Public sector special: profile of Deb Clarke

As HR director for both the council and the local primary care trust in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, Deb Clarke certainly has her work cut out. Mike Berry found out how she copes with this unique role.

The decision by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in September 2006 to do something radical and recruit a joint HR director for the council and the local primary care trust (PCT) raised a few eyebrows in town halls up and down the country.

The move was justified by council leaders by claiming the two organisations were increasingly working in partnership on joint projects. Recruiting a director to oversee both would invariably increase efficiency and improve service delivery, they insisted at the time.

A lengthy recruitment process followed and Deb Clarke, a former assistant chief executive at Stoke-on-Trent City Council, was appointed to the £100,000-plus role in March last year.

Tower Hamlets is undoubtedly an area of London on the up. The council has worked hard to improve its services and the borough’s image over the past few years, but the view from the council offices could not be one of greater contrast – crumbling council tower blocks in the shadow of the gleaming skyscrapers of Canary Wharf.

The council has won a raft of awards for its work on community cohesion and integrating ethnic groups in an area where many different languages are spoken. Its performance in the council league tables has been rated as ‘good’ over the past few years, with council bosses aiming for an ‘excellent’ rating next time around.

The ‘worst job in local government’?

Less than five years ago, people were calling the HR role that Clarke stepped into ‘the worst in local government’, because of a previous lack of leadership and any real sense of strategic direction. Her predecessor Cara Davani began the process of turning that around when she joined in 2003, and Clarke is now determined to move up a gear.

One year into the job, has the steep learning curve that she spoke of in her first few weeks levelled out into something approaching normality?

“I’m really starting to get to grips with the opportunities that exist across the organisations, identifying areas where the two can work together,” she says.

A common assumption would be that this means transactional work, for example, payroll and HR administration. But Clarke says that is not the case.

“It’s not really feasible because the NHS has its own national payroll system,” she explains. “Where the HR teams can work together is much more strategic, in terms of organisational development, the leadership and diversity agenda, employment, and skills in the borough. That’s where the organisations really get to join up their thinking,” she says.

This is what Clarke calls the “sexy stuff” the work where her 100-strong team can make a real difference to local residents.

She recognises the council and primary care trust have huge power as a public sector presence in the borough, and says that “having a joint director helps to ensure HR is making a strategic contribution at the highest level of our partnership”.

Transforming fortunes

Opportunities for local people are set to increase dramatically in the coming years, with a third of London’s total development taking place within the eight square miles that form this densely populated part of the capital. Projects such as 2012 Olympics, Crossrail and the Thames Gateway regeneration aim to transform the fortunes of the area for good.

However, whether locals will be able to fill many of the jobs is another matter.

“There is a split in the population of the borough there are lots of jobs available, but local people haven’t necessarily got the skills to fill them,” says Clarke.

That has been mirrored in the search for a joint assistant director of HR, and the council had to re-run the recruitment process after a first round of candidates that went through assessment weren’t deemed good enough. This was incredibly frustrating and hugely disappointing, Clarke says.

“There is a dearth of talent in public sector HR,” she says. “The [existing] bright sparks are few and far between, with the up-and-coming bright sparks even scarcer,” she says. “That should be a cause for anxiety for the profession.”

She rejects the notion that the borough’s reputation, and talk of a challenging HR environment, would have turned people off the role. “[The council] is working very hard to change these negative views and develop the brand of Tower Hamlets,” she insists. “The borough is a fantastic place to work and there is a real buzz.”

You can’t help finding yourself agreeing with Clarke on this. Although the journey on the Docklands Light Railway into London’s East End might not be the most aesthetically pleasing, the council’s office complex across the river from the O2 arena has a vibrant feel to it.

Clarke’s joint role is unique in the public sector, but she is unsure as to whether the model will be adopted by other organisations. Somewhat surprisingly, no other councils have been in touch, not even out of twisted curiosity to see whether Clarke is wilting under the pressure.

“I’m not sure whether this role is the way things are heading for local government,” she says. “In good times, it’s a lot easier to do these kinds of innovative things as both organisations here are ambitious.”

One area where Clarke claims to have made a difference is industrial relations. It’s fair to say that she takes a different approach to the unions than her predecessor Davani, who accused Unison, one of the council’s main unions, of being obstructive and afraid of change. Clarke appears somewhat more sanguine about things.

“I think we are doing OK. In both organisations overall relationships are pretty good,” she says. “I’m taking a different approach to [Davani], very much of the view that trade unions are a useful partner and trying to establish areas where we can agree to the benefit of employees.”

Work-work balance

Clarke admits that there aren’t enough hours in the day to get the job done, but rejects accusations that her time is spread too thinly across both organisations.

She spends the majority of her time on local government work, perhaps because it’s the sector she feels most comfortable in. And in simplified terms, the job is currently a ratio of 3.5 days on council work, 1.5 days on health. But the role is doing nothing for her work-life balance.

“I’m spending a bit more time at the PCT than before, but find myself having to work more than five days a week,” Clarke says.

“There is a push from both organisations to think that their priorities are number one all the time. Dealing with two budgets, two performance management regimes, two inspectorates, two governance arrangements – there is just an awful lot of stuff to get through,” she admits.

Challenges in the coming months include the HR perennial of talent management, new models of service delivery and a joint approach to equality and diversity to help recruit a workforce that reflects the local community. Someone inventing a 25th hour might also be helpful.




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