‘People are our key resource': the challenges facing public-sector HR professionals

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The Public Sector People Managers’ Association (PPMA) exists to promote the best HR practices across the public sector. Martin Rayson, PPMA president, explains the current issues affecting the public sector during these times of economic restraint.  

We have to ensure the often-used phrase “our people are our key resource” has meaning not only in the good times, but also when we are facing huge reductions in budgets, are looking to fundamentally change our operating models and ways of working, and when we need to drive up productivity levels and reduce staff costs.

Our commitment to our people, which we believe is fundamental to the delivery of the above changes, has to be backed up by actions as well as words.

More radical solutions are needed

Having reduced costs and budgets significantly over the past few years, public-sector organisations now have to deliver further annual budget reductions. While we can always make more efficiencies, the financial challenge we face demands more radical solutions. It is potentially about redefining what people can expect in terms of public services. It is certainly about seeking to manage reduced demand, and exploring alternative ways of providing services and service reductions.

It would appear that we have seen nothing yet in terms of the changes that need to be made. Many, if not most, presentations in local government include the infamous “graph of doom” that shows the growth in demand for social care and the reductions in the budget. But very few go on to give a clear vision for the future, showing how we can meet the growing needs of communities outside of publicly provided social care. We must find realistic solutions and I am pleased to acknowledge the imaginative thinking taking place in many places.

This is a real opportunity for HR to be at the heart, and not just “supporting”, the transformation in public services. We have to have the confidence to grasp that opportunity and to do so by continually reminding organisations that our people remain our key resource. By continuing to motivate the workforce providing public services – and they are hugely committed to that task – the necessary transformation can be achieved. The workforce may be smaller, they may be working for different kinds of organisations and they may be required to work in different ways, but their continued commitment to public service is crucial and it is very important that we see the workforce as part of the solution and not just a cost to be managed downwards.

Influencing the debate

The PPMA believes it can play a central role in enabling the public-sector HR community to rise to the challenge. The PPMA itself is changing, recognising the importance of embracing HR colleagues in organisations across other sectors delivering public services rather than focusing on the public sector alone. Our role is to seek to influence the debate, to undertake research and offer thought leadership on key issues, promote best practice and facilitate collaboration among our members to tackle common problems.

David McLeod and Nita Clark’s work on “Engaging for Success” highlighted the importance of staff engagement to organisational success. Clearly, this is a particular challenge in the public sector. Sustaining engagement levels at a time when services are being cut and when the workforce feels little job security and no end in sight to the pain is very difficult. However, our future success depends on keeping and attracting talented people. The “employment deal” that sustained the public sector over many years is no more. We have to move quickly to put a positive but realistic alternative in place, and one that is more motivational than simply “you are lucky to have a job”.

Within that deal, we have to find a way forward on the issue of pay. The traditional approach to reward may be unsustainable and feels out of step with public opinion, but it had many sound qualities. But what can replace it, so that the public-sector ethos is not lost but so that it is also affordable and motivational? Both regional pay and performance-related pay have been promoted as alternatives, but neither is felt to pass the fairness test by many. How can we get out of the rut we are in over reward, and can we do that through consensus? Is conflict with the public-sector trade unions inevitable? How can we achieve transformation against such a backdrop?

Outside of engagement and the future deal, there are issues about the impact of new delivery models – an area in which the PPMA is undertaking research – and the extent to which we have the public-service leaders who can deliver the transformation required.

These are some of the issues that the PPMA is currently exploring and they form the agenda for our annual seminar, which will be held on 18 and 19 April in Bristol. There are still places available, so please join us there.

We want to debate these same issues with a wider audience. We want to provoke debate and inform discussion, thereby helping organisations delivering public services to be successful and to be able to say: “Our people remain our key resource and we have worked with them to deliver lasting change.”

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