HR shares blame for Whitehall problems

Poor people management and inadequate HR provision are at the heart of failings in Whitehall, according to detailed scrutiny of four main government departments.

The Home Office, the Department for Constitutional Affairs, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) were all subject to wide-ranging ‘capability reviews’, which were ordered by cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell.

The Home Office fared worst, with the review calling for an urgent improvement in leadership, project management, people management and the department’s inflexible and unresponsive HR systems. On its leadership’s ability to motivate staff, the Home Office was judged a “seriously poor performer”.

Home secretary John Reid immediately announced a purge in top-ranking Home Office officials, with more than a quarter of directors set to be shifted from their jobs.

The review of the DfES was scathing about its people management, declaring it was “underdeveloped and undervalued”.

“Managers feel they lack support from senior managers and HR professionals to deal confidently with poor performers,” the review said. “Some specific skills are in short supply, particularly in HR.”

David Bell, permanent secretary at the DfES, admitted that “our management of people needs to improve dramatically”.

The DWP needs urgent development in the ability to build the capacity of its staff, the review said. The DWP’s permanent secretary, Leigh Lewis, said: “The review rightly identifies that too many of our staff, while proud of what they do, are not proud of the department or the way they are led.”

Mike Emmott, head of employee relations at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said the failings in HR could partly be explained by “huge pressures”, such as the government efficiency review.

And Jonathan Werran, director of public sector consultancy Governetz, said the tightening of budgets meant that Whitehall managers were less likely to go the extra mile for their departments.

“If you are an entrepreneurial civil servant, the risks of screwing up are far greater than monetary or promotional reward,” he said.

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