The public-private debate: Personnel Today’s 360-Degree Appraisal of HR

If an HR department had to choose between being described as primarily administrative or strategic, it would opt for the latter every time.

But according to Personnel Today’s 360-Degree Appraisal of HR survey, public sector organisations still see HR as an admin-focused function drowning in paperwork.

Is this negative image of personnel pen-pushers justified, and do their counterparts in the private sector really have it any better?

One of the key arguments is that HR needs to build its credibility – whether in the public or private sector.

If it is to achieve that in the public sector, it needs to support corporate objectives in a tangible, commercial way. At Hertfordshire County Council, for example, HR has negotiated a resourcing contract with recruitment company Manpower to reduce the cost of recruiting, cutting time to hire and creating less paperwork – all solid business benefits that private sector companies must demonstrate on a day-to-day basis.

David Cartwright, group HR development manager at logistics company Wincanton, attributes credibility to not being a “servant of the business, but a strategic partner”.

“We have our main HR director on our board,” he says. “It keeps HR on the agenda and aligned to the business strategy.”

Alison Rose, head of talent and resourcing at high street bank Abbey, believes HR has to work hard to maintain its reputation by nurturing its business partner role. “There’s a historical hangover about the expectation of HR and what it can deliver,” she says. “One-off initiatives that aren’t integrated to the business can be the kiss of death.”

Strategic initiatives

One way to demonstrate how strategic HR can be is to become involved in major change projects, such as implementing a new IT system. At Whitbread, head of talent and resourcing, Stacey Hubbard, was involved in introducing a self-service system for managers and staff. “HR plays a strategic role in managing that system, and using analysis from it,” she says.

HR also needs to provide appropriate measurements for the business and improve its long-term planning, believes Jo Causon, marketing and corporate affairs director at the Chartered Management Institute. Take sickness, for instance, which was a top issue in the survey for public sector HR.

“It’s not just about the number of sick days, but providing a detailed analysis of what that means for the organisation,” Causon says.

Private sector companies also tend to use more scientific methods for measuring talent. The first step for any successful talent management programme is to have a “basic tool that is pragmatic and works”, adds Hubbard.

Whitbread plots every manager on a talent matrix that notes performance in relation to potential. “It gives us a common language to talk about people and we can cut the data by a number of angles to analyse the shape of our talent. That helps us with discussions and in leading the actions,” she says.

Succession failings

Respondents from outside HR in the Personnel Today survey rated succession planning as HR’s greatest failure. The cultural differences between the private and public sectors make how they deal with succession very different.

The fact that public sector employers must advertise every vacancy in the external market is a challenge for succession planning, says Hubbard. “There are requirements and obligations they have that could be barriers,” she says.

In the private sector, meanwhile, there has been a trend towards creating dedicated talent management programmes with ­senior-level buy-in and investment.

Whitbread centralised its HR role in December 2005 and now has a talent management team that works across its various brands, which include David Lloyd Leisure, Premier Travel Inn and Costa Coffee.

“We talk about our entire talent pool from a succession planning point of view, whereas some organisations mean only their top talent,” says Hubbard.

Widening the pool creates more opportunities for individuals and employers alike.

More employers, both in the private and public sectors, are using tools to help them overcome the succession planning challenge. Whitbread plots every manager on a talent matrix that notes performance in relation to potential, for example.

However, the public sector does have a reputation for treating staff fairly – perhaps too fairly, according to Rose. She believes the “egalitarian approach”, and emphasis on consultation so common in public sector and voluntary organisations, can get in the way of talent identification and development activities.

“In my organisation, everyone gets a pop at it,” she says. “But once we’ve identified fairly those who merit further developing, there is unequal treatment, and that’s not palatable in every organisation.”

But that does not mean public sector HR managers cannot learn from their private sector counterparts. The key is to say ‘yes’ to initiatives rather than always being the department that gets in the way.

“What makes the difference is enablers. It’s very discouraging if you’re a line manager to hear your HR person say: ‘The trouble with this is’ as their first sentence,” concludes Alan Warner, corporate director (people and property) at Hertfordshire County Council.

“It’s very demoralising to hear: ‘It can’t be done, it’s not in our policy’,” he says.


“The increasing amount of employment legislation makes it extremely challenging to provide a customer-focused HR service to the business. Although most of the legislation is marketed as being good for business, management experience of it is that the complexities of employment legislation mean the HR role has become more an enforcement role. In the public sector this is compounded by national regulations that we are also required to adhere too as good practice model employers. In the private sector there is much more local flexibility.”

Catherine Diamond, head of HR and organisational development, Basildon District Council

Top issues: public and private sector

Public and private sector HR professionals are approached by line managers for subtly different issues:

Public sector  

1. Sickness 32% 
2. Poor performance 27%
3. Absenteeism 19% 
4. Training 8% 
5. Harassment/bullying 3%

Private sector

1. Poor performance 42%
2. Absenteeism 22%
3. Sickness 13%
4. Training 11%
5. Recruitment 3%

Public and private sector line managers, likewise, say they approach HR for different reasons:

Public sector  
1. Sickness 51%
2. Poor performance 39% 
3. Training 37% 
4. Absenteeism 28% 
5. Recruitment 16% 

Private sector

1. Training 49%
2= Poor performance 35%
2= Sickness 35%
4. Absenteeism 27%
5. Recruitment 9%

Source: Personnel Today 360-Degree Appraisal of HR

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