Straight talking

If something needs saying, then incoming Socpo president Terry Gorman is the
man to say it. And this week’s annual conference should give him the ideal
platform to get his message across

The phrase "plain speaker" is over-used, "plain" often
implying "rude". Terry Gorman is a plain speaker in the best sense of
the term. The president-elect of local government personnel body Socpo says
what he means but remains courteous and unflappable.

Indeed, with his calm manner and neat features, the strength of what he says
does not always register immediately. He warns of the dismemberment of local
government or dangers of chartered status for the personnel profession with the
air of one discussing where to have lunch.

Lobbying voice

But while his tone is polite, the message is clear. Gorman brings a
hard-edged lobbying role to the office of president. As vice-president, he has
already forced changes on the Government to incorporate personnel values into
its controversial Best Value regime. The Department for the Environment,
Transport and the Regions did not even include Socpo in its original
consultation. Gorman and president Rita Sammons protested. The error was
corrected.

It is clear that one of his priorities is to shield local authority staff from
the worst effects of central government interference – and the much vaunted
Best Value scheme could become a test case.

Best Value is the New Labour version of Margaret Thatcher’s compulsory
competitive tendering. Council services will be contracted out to the private
sector if they do not offer value for money. But with the bean counters in
control the money can dominate and the value be quietly ignored.

"The regulations are still written as an auditor’s central system, with
tick boxes," Gorman says. "There is a danger that it could become an
issue only driven by the bottom line.

"If you are only driven by costs it is hard to see local government
services continuing. Big private companies can always put up loss leaders. Once
they have the service, we have lost the wherewithal to provide it. In five or
six years’ time they [private sector providers] decide the cost. How far Best
Value gets driven into the private sector is still unknown. Can you force
someone in the private sector to consult with the public?"

Competition is not even fair, he protests. Private operators are not subject
to inspections, and council services cannot pitch for business outside their
patch. In his authority – Nottinghamshire – the council receives requests from
small- and medium-sized companies to use its occupational health service, but
the authority is barred by law from selling to them.

Humanising forces

But Gorman is a pragmatist. Rather than fight a quixotic battle against the
army of inspectors, he believes in humanising them – encouraging a move away
from the "tick-box" mentality towards one of commitment to
improvement. Both Ofsted and the Social Services Inspectorate have moved in
this direction, he notes, and he will help guide the Best Value inspectors down
the same path.

The problem arises from the ignorance of Whitehall.

"There has been a massive amount of legislation," says Gorman.
"People in local government feel that they are never left alone. They are
doing a good job; they are committed to public service, and yet they are
continually being badgered and pushed by external forces who sometimes know
little about local government."

He does not volunteer to identify these sinister "forces". Do they
include New Labour ministers?

"We all feel at times that civil servants do not understand what local
government is all about, and I am disappointed that some ministers with a local
government background do not want to promote issues about local
government."

Some tension is inevitable, given that local authorities have some autonomy,
but are part of the delivery of government policies – such as on education or
ending social exclusion.

Yet it is deeply ironic that at a time when private sector managers are starting
to question the vigorous cost-cutting of the early 1990s, the Government could
force the same mistake on local councils under the pleasant-sounding Best
Value.

"Historically we have followed the private sector after they have
started to rethink what they are doing," he says. "That is my message
for the IPD. We should be working together, looking at the changes, rather than
following the private sector after the event."

The balance of expertise is even, he argues. The commercial world may have
its nose in front on questions of performance management, but it has much to
learn from local councils on equal opportunities and on employee assistance
programmes. "We have some of the best experts on handling trauma here in
the [Nottinghamshire] social services department following the Kegworth air
crash."

Profession’s challenge

Gorman, an active IPD member, also dares to raise concerns with the
institute over its recently won chartered status.

"Having an institute that tries to get the Government to focus on people
issues is important. There needs to be a national voice."

But he adds, "I would find it hard if people could not practise if not
chartered. That would cause difficulties."

In particular he is dismissive of those who pretend that there is some
mystery or science to managing people and communicating with them. Retreating
to a professional silo is even less defensible for personnel than for others
because elements of people management are a task for every manager.

"There isn’t some wonderful science in all of this. There is technical
knowledge – employment law and good procedures. But I can get confused by some
of the personnel jargon and what it is telling us."

The institute also needs to address the changes in society to which those in
the public sector are more keenly aware. "The ageing population has major
implications for the profession. That is where the IPD should be leading. We
are going to end up with major skills shortages."

Recruitment is a challenge in local government, though Gorman disputes the
popular notion that no one wants to enter public service any more. Luring high
flyers from university is a forlorn struggle, but Nottinghamshire does not have
serious problems attracting people for the main professions – social care and
teaching.

And while the salaries are not spectacular, Gorman pays attention to matters
such as training and career progression, which have often been neglected in
some female-dominated areas of work in local government.

Giving sector

He does not worry. It would be futile to attempt to offer what the blue-chip
firms have and in any case public service attracts different people – the kind
who run voluntary organisations in their spare time. Caring for vulnerable
people or housing homeless families can be more rewarding than selling trinkets
in the global village.

"I am not too sure there is the level of poor morale that people claim
there is in local government," he says.

"Like all jobs there are concerns, and anxieties – we have had a long
period of change – but morale in my experience is generally pretty good,
especially if you get down to the people at the front line."

The recent surge in applicants to Voluntary Service Overseas is evidence of
many people’s desire for more than the material things. Gorman does not
perceive this as a trend, or a backlash against Thatcherism – such speculation
is for the media. He argues that the interest has always remained constant.

He is a case in point. A compulsive volunteer – running a youth club for
disabled children and organising cricket events for blind children – he takes
after his parents. At 75 his mother still does washing for elderly people in
her neighbourhood.

"Throughout my life I have been someone who likes to give. Local
government is a natural place for me."

Generosity does not mean naivety, however, just as being nice does not mean
being soft. It is worth remembering this if you have to negotiate with Gorman.
And if you are wrong, he will tell you.

By Philip Whiteley

Gorman on…

Government ministers "They are too quick to criticise; too quick
to put out league tables"

Personnel jargon "Language is important and you can get lost in
jargon. If you are feeling insecure any professional person can go into it, and
every profession does it"

The IPD and the private sector "It is about working together.
Let us change the IPD from being largely focused on the private sector to one
where we face issues jointly. A quarter of IPD membership is in local
government. Let us start responding to that"

Line managers "All managers should be good personnel officers;
it is part of their job"

Gorman’s management style

Gorman does not believe in executing change without taking staff with him.
"If you do not have people engaged the resistance is going to negate
everything you are trying to achieve."

Long-standing colleague Stuart Brook, social services director at
Nottinghamshire, attributes Gorman’s success to his manner of taking everyone
as they are, be they part-time cleaner or high-flying mandarin. "I do find
that he is a listener, who finds space for a whole range of individuals in the
organisation.

He has a good network from shop stewards involved in front-line services
through senior managers and politicians."

Gorman says, "The key element to change management is making sure
people understand why you are doing it. I am not sure we have always got it
right in local government. It is vital – you must communicate with people and
take them along with you. The process is often more important than the outcome."

It is better to get it right than get it soon, but he says he has on
occasion been too slow. "As long as you have a clear time-frame – that is
the best of both worlds."

An example was local government reorganisation, under which Nottingham ceded
from Nottinghamshire. There was an unmovable deadline, but a long lead time.
Some 10,000 staff were transferred to the new city council; around 85 fewer
posts would be needed in the remaining county, but through painstaking
discussions with the unions on redeployment and rearrangement of tasks, just
six redundancies were needed.

Another area where Gorman claims that his thorough approach has paid
dividends is in home care. The council’s in-house service was far too expensive
to survive the Best Value regime, due in April. The standard approach would
have been to cut back on time with clients and on care staff. Instead he went
with an idea from Unison in which computer and admin costs were slashed with
the introduction of a smart card to record time spent for calculating customer
charges.

"We have tried to engage people in the problems that they face, rather
than say, ‘This is the problem and here is a solution’. We would say, ‘These
are the difficulties, how do we get through this?’ There is no point in
confrontation. There is no point in just cutting staff if you all you get is an
industrial relations problem."

Socpo conference

Terry Gorman’s no-nonsense style will be felt at this year’s Socpo
conference in Brighton. Out go the entertaining US gurus, in come British
specialists in delivering public service.

The imminence of Best Value, the government scheme for excellence in local
government services due in next month, makes a practical focus essential.

"Where I have heard gurus speak they say nothing different to what
people you could find in this country would say," Gorman comments.

"We need people who actually have an impact on our lives – who can tell
us how to translate theory into reality. We want something that will make them
[the delegates] say ‘Hey, we can do this!’."

This does not mean the speakers will lack colour. Top civil servant Michael
Bichard, who once described Whitehall managers as "being to people
management what King Herod was to child care", will address the
conference.

John Benington, professor of Warwick Business School and an authority on the
Best Value scheme, will also take the podium.

www.socpo.org.uk  

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