Five key challenges for public sector HR professionals: one step forward, two steps back

Public sector HR professionals need to step back from the day job and brace themselves for the challenges ahead, says Public Sector People Managers’ Association president Stephen Moir, in the run-up to the association’s annual conference at the end of April

As public sector HR professionals, we are often too immersed in advising managers and organisational leaders about how they should deliver their services. How much time do we allow ourselves to stop, step back from the day job and consider what could be ‘on the cards’ for the next few years both for ourselves and how they relate to our profession?

In my opinion, there are probably five key challenges or areas, some strategic and some operational, which public sector HR needs to recognise and address.

1. Leadership

Placing and shaping community leadership and delivering services to empowered and engaged citizens requires a new order of leadership skill and capacity from public sector leaders, both political and managerial. Leading a place and the multimillion-pound organisations that provide services to areas requires business acumen, the ability to connect with communities and, ultimately, the willingness to listen and respond to the needs of people as individuals – not something you see in abundance within the upper echelons of public service. However, apart from dreams of a university for the public sector, HR needs to get to grips with this challenge now and understand the changing context within which leaders need to operate and how best they can be prepared for this.

2. Pay and reward

Reclaiming previously held territory and putting employers back in control of the pay and reward agenda is essential for the public sector in the future. Local government is beginning to find its way out of the equal pay mire, but at a significant cost, other parts of the public sector also need to ensure their approach to pay and reward is proof against equality claims and collectively we need to move onto delivering a new reward agenda for the future.

Pay and reward remains the immediate battleground for HR in the short term. National negotiating machinery is increasingly out of touch with the needs of local employers, politically directed by ministers and, as a consequence, is more focused on managing cost pressures and the broader economic position.

Moving into a total reward environment where greater personalisation and choice exists for employees will not only benefit employers, but will also make the challenge for HR in this area much more interesting. Wouldn’t it be more engaging to bring this all together into a single debate instead of having pay in one corner, pensions in another, benefits in a third and last, but by no means least, the poor old HR person in the fourth corner – trying to box clever against all three issues.

3. Equality and diversity

Increasingly, the need to ensure organisational approaches to diversity has a true focus upon communities and community cohesion has meant that the role of HR in shaping, supporting and embedding good approaches to equality and diversity is under threat. Rather than grumble about this or blindly accept the Trevor Phillips’ view that there isn’t a role for HR in diversity, public sector HR needs to rouse itself. We need to recognise that diversity in terms of service access, design and delivery, policy development and employment opportunities are all areas which HR can contribute towards and should have a strong voice in delivering. After all, the diversity agenda has grown up from anti-discrimination employment law and who better to take this forward than HR professionals who can see the bigger picture?

4. Talent management

Supply and demand: it’s a relatively simple process isn’t it? Talent spotting and development and, most importantly, the ability to deploy talent effectively for the future means that HR needs to provide resourcing and development solutions that are faster, more flexible and technology enabled to reduce the bureaucracy and paper-based approaches that many still protect and love.

We also need to be thinking now about how to engage with the future public servants through new media. A strong web presence is something we should be grappling with now and becomes an increasing issue as we all try to attract Generation Y employees to our ageing workforce.

5. Service transformation and efficiency

Finally, the big challenge for HR in the future is to get involved with service transformation and modernisation, changing the way in which public services are delivered. However, we can hardly do this without looking to ourselves first. When was the last time you looked at the cold, hard benchmarking information and performance data in relation to your team and used this to drive further efficiencies from the system? When did you properly consider the need to transform your own function using technology and implementing professional HR standards?

The theme of the Public Sector People Managers’ Association national conference this year builds strongly on all of these challenges and will seek to explore them further. However, it is this final challenge in relation to service transformation that perhaps masks the fundamental issue facing public sector HR – change or be changed, or at a more visceral level: evolve or become extinct.

PPMA Conference 2008

Date: Wednesday 30 April – Friday 2 May

Venue: Hilton Metropole Hotel, Brighton

This year’s Public Sector People Managers’ Association (PPMA) Conference takes the theme of ‘Evolution or extinction: the future for HR in the public sector’.

In an ever-changing world with greater pressures being placed on people management professionals, the need to become faster, fitter and more flexible to meet the needs of our organisations has never been more pronounced. The efficiency agenda continues to create greater challenges and more and more examples of shared services, outsourcing and offshoring are beginning to creep into the way that HR is delivered to the public sector.

In response to these challenges, evolution or extinction will be at the heart of the issues addressed by conference speakers and sessions.

Speakers include former BBC head Greg Dyke Geoff Armstrong, director-general of the CIPD and Miles Hilton-Barber, an adventurer and inspirational speaker.

Delegates will also have the chance to attend the 2008 PPMA Recruitment Awards.

For more information visit


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