Defra and Scottish Executive HR chiefs tackle past mistakes head-on to drive through radical change programmes

Having the courage to admit when things have gone wrong is the key to driving change in the public sector.

HR heavyweights Francesca Okosi, director of HR and corporate services at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and Paul Pagliari, the director of change and corporate services within the Scottish Executive, told delegates at the annual conference of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development that learning from past mistakes, admitting when things have not gone right, and understanding that change is an ongoing process that needs long-term goals were essential in any change programme.

Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Okosi, who joined Defra as director of change in 2003, admitted the organisation had got it wrong but said the organisation was now making up ground.

“We had made significant strides in taking a long-term view on policy and strategy, building policies based on sound evidence and aligning back-office services to business needs and delivery,” she said. “But we didn’t tackle the people issues.”

However, its new people strategy, launched in May, aims to address the problems by transforming the way the organisation works.

“To have any credibility you must get the basics right. We’re not quite there yet,” Okosi admitted.

The HR function has been modernised and the headcount has been reduced significantly. “We’re down to only 150 people now,” Okosi admitted, “but we can still deliver the same quality of service; it just has to be done in a very different way.”

To do this Defra has devolved the management of services to a local level, put in place a 17-year IT outsourcing deal with IBM, set up an e-HR system, and launched a shared-services facility on 1 October.

“We need to have policies and procedures that are easy to use. We’re telling our managers that to be successful working here, you must manage, lead, coach and develop your staff.”

However, Okosi stressed the fact that the change programme would take another 18 months to two years to implement.

“We’re still getting to know who our people are, what skills they have,” she says. “We’re getting managers to think longer term. We’ve go lots of standing teams, but we’re changing the deal. We’re telling them ‘you will have projects to run, not fixed numbers of people to manage. You determine the skills required and we’ll find the people reserves to deliver’.”

Scottish Executive

In Scotland, Pagliari has transformed what he described as a “pretty busted-up HR department” in just nine months. And to deliver that change, he has been meeting the workers and apologising for what had gone on prior to his arrival, before outlining how things might change and getting their input into what worked and what wouldn’t.

Unlike Defra, after an independent audit, Pagliari decided to keep IT in-house and the Scottish Executive has reaped the benefits.

And having a broad remit, stretching from to IT and building services, has put Pagliari in a position to have a real influence with the people at the top, with one of his main challenges being forcing all the disparate elements to work together to deliver a better service.

This has involved shrinking numbers and facilities, with the HR headcount reduced by 40% and the number of buildings occupied by the Scottish government reduced from seven to just three.

The toughest thing to get going, said Pagliari, was the HR shared-services centre, alongside the small problem of a “war zone” of a pay dispute with the unions, which has now been resolved with a three-year pay deal.

Another key to getting buy-in, both at the top and lower down, was the introduction of 10-point diversity programme and an annual diversity and equality awards scheme. There is also a skills training scheme that the Scottish Executive is linking into UK-wide training initiatives.

But Pagliari said another key to the transformation is the simplicity of the aim of the organisation.

“The aim is to be ‘the best small country in the world’,” he said. “That’s it. It’s about having the right mission, the right measures and the right relationships in place. HR needs to be at the core of the business. It’s about recognising that our own people have the answers and the trade unions have been an immense help in taking us on to where we are now.”

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