Everyone would like to think they took something from previous roles that helps them in their current job. Six years working for Tony Blair in Downing Street showed Nita Clarke exactly what kind of workplaces she wanted to create in her new job as director of workplace consultation body the IPA.
“It was one of the nicest places I have ever worked,” she said of her time at Number 10. “It was very democratic, everybody had the chance to give their view.
“Tony Blair was able to get the most from his employees because his approach was to get in the people who he thought would give him the best advice, and he was very good at making sure people told him what they thought.”
Blair’s determination to listen to the views of all his staff focused Clarke’s mind on the possibilities for employers across the UK in tackling the skills crisis.
“This is what we want employers to do,” she said. “People have huge untapped capacities and abilities. The crucial thing is to allow them to make a contribution. People are in many ways a company’s biggest asset, and if the UK is going to hold its own in the 21st century, it will be based on everybody giving of their best.”
Clarke left Number 10 along with Blair in June. Her six years as assistant political secretary advising the prime minister on trade unions – and a stint before that at public sector union Unison – gave her a comprehensive understanding of what makes a good workplace.
Her new role as the head of the IPA requires her to ensure the membership body delivers a high standard of advice and consultation services to employers. She believes HR professionals can do much to help their firms compete in the globalised economy.
“An important part of my job is to get a national debate going on what the world of work now needs,” she said. “The UK economy has been bedevilled by low productivity and short-termism for decades. The challenge is to unlock the talent of employees.
“Employers have to ask the questions: How do we organise our work? What are our expectations of our employees? Are our systems designed to enable people to give their best? There has never been a greater need for HR to deliver this agenda and articulate the case for this in the boardroom.”
The challenge for many HR professionals, according to Clarke, is getting the board to see the financial implications of employee engagement. “Anything we can do to help HR professionals make this case, we will do,” she pledged.
As an architect of the 2004 Warwick Agreement, which set out the Labour Party’s commitments to trade unions for its third term in office, Clarke believes the government still has work to do to fulfil its obligations.
“I think there are some bits where more can be done,” she said. “Such as with creating a level playing field between private, public and voluntary sector employers. There are some excellent employers, but more can be done to ensure people who are outsourced are not disadvantaged.”
However, Clarke insisted that the government has not broken the Warwick Agreement with its stubborn approach to legislation on temps and agency worker rights. No deal has been reached either in Brussels or Westminster.
“The agreement was clear that we wanted progress at an EU level,” she said. “But it would be a mistake to bring in regulations that destroyed the possibility of agency work totally. There is clearly a lot of union pressure on the government to legislate, but the reforms must have buy-in from all sides of industry.”
Overall, Clarke said the government had successfully brought about the labour market changes it set out to achieve when elected in 1997. Greater union recognition, the minimum wage and an increase in flexible working were all examples of this, she added.
The political agenda now is unclear, she added, and shaping it was a critical challenge for all involved in the labour market. “I don’t think either political party will go for a regulatory approach,” she said. “The government’s role has to be to encourage workplaces to move to a more open framework for employee engagement.”
While employers have a big role to play in this, so do trade unions, she stressed. “It is important that unions come to a view about how to meet the challenges of falling membership. As people increasingly move on to individual [employment] contracts, unions need to deal with realities and provide services that their members want. People want their union to help them get on at work. They want access to training, help getting on with their career.”
In her new role, Clarke is trying to encourage more conversations between unions and employers about how to make workplaces better. But in a nod to her old role, she leaves with a soundbite that could have come from Blair himself. “History shows us that companies that get behind the curve suffer,” she said. “And the future is very unforgiving.”
Jan 2008 – present Director, IPA
2001 – 2007 Assistant political secretary to the prime minister
1992 – 2001 Political officer, Unison
1990 – 1992 UK-based representative for the government of Jamaica
1983 – 1990 Press officer, Greater London Council
1976 – 1981 Press and campaigns officer, health service union COHSE