Partnership beats conflict in delivering change

I am fortunate to have been asked to lead the work of the HPMA over the next two years. There are now so many able people working at all levels in HR in the NHS that using the HPMA as a vehicle for networking and best practice is a win-win scenario.

The NHS needs an effective and cohesive HR function now more than ever, and the HPMA can be a positive force to sustain the profession during this period.

When I started my career in HR – or personnel as it was then called – back in a large local authority in 1980, I was mentored by a lovely man named Phil. He had enjoyed a 20-year career in the profession and was not one for intellectual pretension or gimmicks. Phil told it as it was, and was usually sound in his judgement.

For the younger readers, the 1980s was the era of public service retrenchment as Thatcherism caught hold and cuts (that means real reductions not just lower growth) were the order of the day. Redundancies were high and the public sector was held in pretty low esteem by politicians and the general public.

After attending an anguished meeting with unions about job cuts, Phil turned to me, a green, starry eyed youth, and said in response to my observation of their hostility: “Can you really blame them? We don’t treat them as partners, more like children – and they respond accordingly.”

Fast forward to today and the NHS in which I now work has enjoyed the fruits of Labour’s expansionism. However, the health service is now entering a much more confusing period. The centrally driven health initiatives of the early 20OOs – pay reform, contract modernisation, partnership working – have been replaced by a much less uniform world of the Darzi Review – new locally-driven health service reforms and organisational change. It is a very testing and unfamiliar landscape for the modern health service HR professional.

The question is, as the economy enters a recession, will the NHS enjoy another period of growth as the government stokes the fires of the economy with another dose of public spending? Or will tax cuts be fed by spending cuts? Will local health economies really be able to drive and deliver service modernisation free from central dictate, or will there be a return to centrally-driven reform targeting productivity improvements? While the organisational context may change, I suspect the same dilemmas engage most colleagues in the profession.

Is the role of the HR professional in this new world to be bold, acting as the key agent for locally driven workforce redesign, working closely in partnership with staff and unions, or do we retreat to our 1980s roots and restore the old order of ‘us and them’?

I’m firmly of the view that there is no going back to those rather grim and unenlightened days of conflict and partisanship. HR teams may not realise it, but we have achieved rather a lot during the past decade. In my own organisation the staff side now has a seat on the board and there are now ‘no surprises’ – we really are partners. We still don’t agree on everything but it’s a hugely better and more efficient way of delivering change, even if that change reshapes or even reduces jobs.

So 25 years on, I’d like to think that my old friend Phil called it right: treat partners with respect and there is a chance of a fair response. After all, it’s human relations we are trading in.

Comments are closed.