One of the least enjoyable aspects of working in HR is telling people they are about to lose their jobs. Most people spend weeks preparing the announcements, but Dale Cox had to be the bearer of bad news just six days into his interim role as head of HR at Ofsted, the government’s education watchdog.
In late November last year, he found himself on a train to Birmingham, ready to stand with a senior manager and tell staff that their office was to close and they would no longer be employed.
“It was certainly in at the deep end,” he told Personnel Today. “But it was a credit to the work that had already been done that I was able to step in with a week’s notice and pick it up.”
The work included hundreds of Q&As being prepared, along with extensive information for the department’s intranet and pre-written scripts. “People were ready for the announcement and had time to think through the options open to them,” Cox said.
Office closures and job losses are the headline-grabbing aspect of the Improving Ofsted change programme, which involves moving to a regional delivery structure for the department’s core inspection services.
Ofsted underwent a large expansion back in 2001 when it assumed responsibility for the regulation and inspection of childcare. As a result, staffing levels rose from 550 to 2,500 within six months.
With the recent publication of the government’s Every Child Matters Green Paper Ofsted has also been given the lead in inspecting children’s services in healthcare and criminal justice.
The change project underlines the government’s commitment to maximising frontline delivery of services, as set out in the Gershon report. But the director of the Improving Ofsted programme, Andrew White, said: “We were working on proposals in advance of Gershon, looking at ways of improving efficiency in Ofsted. The report agreed with the principles we were coming up with.”
White and his team outlined the changes to staff in July last year, explaining the rationale behind them and what would happen next. Over the next three months a number of working groups looked at different areas of the organisation.
“On the whole it was a tremendously positive experience because, despite the obvious consequences for some people, what they came back with were rational and feasible options about how we could take the organisation forward,” he said.
It was then decided to announce the results to all staff at the same time on the same day. “We put tremendous effort into that,” said White.
“Senior management cleared their diaries and we had a 10am meeting in every office.
“We put a board member in all the locations that were closing, as we believed that was the appropriate thing to do,” he added. “It was a trying and difficult day, but the amount of effort we put in was repaid by the fact people felt they had opportunities to talk to us,” he said.
White was struck by how maturely staff took the news. “There were no histrionics. People were asking sensible questions. I have never been prouder of the staff than on that day,” he said.
The options open to staff, including redeployment to other civil service employers, financial support to relocate and outplacement measures, helped to cushion the blow.
“I initially thought that everyone would think the news was dreadful. In fact the announcement meant different things to different people,” White said. “To some it was devastating, for others it prompted them to think about other career ideas.”
The new Ofsted will see regionalised, customer-facing HR support, meaning that a number of people in the HR function will not be there once the programme is complete.
White acknowledges that a key plank in the future of Ofsted will be to look after the survivors of the change. “We do believe the organisation will be improved as we get through this programme,” he said.
“There has been a lot of change in a short period of time, but unlike some other government organisations, we have benefited from not having an enormous amount of baggage with us. This change will not be the end of it.”
Absence levels ‘not damaging productivity’
Andrew White, director of Improving Ofsted, has denied that high levels of absence are damaging productivity at the organisation.
Sources told Personnel Today that sickness absence among inspectors meant productivity was low. They are expected to visit 12 schools a month, but only average seven or eight, internal figures show.
And although White admitted there was “an issue” with a small group of childcare inspectors, he said the department was tackling it.
“The figures are pushed up by people on long-term sickness,” he said. “We do a lot more now on acting quickly if people are absent from work.”
He said Ofsted was on the average for public sector sickness absence, which is 8.9 days a year according to the CBI, and was improving. He said part of the problem stemmed from when inspectors transferred from local authorities to Ofsted in 2001. “While we made efforts to ensure the transition was as smooth as possible, it was difficult for them,” White said.
The education watchdog employs 1,250 inspectors, all of whom work from home. It is currently the largest home-based organisation in government.
White admitted that sickness absence among this group was slightly higher than office-based staff, but he said other benefits outweighed this.
“We get tremendous output from our home-based inspectors,” he insisted.
The Improving Ofsted programme
- Three-year restructuring to be completed by April 2006 – delivering savings of 20% to the annual budget by 2008
- Reorganising on the basis of three regions based at Bristol, Nottingham and Manchester
- Reducing staff numbers by about 20% and scaling down headquarters in London
- Eight locations to close between September 2005 and March 2006
- Proportion of home-based staff to increase to more than 60%.