fresh from the private sector, with 28 years of HR experience at car maker Ford behind him, he was one of a number of recruits brought in across Whitehall to kick HR departments into shape.

But just as Last began work on improving leadership, engagement and talent management across the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) 104,000-strong workforce, the credit crunch started to take effect.

Organisations began shedding staff in their thousands. Unemployment reached its highest level in more than a decade, and the number of people qualifying as long-term unemployed – out of work for more than a year – is on target to treble to 300,000 this year. The DWP, which governs the Jobcentre Plus network, has a renewed priority, says Last. “Our focus at the moment is to have as much resource as we can to help our customer base, which is growing significantly.”

Six key priorities

After just three months in the role, he had planned six key priorities for the year ahead. “Actually there’s a seventh now, which is providing support to Jobcentre Plus, in recruitment and training and how we adjust the organisation,” adds Last.

Last November, work and pensions secretary James Purnell halted plans to close 25 Jobcentre Plus branches, and instead announced that the department would recruit an extra 6,000 frontline workers to meet demand. Against the backdrop of the department’s own plans to axe a further 12,000 jobs over the next three years, the move to create jobs in the short term could be seen as a silver lining in the cloud of the economic downturn.

“One thing we can do is, where we make operational efficiencies [at the DWP] we can have more people working in the front line in the Jobcentres and delivery centres,” Last says. Yet he is unsure how many DWP staff could transfer to the front-line job centre roles immediately. Nor will he be drawn on exactly when this might happen – already nearly 3,000 of the 6,000 posts up for grabs have been filled by external recruits.

“It will depend on how effectively and quickly we can make operational delivery efficiencies in other parts of the business,” he says. “We will have to continue making these efficiencies, and I don’t know if that necks out to 12,000 or not because I don’t know what the growth in the front line delivery is,” he adds. But he stresses the recession will not prevent the long-term cuts the department plans to make.

“The recession just increases [that] need,” he argues. “I don’t think it’s changed very much other than the obvious, which is Jobcentre Plus.”

Down to business

In the meantime, Last is busy getting on with the business of saving. The department still has a goal to claw back £1bn in costs by 2011, although Last is confident job losses – while some will be inevitable – will be the last resort.

During his time at Ford, large-scale compulsory lay-offs were minimised at the Dagenham car plant in Essex in 2000, when the firm sought voluntary redundancies from other plants, despite car production eventually moving abroad.

Last reflects: “It was a bit of a surprise to me [working in the public sector]. I thought it would be more different than it turned out to be. But if you think about it, HR is similar to finance, in the sense that it is a largely transferable profession.

“We’ve spent a lot of time working within the Civil Service framework to make sure we do everything possible to redeploy people, and because it’s such a large organisation there’s a lot of opportunity to do that,” he adds.

And what better place to start than his own HR team. Comprised of 1,000 shared services staff and an extra 1,500 HR strategic roles, Last admits the team is over-staffed.

But although he has plans to slice around 800 jobs from the HR function by 2012, Last is optimistic most affected staff will be placed elsewhere in the DWP rather than on the dole.

“I doubt we’ll have to do any [compulsory or voluntary redundancies]. Because of the nature of how the HR function has been built up over the years, the people that won’t be needed in the future can go back [to the front line] and provide the service we might need.”

Pace of change

The move to ‘make efficiencies’ is not just a simple reduction in headcount, Last warns. The HR function itself is changing.

“One of the things we need to continue to work on as an HR function, including at the DWP, is our professional capability, so that people think of us in just the same way as they think of any other profession.”

He believes that organisational design – broadly defined as change that helps businesses improve productivity and profit – is a must-have skill for any strategic HR professional. “If you ask any HR director where they’ve got a skills shortage, they will say organisational design,” he says.

The HR business partner should be similar to a GP, he adds, in that they must understand the patient. Doctors know the difference between a minor illness and a serious disease, and when they lack the expertise to deal with something, they know who to pass it on to. HR must take the same approach.

Last thinks the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) should be able to help develop that expertise. “We’ve started re-organising the HR function so it meets those criteria. We started doing work with the CIPD on professional qualifications and recruiting HR graduates to develop a sustainable pipeline [of talent] throughout the organisation.”

About 300 HR practitioners in the strategic side of his HR team could do with developing skills in organisational design and talent management, gaining an accredited certificate from the CIPD, he says. Last is also looking to recruit a few senior specialists in this area. And this year, like last, the DWP will hire another 20 HR graduates to inject new talent into the organisation.

There is also a principle from the car industry Last is keen to use, dubbed ‘Lean’. This is a production practice that considers the expenditure of resources for any goal other than the creation of value for the end customer to be wasteful, and which should therefore be eliminated.

“Although Lean was started in the car industry, it can be applied to large-scale administrative-type work – there’s a lot of work being done on Lean, which should improve DWP’s operational efficiency,” he says.

Learning lessons

Reflecting on his time at Ford, Last believes there is plenty of scope to implement lessons he learned from the private sector into the Civil Service. “One of the things I first noticed when I joined DWP is that service functions [including HR and finance] hadn’t had as much attention as they had at Ford. The focus was on operational delivery rather than the function areas.”

World-class leadership is one such example, he says. “It’s an interesting concept in the DWP – people tend to think of leadership as the board, but actually the vast majority of leaders are at supervisor level, out in the pensions or benefits delivery centres. They manage about 10 or 20 people each, so we’re trying to improve their abilities to manage teams.”

Another is managing talent, a concept Last is keen on. “Ford spent a lot of time on talent management and had a very systematic approach to it, and I’m trying to bring that approach into the DWP.”

He believes the department needs to maintain a resources strategy that considers how it will develop and refresh talent across the organisation. “In a huge organisation you should be able to develop your own talent base it’s more cost-effective. If you rely on external recruits you won’t always get it right, and each mistake is expensive in recruitment costs and [the time spent] in the learning curve.”

Last wants line managers to rely less on external recruitment. “Internal people should want to progress faster I think that’s a cultural thing. Some organisations are always thinking about that, but that’s less the case here. We want our managers to try and encourage people to think more about their own careers.”

A simple metric in the appraisal system that measures how well managers have been developing their employees internally could help stimulate talent management, he says. He feels setting aside a ‘people’ section in every management meeting will also help keep leadership and employee development on the radar.

But in common with HR directors at many organisations affected by the credit crunch, Last reiterates that his current focus is on making sure the DWP is engaged with corporate goals in this case, getting the two million jobless back to work.

“The nature of the work at DWP is arguably even more of an issue to society now than it was a few months ago. Every day the front pages of the newspapers are talking about our work and how we get more ­people in employment.”

How the DWP is dealing with three topical HR areas


  • Where the DWP stands on key HR issues: Nearly 11% of staff at the DWP nationally are black or ethnic minority, roughly in line with the UK average. The more senior you go, the less minority staff there are.
  • What Chris Last plans to do about it: Encourage more staff from minority backgrounds to apply for jobs using positive action, working closely with the Senior Civil Service recruitment service. Mentor and develop minorities once they start work, using programmes such as ‘Reach’, which enables ethnic minority and disabled staff to focus on their careers.
  • Personnel Today star rating (out of 5 stars):  2 stars


  • Where the DWP stands on key HR issues: Days per employee lost through sickness have gone down from 10.3 days to 9.3 in the past year.
  • What Chris Last plans to do about it: Encourage line managers to further understand why people are off work and help them back as soon as possible. Be proactive in healthcare management and understanding the data related to casual and long-term absence.
  • Personnel Today star rating: 4 stars


  • Where the DWP stands on key HR issues: 34% of the workforce have ‘non-standard’ work patterns, mainly thanks to shifts worked in call centres. Flexible working always comes top in surveys about what employees want.
  • What Chris Last plans to do about it: Continue to allow people to work flexibly to match operational need. Make sure managers schedule enough staff for peak hours but are flexible at other times. Last doesn’t envisage that extra work will be created by the extension of the right to request flexible working, as managers cope well at the moment.
  • Personnel Today star rating: 3 stars

Comments are closed.