How should public sector HR prepare for spending cuts?

With the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) fast approaching and unions planning coordinated action in protest at planned cuts, public sector HR departments are set to be thrust into the limelight. Personnel Today’s HR Austerity Panel – assembled to assess the impact of the Government’s efficiency measures – gives its verdict on the potential for widespread action and the steps HR leaders need to take as cuts begin to bite. Daniel Thomas reports.

Graham White, HR director, Westminster City Council

“Industrial action is the right of many workers in the UK but on the scale being threatened it will do nothing to help resolve the challenges we all face in the public sector. Apart from depriving the vulnerable of services, this approach borders on doom-mongering and turns the average UK citizen against public sector staff and creates barriers for internal discussions in which staff representatives can and do play a vital part.

“The UK’s public sector workforce is one of the finest in the world, made up of committed and dedicated workers who often put their service before their own personal desires. I do not expect the majority of our staff to suddenly change their behaviours. There may be small pockets of unexpected behaviours but I am confident that many public sector workers are committed to engaging in debate with management to find solutions to these financial challenges and share the responsibility and not just abdicate from it.

“The key role for HR is always to keep all parties engaged. Keep listening to the views and ideas of staff. Keep sharing the real financial position as more information is released from central government. Seek ideas, share solutions, keep staff and staff representatives at the heart of the process and ensure they understand the real economic reality being faced. Nothing can replace face-to-face discussion as a tool for ensuring everyone is fully aware of the challenge and feels their voice is heard and the ideas considered.”

Richard Crouch, head of HR, Somerset County Council

“There is no doubt that the messages from central government are beginning to hit home with employees as more and more councils publicise what they think will be their likely response to the CSR or indeed are taking action already in preparation for it. The magnitude of the likely cuts is so vast that it is worrying probably all employees and personally affecting many. The issue of possible civil disobedience is a worrying prospect as this in itself won’t make the national debt go away and if anything will simply fuel it, possibly leading to recovery taking longer than it would otherwise. I think that employers will be hoping that employees will see the bigger picture.

“HR has a key role in ensuring many things during this process, but one key element has to be that effective and open relations are maintained between the employer side and the employee side, including the various trade unions. What will do no one any good at all is to become entrenched into the 1950s’ style of relations we’ve seen in the past when we have completely opposed sides that become nothing but adversarial. What is clear is that we are in this together and it’s best to get out of it together, and this will require active listening on both sides.”

Duncan Brown, director of HR business development, Institute of Employment Studies

“Lessons from the cuts so far are that there has been surprisingly little industrial action. It appears that management teams have largely persuaded employees that cuts are necessary for the long term good of the organisation, as well as that they all are sharing in the pain together. If this sense of mutuality and good purpose is lost, and it is more difficult to achieve in the public than the private sector without a clear ‘bottom line’, then we could see a marked escalation in action. The context this year is also very different to the private sector cuts last year, particulalrly in terms of higher inflation.

“HR’s role is to ensure that all communications channels are kept fully open at the individual and the collective level and that sensible and fair deals are achieved for the employer and its employees, as well as that negotiations stay focused on organisational issues rather than wider political or economic agendas.”

Dean Shoesmith, HR director, Sutton and Merton Councils and president, Public Sector People Managers’ Association

“Civic disobedience and secondary picketing are unlawful. Any spread of uncontrolled, unlawful action would be of concern, especially where public services are provided to the most vulnerable members of our community and if such unlawful action meant our most vulnerable citizens would not receive those essential services. It is unlikely moderate employees will be swept up by hard line calls for unlawful action – research by Cardiff University into trades union membership and industrial action shows that since the 1970s there has been a marked swift away from trades union membership and support for any associated strike action given such falling membership numbers.

“The role of HR is to establish trust with employee representatives and describe the clear forward direction of the organisation. Early dialogue and involvement of employee representatives can go a long way to heading off conflict. In the event that conflict begins to emerge the ability to compromise, problem solve, or seek the best alternative to negotiated agreement through ongoing dialogue will frequently be successful.”

Kevin Green, chief executive, Recruitment & Employment Confederation

“I think the big issue is not the rhetoric of the self serving unions but public opinion. It’s absolutely clear that most people recognise the need to address the deficit. Its the process used and the Government’s ability to be seen as thoughtful that will make the difference here. This is a huge opportunity for HR in the public sector to redesign their organisations, align them to customer wants and needs and deal with poor performance and low productivity in a more assertive and consistent manner.”

Angela O’Connor, chief people officer, National Policing Improvement Agency

“HR teams need to manage the changes very carefully indeed, we know that what individual employees will want to know is the impact on their jobs and terms and conditions. Staff have to consider their costs of living, bringing up children and often managing the care of others so it is not unreasonable for employees to be concerned about their futures or to want to know specifics about the cuts.
“The key to successfully managing the changes is to be honest with staff and unions even if there is no news to give. Organisations that are transparent and communicate utilising face to face communications as the primary source of information will fare better than those who leave all of the information to the intranet.

“Technology is fantastic for backing up the information to be circulated but when jobs are on the line staff deserve the opportunity to have face to face meetings and and be able to ask questions and be listened to. HR needs to treat staff with dignity and sensitivity and teach managers who may not have had to deal with similar circumstances.”

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