The changing face of public sector HR

in-depth research by Personnel Today reveals the extent to which perceptions of
HR in the public sector don’t necessarily match up to the day-to-day reality.
In this special report, we look at the implications for the sector and HR
professionals give their verdicts on the survey findings

Public sector HR: is it up to the job?

Despite rating themselves highly on industrial relations, employment law and
innovation, public sector HR professionals admit they still haven’t solved the
perennial problems of performance management, funding and recruitment and

A survey by Personnel Today of almost 1,000 HR directors, managers and staff
working in the public sector reveals that, while tackling massive changes in
restructuring and efficiency, almost 60 per cent fear they lack the funding to
support such organisational change. And this feeling is particularly acute in
the health service.

The vast majority of respondents believe their HR departments are dealing
well with changes in employment law, industrial relations, innovation, equal
opportunities, employee relations and diversity.

But almost half feel their departments are not doing very well on retaining
and attracting talent. The problem of skills shortages in the public sector
labour market concerns 41 per cent of the survey sample.

Public sector HR professionals like the way their working life is
structured. Nearly 90 per cent rated the benefits of flexible working as good,
89 per cent agree there is good job security, and three-quarters rate the
work-life balance the public sector offers.

Managing staff performance was cited as the sector’s main downfall, with
more than half the respondents rating it as not good.

Around two-thirds of respondents believe stress levels in the public sector
are too high. Interestingly, they appear to increase the longer a person has
worked in the sector – two-thirds of people with more than five years’
experience said stress levels were not good.

Almost half of those questioned have previously worked in the private
sector, and of these, nearly two-thirds (61 per cent) prefer working in the
public sector. Three-quarters of HR directors also prefer working in the public
to the private sector.

Jane King, editor of Personnel Today, said it is clear that most public
sector HR professionals feel proud of their work and see many benefits.

"As a fair employer, the public sector scores well, but it has major
challenges to overcome if services overall are to improve," she said.
"The HR profession is well-placed to make the difference, but it needs
adequate funding to pull off organisational change."

By Mike Berry

exclusive survey of almost 1,000 HR professionals reveals…

42% feel their department is not dealing well with retaining talent

43% feel their department is not dealing well with attracting talent

Around two-thirds (64%) think stress levels in the public sector are not good

Two-thirds of directors (66%) rate morale in their HR department as high or
very high, however, a third of staff (33%) rate morale as low or very low

87% believe their organisations handle diversity well or fairly well

gulf widens as HR staff move up the ladder

yawning gap between the pay of public and private sector HR professionals has
been revealed by a survey of almost 7,000 users.

findings confirm what we have suspected all along that the pay gulf widens with
seniority. While the gap between private sector HR managers and those in the
public sector is more than £5,000 (around 14 per cent of salary), the
difference at HR director level is more than £16,000 (nearly 21 per cent).

the pay discrepancies are not causing public sector HR workers to flee, as
roughly the same proportion of public sector and private sector employees are
keeping an eye on the jobs market.

30 per cent of respondents (both public and private) are actively seeking a new
job, and a further 51 per cent of public sector and 46 per cent of private
sector HR professionals say they would jump ship if the right job came along.

widening HR salary gap

                        Public sector                 Private sector*            
Director            £61,410                       £77,690
Dept head        £40,290                       £44,320
Manager           £31,070                       £36,530
Adviser            £24,960                       £25,820
Assistant           £17,880                       £20,810
Clerical/admin   £16,820                       £18,040

than 50 employees

is the key in a changing world

We asked some of the profession’s leading figures about our survey, the
current state of public sector HR and what it needs to do to improve
performance in the coming years.

Alastair Henderson, acting director, NHS, Employers Organisation

The key challenge for HR in the NHS is supporting the organisation through
change. There are always challenges surrounding managing staff performance and
the changing culture of an organisation. The question of funding and HR
capacity is crucial, and I’m not surprised at the concerns of the profession.

But I don’t think we should underestimate the commitment and satisfaction
achieved by people working in the public sector and the NHS – that’s very

Jo Fellows, HR adviser, Local Government, Employers’ Organisation

Local government HR departments have been at the forefront of good practice
in areas such as equality and diversity, and this seems to be reflected in the
survey results. It’s an exciting and challenging time for HR professionals
within local government at the moment, particularly as people management is
moving up in the improvement agenda.

Will Hutton, chief executive, The Work Foundation

Managing the performance of staff is always a big problem. Virtually every
staff survey in the private and public sector alike is guaranteed to say three
things: that organisations can’t manage performance, that there needs to be
more team-working, and something about the better design of pay and reward
systems. Not managing performance is a widely-perceived problem in the private
sector, and it doesn’t surprise me that it’s an issue for public sector HR
professionals as well.

Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser, Chartered Institute of Personnel
and Development (CIPD)

The results on the whole are pleasing as they concur with the CIPD’s own
research. The one real surprise is the high rating of those enjoying a good
work-life balance. This is good news as it suggests an emphasis in the public
sector on translating family-friendly and flexible policies.

However, the high stress levels – particularly in the health service – are
discouraging. You have to look at the reasons why they are high. One of the
main reasons is the poor standards of line management – a particular weakness
in the public sector. I also think the ‘ambiguity of objectives’ in the public
sector can lead to stress.

Alan Warner, corporate director (property and people), Hertfordshire
County Council and vice-president of the Society of Personnel Officers in
Government Services (Socpo)

Part of what we need to do is address issues of image. The public sector is
a great place to be and we need to say so more forcefully and frequently, but
we also need to concentrate more on picking out the stars of tomorrow. Very few
other areas of employment give people the real opportunity to make a difference
and improve the quality of life and the environment in which we all live.

The upshot is that good HR directors have to be a lot more creative with the
limited resources they have. The evidence suggests they are doing this as
massive changes have been achieved over the past few years.

Andrew Foster, director of HR, Department of Health

The good scores on industrial relations, employee relations, equal
opportunities, innovation and employment law reflect the high quality of staff
in HR functions in the NHS. The good scores on work life balance, flexible
working, and job security are also encouraging.

The survey’s findings on stress reflect the public sector generally,
particularly the health service. However, we are not complacent, we recognise
the need to keep concentration on building effective people managers, and are
applying research tactics, such as team-working which improves stress

Bev Messinger, head of HR, Coventry City Council

Skills shortages are certainly an issue for local councils. Coventry is
approaching this on a number of fronts, including a fundamental review of
recruitment processes and policies which will address issues of attracting and
retaining talent and improving the diversity of the workforce.

Angela O’Connor, HR director, Crown Prosecution Service

I have some real worries that perhaps some HR departments are doing the
things they enjoy and feel comfortable with, rather than those that relate
directly to business needs.

There are some great HR teams in the public sector – I think better than any
other sector, as they have the issues of public accountability to deal with,
the public purse and a variety of services to deliver to diverse communities. I
personally love working in the public sector. I think it is rewarding,
fast-paced, the people are great and making a difference for the public is as
good as work gets.

sector HR self-assessment

of HR directors rate their work-life balance as ‘not very good’

in local government rate the public sector as ‘good’ for job security

of HR professionals in central government have never worked in the private

of HR directors in the public sector prefer it to the private sector

of HR directors rate morale in their HR department as ‘high’

of HR staff rate morale in their department as ‘high’

of HR professionals in local government rate their department as ‘good’ at
dealing with changes in employment law

of HR directors say their department is ‘good’ at industrial relations

in the health sector rate their department as ‘fairly good’ or ‘very good’ on
diversity issues

of HR directors say public sector HR is ‘not good’ at managing performance

of HR professionals in central government rate the salary levels as ‘not good’

of health HR professionals rate benefits as ‘very good’

say career opportunities in the public sector are either ‘fairly good’ or ‘very

of health HR professionals say stress levels are ‘not good’

of central government respondents rate flexible working benefits as ‘good’

based on responses from 932 HR professionals currently working in the public

Reasons to work in the Public Sector

– Because it is not profit driven and therefore can offer a more caring

– Provision of a valued service to people and because we can network and
share experiences

– Very attractive pension scheme and non-pay benefits

– Tend to follow legislation more strictly. Have to be more innovative for
HR solutions -can’t just throw money at it

– Less hire and fire attitude

– Staff are given more opportunities to develop and there is more support
for staff

– More interesting issues to deal with

– Working for a reason, not just money

– Training and personnel development is taken seriously

– I can have an impact on the quality of people’s lives, rather than just
making profit for the directors and shareholders

– More interesting HR work, never dull

– Less pressure, more flexibility in the role I am in. It’s worth at least
£10,000 per annum to me

– I work 9-5 without too much stress

Reasons to work in the Private Sector

– More dynamic environment, more pressurised, more career opportunities and
more responsibility

– Public sector is too heavy with bureaucracy and overly controlled, opposed
to streamlined and managed

– Technology is more advanced

– There is better ability to fund, plan and action change without
government/civil service infecting the work

– Poor performance managed better

– Remuneration reflects role

– Decisions can be made immediately by HR rather than through a committee
unaware of the whole remit of employee relations

– Private sector empowers organisations, whereas public sector is still too
bureaucratic and stymies innovation

– Work with HR professionals, not civil servants that don’t always
understand HR

– More money, better working conditions. Looks better on CV

– In the public sector, union intervention and rigid grade structure
restricts innovation and makes HR rather inflexible

And some don’t like it anywhere: Actually neither – HR is moribund in
both sectors! (Give me several hours and I will tell you why)

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