Rewriting the script

In March 1999, Tony Blair set in motion one of the biggest public sector overhauls of all time with his ‘modernising government’ agenda. His vision was to devolve power to the front lines of public services and enable them to operate with less red tape. The plan was to foster entrepreneurial skill and create a greater sense of professionalism in public service – in short, make it operate more like slick, modern businesses.

But this wasn’t going to come cheap. Blair asked councils and central government departments to be creative with revenue streams and, where possible, use existing resources. With skills gaps at an all-time high, for many public sector HR departments this has proved an uphill struggle as they attempt to train existing staff to carry out the modernisation agenda.

Modern movers

In response to government modernisation initiatives, many councils and government departments are now tackling areas that have let them down in the past.

One such area is recruitment. Staffordshire County Council has installed a complex SAP recruitment software system as part of an in-house project to advertise job vacancies from its 416 schools, fire and police services, as well as the voluntary and not-for-profit sectors.

This is a far cry from how recruitment used to work at the council. The council’s weekly vacancy bulletin used to run to more than 100 pages, taking four days to produce, and costing 50,000 a year in printing and distribution costs.

Now, HR employees use the system to upload and administer job vacancies in-house, including job descriptions, application forms and guidance notes. They update the bulletin online daily at minimum cost. By the second month of operation, the council had made a 40% reduction in overall recruitment costs, while lead time for council vacancies is down from two weeks to just three days.

Another local authority, Brighton and Hove City Council, steered its modernisation drive towards upskilling workers. This month it launched its ‘Get on Government’ training initiative, which is part of the national Skills for Life programme.

In partnership with the GMB union, it has opened a centre for learning which offers, among others, lessons in literacy and numeracy. It also plans to offer classes for people who have poor English language skills.

The scheme has been set up without any central government money. Instead, funding came through the Skills for Life programme and was channelled through the training colleges.

However, there are hidden costs. Training is typically held during work hours, which means paying for release time, with the added cost of temporary cover. When cover cannot be found, employees have to be more flexible with their time to ensure council services continue.

But the council expects that extra pressure on resources to pay off in the long run. “Workplaces that take an active involvement in staff development find people more motivated at work, sickness levels go down, and staff apply for jobs and promotion that they might have felt excluded from,” explains Elaine Sweetman, learning and development officer at Brighton and Hove City Council.

Performance-based pay

One approach more often embraced by blue-chip corporations than council offices is performance-based pay.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was one of the first public sector organisations to offer performance-based pay after the government set it aggressive targets.

High-achieving employees work towards cash rewards and childcare vouchers, while senior prosecutors could boost their salaries by as much as 15% – or 13,500 – under individually tailored contracts.

Staff have to hit a number of key targets to receive the bonus, including sticking to budget and reducing the number of trials that do not go to completion. Prosecutors that fail to hit at least five key targets do not get a bonus.

“The CPS was set quite challenging targets by the government, and we want to recognise the contribution that better managers make towards these,” says Mark Burch, head of reward and performance at the organisation.

The CPS has no plans to roll out the scheme to all staff, but is considering its overall employee benefit strategy.

Tackling sickness absence

A final ‘pain zone’ for the public sector is sickness absence. An average of 10.3 working days are lost per public sector employee per year, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s 2005 Absence Management Survey – two more days than private sector employees.

Local authorities are among the worst, but they are also at the forefront of innovative sickness absence schemes.

In 2004, York City Council introduced a sickness absence strategy to combat absence. Employees who call in sick must speak to experienced nurses for diagnosis. The worker’s progress is then tracked to ensure healthy staff can return to work or be given further advice if symptoms persist.

The idea is that by knowing they have to explain their symptoms to a qualified nurse, employees are much less likely to take time off for spurious reasons.

Mirriam Lawton, assistant chief executive for people and performance at Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council, also prefers a proactive approach to sick leave.

“We have a higher rate of termination due to illness than any other council,” she says.

The long-term ill at Tameside are actively encouraged to access statutory sickness benefits and medical help – and are encouraged to return to work as soon as possible. If a return to work is not possible, then the council will look to sever employment under the best possible terms. “It is better to deal with long-term illness, get the appropriate aid, and allow people to move on,” she says.

With programmes such as these in operation across the country, the public sector itself is doing just that – dealing with its problems and moving on.

Innovation at the cabinet office

Fast Stream is the Civil Service’s fast-track programme for future high-fliers.

Unchanged for 50 years, Fast Stream used to recruit in a way that was both resource- and cost-intensive. Up to 20,000 candidates each year underwent a barrage of tests in venues around the country, competing for just 450 jobs.

The Cabinet Office decided to take a technology-based approach instead. “Rather than taking 12,000 people to sit in a church hall somewhere, we wanted to focus resources on the design and use of the system, to create the best most credible test and content,” says Yvette Radford-Foley, project manager at the Cabinet Office.

So, in partnership with consultancy firms Parity Training and Cubiks, the Cabinet Office developed an online recruitment portal.

Applicants register online through the Cabinet Office website and sit a number of practice tests online from anywhere in the country, including a cognitive test, and numerical and written tests. These are taken under time conditions and with similar difficulty to the actual tests. It then provides automatic feedback that rates applicants against successful Fast Streamers and tells them if they are likely to perform well in the final tests.

Up to 50% of candidates opt out at this stage, thus significantly reducing the number of people seen by Cabinet Office recruitment staff. Those that do stick with it are invited to sit a formal examination.

The effect of automating the recruitment system was immediate. Formal applications fell by half, and the Cabinet Office saved 1m in costs year-on-year.

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