Starting as he means to go on

Three months after its launch, NHS Employers – the body responsible for HR and workforce issues in the health service – has already hit the headlines.

It is overseeing the implementation of the Agenda for Change pay system, due to be completed by September. Meanwhile, it recently announced a significant review of the NHS pension scheme which provoked union outcry last month.

All of which means that, just weeks into his new job, Steve Barnett, the director of NHS Employers, has an awful lot on at the moment.

Barnett joined from the Home Office at the start of the year and recognises that one of what he calls his “big challenges” is getting himself up to speed on these issues as rapidly as possible.

“I need to ensure this new organisation is up and running quickly, so that it has the necessary business infrastructure to operate properly and that we start to establish our credibility,” said Barnett.

Credibility is the key priority for the new organisation. Its raison d’etre is to give employers more ownership of the workforce agenda, but questions remain as to how it will operate independently of Whitehall’s influence. However, the omens are good.

“The early relationships we have had with the Department of Health have been mature, professional and based on a partnership approach,” he said.

“Our core objective, to see the NHS as an employer of choice and an employer of excellence, are shared. So I don’t anticipate that we are going to have any difficulties between ourselves and Whitehall.”

Every organisation – whether operating in the public or private sector – aspires to become an ’employer of choice’, but for the NHS it is doubly difficult given that the huge workforce is made up of very different and distinct groups working in a diverse range of environments.
Barnett said there are many employment practices in the NHS that would stand comparison with the best in other organisations. The level of investment in training and development or the policies around equality and diversity are excellent, he said.

The caveat here is to assume that from a central position you can make people change their employment practices and simply become ‘world class’.

“It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of understanding about what being world class actually means,” said Barnett. “But, as an aspiration, I believe it is realistic and it is something that should be central to the way employers in the NHS think.”

Barnett is in the process of finalising places on the NHS Employers policy board – a group of 22 elected individuals drawn from its 200 assembly members. This board will be the organisation’s key decision-making body.

“There will be good HR representation on the board,” he said. “But perhaps more importantly, the representatives will be chief executives, non-executives, directors and professional groups.”

That is not to say Barnett will be neglecting the view of HR professionals around the health service. Quite the contrary, he said.

“We will be looking to network very closely with HR directors in all NHS locations,” he said. “We’re still responsible for running the annual HR in the NHS conference and we will be running specific networks across the HR family, hoovering up views and information from the service.”
Barnett also wants to showcase excellence within HR and scan other organisations across the UK and internationally with a view to introducing ‘best in class’ HR practices across the health service.

“Where we know something is excellent and is working, we need to put some resource and effort behind it to make sure it is shared,” he said.
Long-term, the goals for NHS Employers are clear, according to Barnett.

“I’d like to think we will be the voice of NHS employment and whenever an informed, authoritative view is required, people would turn to us first and always,” he said.

“I will judge my own progress and the impact of NHS Employers by the improvements for patients and users of NHS services.”

HR directors give their views

 Mike Griffin, HR director, Kings College Hospital NHS Trust

“I feel very positive about the new organisation. It fills a long-outstanding need for the NHS. There has previously been an ambiguity between the role of the Department of Health, ministers and the health service. There is an enormous HR agenda this year, so the organisation’s arrival is timely. It should mean a much clearer voice for employers and will be important as the year progresses.”

Jonathan Porter, HR director, Royal Berkshire Ambulance NHS Trust

“It does sound like a good idea in principle. However, how free it is to set the agenda and negotiate is questionable. I am also concerned that local flexibility and the ability to respond to market forces is being sacrificed to national pay bargaining. I am worried that it will become another forum for people who define their own importance by the number of meetings they attend, rather than a long-term adjunct to what we do.”

Jan Bloomfield, director of personnel and communications, West Suffolk Hospitals NHS Trust

“The main advantage is that HR strategy will be employer-led. It is good that the health service can discuss the impact of certain strategies and have opportunities to influence them. What is important is getting the consultation machinery right to collect views from people within the service. It will be very different from what was in place before, so it is up to us
[the employers] to make it work.”

Barnett’s CV

2005 Director, NHS Employers

2001 Senior HR director, Home Office (Immigration and Nationality Directorate)

1998 Deputy director of HR, Department of Health

1995 HR director, Central Manchester Healthcare NHS Trust

1991 HR director, Leicester General Hospital NHS Trust

1989 HR director, IT subsidiary at AT&T

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