PPMA 2017: Leadership and evidence-based HR in the public sector

Shokat Lal and Angela O'Connor answer questions at the 2017 PPMA annual seminar
Paul Scott Photography

Two themes dominated the Public Service People Managers’ Association (PPMA) annual seminar: leading change and the need for evidence-based HR practice. Roisin Woolnough reports on last week’s public-sector HR gathering in Bristol.

“No-one can escape change now,” said Allison Davies, HR manager at local authority services company Acivico as she opened the talk, “Leadership – latest developments on creating leadership capacity and capability in a VUCA world”. VUCA refers to volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

“Never has there been a time when the need to drive management capability and capacity has been so necessary. The pace of change and the changing shape of the public sector means that this is a huge challenge for us.”

Someone who has a lot to say about change and the need to drive and improve leadership and management capability is Shokat Lal, assistant chief executive at Rotherham Council.

Lal, who has a long career in HR and was one of only seven people from the public sector named on the “2016 HR most influential” list, said leadership development has taken a backseat in the public sector because of budget cuts. “The whole concept of public-sector management and leadership has suffered as a result,” said Lal.

Just because you can measure it doesn’t mean it’s valuable. Where data is most valuable is where you can fit it to a business problem” – Wendy Cartwright, Palace of Westminster Restoration & Renewal Programme

Rotherham Council has, of course, had a crisis of leadership and management in recent years following the child abuse scandal that erupted in 2010. Following that, the whole strategic team was replaced and a huge amount of work has been done to change the leadership style, culture and practices of the council.

“Rotherham is a tragedy of our time,” said Lal. “We have so many lessons to learn from what happened, particularly in terms of leadership.”

Lal talks about a leadership landscape that is relevant not just to Rotherham Council but to the public sector as a whole. That landscape is that:

  • failure is more exposed than it ever has been;
  • public-sector organisations need to be more fluid and supportive;
  • hierarchical power is giving way to networked authority;
  • career ladders are being replaced by “tours of duty”.

When talking about “tours of duty”, Lal referred to comments made by Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, on the need for HR practitioners to embrace the idea of doing specific projects and developing a portfolio career, rather than just sticking to one job and one route of development.

HR needs to be curious, and ready to tackle new challenges and look for opportunities, rather than just pursuing a traditional career pattern.

Leading in a volatile world requires public sector HR and OD to have the right skills. Lal said this means people have to be able to create and retain a clear vision, provide a clear direction and consistent messaging, while at the same time possessing the agility to flex and adapt.

He also thinks it is critically important that leaders look out across boundaries and break down hierarchies. Leaders need to be networked and encourage everyone in their organisation to be networked too. “It can no longer be about standing behind walls and defending organisational self-interest,” he said.

Digital skills in local government

Everyone knows we have to “be digital”, but many people, including HR professionals, don’t really understand what that means. “Digital is a term that is widely used but poorly defined,” said Jos Creese, principal analyst at IT services provider Eduserv.

In conjunction with the PPMA, Eduserv has just published research, Skills for digital change: HR and IT working together for positive change in local government. Here are the key findings:

  • only 32% of councils have an HR strategy that has specific reference to digital capability;
  • even fewer (29%) are currently promoting digital skills in recruitment and staff performance measures; and
  • 51% of councils currently depend on external specialists to support digital leadership and digital change programmes as internal support is lacking.

Having a plan for digital transformation

  • 75% of councils have a strategic plan for digital;
  • 56% have a plan to develop digital skills;
  • most respondents (74%) feel that everyone in the council will need digital skills to do their job effectively;
  • 63% recognise that digital transformation is less about IT and more about changing ways of working; and
  • only 6% say they have the internal digital skills, capacity and experience without the need for external help.

And HR and OD leaders need to be prepared to act courageously. That is a clear lesson to be learned from what happened at Rotherham. “We tackle the difficult issues. If more people could have acted courageously in Rotherham years ago, then more children could have been saved,” Lal said.

Lal thinks it is really important that everyone working in the public sector understands the difference between blame and accountability: “Everyone is afraid of being blamed, but they do have to be accountable. It’s about understanding the difference between the two.”

Speaking alongside Lal was Angela O’Connor, chief executive of the HR Lounge. O’Connor said the Lounge witnessed a huge upturn in work with top teams last year, a surge that she thinks is very positive for HR because it shows that “leaders don’t assume that they have all the answers any more”.

What she would like to see more of its leaders soliciting feedback from the people they work with.

“The more senior you get, the less feedback you get. I work with chief executives and politicians and it is interesting how little feedback they solicit and how few difficult conversations they have about what they are doing.”

All HR and OD leaders, whether in the public sector or the private sector, need to create an environment where feedback is allowed, where employees are able to be honest in their communications.

And leaders need to make the time to ask themselves questions, to pause, stop and reflect. “Lots of execs say they never have time to stop,” said O’Connor. “I think a key element of leadership in the world that we are in is for leaders to be self-disciplined and stop themselves and their team, and create space to think.”

O’Connor went on to talk about HR and organisational culture, saying that one of the biggest failings of any organisation is to rely on HR to change culture. Why? Because if the leader isn’t willing to change and just hands over responsibility to HR, then the change won’t work and won’t happen.

That doesn’t mean that O’Connor doesn’t think that HR has an important role to play. She said: “HR is in a unique position to analyse the culture of an organisation. We hear people’s stories and it’s incumbent on us to understand what is going on in organisations.

Rotherham is a tragedy of our time. We have so many lessons to learn from what happened, particularly in terms of leadership” – Shokat Lal, Rotherham Council

“Often the top team don’t know what is happening, so we need to produce information and in a way that the top team can hear.” HR needs to provide evidence-based information that relates to business needs and is presented to the top team in a relevant, business-focused fashion.

Wendy Cartwright, HR lead for the Palace of Westminster Restoration & Renewal Programme, spoke at the PPMA’s session on ‘Developing the HR Public Service Professional of the Future’. She couldn’t agree more that evidence-based data is key: “If you don’t have the data, you are at a disadvantage.”

However, she said it is imperative that HR collects the right data, rather than collecting data for the sake of it. “Just because you can measure it doesn’t mean it’s valuable. Where data is most valuable is where you can fit it to a business problem.”

Rob Briner, professor of organisational psychology at Queen Mary, UCL and scientific director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Management, spoke a lot about evidence-based HR in his talk “Productivity – what role should HR and OD professionals play?” Briner thinks there is a lot of talk about evidence-based practice, but that many HR professionals find it hard to do.

What’s the value of evidence-based practice? “You can make a decision knowing what you know, what you don’t know and what evidence you are basing the decision on,” said Briner. “You are simply trying to make a better, more informed decision.”

Briner thinks the process of gathering and analysing evidence is critically important, but that many HR professionals are put off because they think pursuing an evidence-based approach means there is no scope for personal experience and judgement.

That’s not the case – Briner said there is still scope for HR professionals to draw on their experience and judgment. They just need to combine it with the evidence they have collected and analysed.

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