Politics and media hamper change in public sector

Delivering change is made even more of a challenge for public sector leaders by the political environment in which they work, according to Lord Richard Wilson, president of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

Speaking at a CIPD event comparing the challenges facing leaders in the public and private sectors, Wilson said: “The management of change is a key part of leadership today, whether you work in the public, private or voluntary sectors.

“But in the public sector, leaders face the unique challenge of trying to deliver change against the background of political priorities that may not always be the same as management priorities.”

CIPD research shows that in two out of five cases where redundancies are being implemented, the job cuts are at least balanced out by jobs created elsewhere in the organisation. This is exactly what the Gershon proposals for the public sector entail – with shifts from so-called backroom jobs to front-line services.

Yet, in the private sector, leaders rarely have to manage redundancies in the face of deliberately engineered media coverage of the chief executive proudly announcing the scale of the redundancies to the world, Wilson said.

“The management of change and selection of jobs to be cut does not actually happen at the centre of Whitehall. It happens in hundreds of dispersed departments, agencies and local bodies,” he said. “It has always been this way. Between 1979 and 1997 the civil service reduced in size from 746,000 to about 465,000 – a reduction in size of nearly 40%.”

But these dramatic changes took place over a long period and were not announced as such, Wilson added. They were managed progressively by the department in question with relatively little media coverage to unsettle the workforce, he said.

The key to bringing about change is winning the hearts and minds of public servants, and HR professionals will be key to this process, Wilson said.

“Their role is not just to manage redundancies,” he said. “It is also to ensure that those who remain or arrive afresh are motivated and clear about what they are there to achieve. HR professionals are an essential part of the leadership of any organisation.”

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