Time of change for Westminster

Jonathan Evans, HR director at Westminster City Council, explains why he’s excited about his move from the private to the public sector. 

Jonathan Evans’ 17th floor office has large windows, beyond which Westminster spreads out before you.

You can see up and down the Thames, together with some of the magnificent monuments that grace the City.

Standing there, you feel like the master of all you survey, which is rather appropriate as Evans’ job is to ensure Westminster City Council employs and looks after the people that keep the whole system outside the window running – about 4,800 local government employees.

Evans is excited. He has only been in the job since September and is new to the public sector, having had a successful private sector career, including 11 years as HR director at Orange. But he is the first to admit the challenge before him is “phenomenal”.

Union unrest has grown in recent years and the perceived image of the public sector is poor. Then there is the issue of affordability, which is at its highest in places such as Westminster, where the cost of living quickly outstrips wages.

Evans hopes to preside over a major change from a dependency culture, to one where managers and employees can help themselves. He points out some very large, grey manuals on his shelves, which, up until now, had dictated a rigid framework of management.

“We need to simplify procedures and processes, make them fit for purpose and reflect reality,” he said. “We are keeping what is good and we are changing what is needed.”

In the public sector, less money does not breed creativity because people are too used to filling out forms, according to Evans.

To help breed creativity in recruitment, the HR department has produced a recruitment code of practice, which sets out the key responsibilities of managers. Compared to the encyclopaedias of regulation on the shelves, it is a mere two pages long.

Evans believes good communication with employees is the key to organisational success. “At Westminster, we are very good at telling people how good they are,” he said. “Many people in the public sector have low self-esteem, but they have much to be proud of.”

The council is also serious about rewarding staff. Each of the six departments gives away £1,000 awards to the Employee of the Quarter, and one member of staff receives the Employee of the Year Award of £10,000. Colleagues nominate the winners, who are then publicised around the building.

But the local authority has tried to design something for everyone. The rewards programme is a menu of options to recognise staff under different circumstances. It includes the awards, sabbaticals, nursery vouchers and a new restaurant.

The latter reward reflects Evans’ wish that recognising staff should be done in ‘real terms’, creating an environment that continues to reward and excite council employees.

It seems to be working. Evans claimed that in recent industrial disputes over London Weighting pay, support has been very low from Westminster employees.

“Unions flexing their muscles doesn’t worry me,” he said. “Unions will fill a vacuum if relations break down – people want to hear from their managers before they hear from their unions.”

But pay remains a serious issue; Evans himself is the first to admit that many Westminster council employees can’t afford to live in the locale. This is why he is now recruiting for the new position of reward manager, to improve the use of reward as a strategic tool to recruit, motivate and retain staff.

The job involves linking rewards to performance, improving work-life balance and developing a clear understanding of what engages people in working for Westminster. “There is not a lot we can do with base salaries,” he said. “But we can create a more attractive package, which reflects individual circumstances.”

To carry out this task, Evans believes he has to transform his HR department and ensure it is positioned at the heart of the council. He has created a new HR strategy and an HR structure chart to clarify exactly where responsibility lies.

So, does he regret his move from the private to the public sector? “Those in the private sector don’t know what they’re missing,” Evans said. “There a lot of myths, but the truth is the public sector works very hard and is very dedicated.”


Driving principles of Westminster City Council’s HR strategy

  • Recruit and retain the very best people, and ensure practices motivate and retain them
  • Ensure the organisation is structured, yet flexible, and willing to change to enable effective delivery of services
  • Ensure employees have the necessary skills and competencies
  • Provide people policies that are attractive and supportive
  • Provide a framework to encourage a diverse workforce
  • Role modelling and championing change throughout the organisation
  • Provide development and learning opportunities to unlock the potential of staff
  • Ensure reward reflects performance
  • Provide an ever-improving health and safety management system

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