On the face of it, the concept of Total Place – providing more joined-up services to citizens while saving money – sounds like something a government intent on saving billions of pounds would be foolish to abandon. But unless there are more than murmurings of support from the new government, public sector HR may well have to wait until this autumn’s Comprehensive Spending Review to find out exactly what is in store for the initiative.
Nicky de Beer, head of operations at the Leadership Centre for Local Government, says work on Total Place – a flagship initiative aimed at integrating different types of public services at local level to create efficiencies and better provision for residents – is forging ahead despite the current uncertainty.
There are 13 pilot areas taking part in the scheme. “The advice we are giving to pilots is just to keep going with it. Don’t stop and wait to work out what [the change in government] means for them,” she says.
“There are also other places interested in doing the work and we’ve been supporting them in getting started. They don’t need to wait – if they can find funding within their organisation to do it now, there is no reason why they shouldn’t.”
Signs of support
De Beer says while there have been signs of support for Total Place from members of the new government – for example, from communities, and local government minister Bob Neill at a recent dinner held by the Leadership Centre – it is widely expected the name and language of the programme will change.
“They have already committed to de-ringfencing some grant that goes to local governments. They’ve committed to removing the comprehensive area assessment. They’ve also spoken about doing a review of local government finance – the question is really how far will the government be ready to devolve additional significant responsibilities and resources to a local level, where significant savings can be made in areas such as worklessness and skills and health and social care.”
Lack of clarity
But Heather Wakefield, head of local government at Unison, says the lack of clarity, together with the intense public sector cuts, could be brewing up a perfect storm.
“There is this notion there will still be what some people are calling ‘locally-managed’ budgets, but it doesn’t seem to be being pushed by government,” she says. “The very real danger is that because there is such pressure to make immediate cuts, that the individual public bodies, be they local authorities or other organisations, will simply make the cuts, and any notion of looking at public service provision within the whole locality will get lost in the stampede.”
It’s inevitable that job losses will take place in the public sector, and clearly HR has a role to play in this, but Roger Britton, organisational development manager at Worcestershire County Council, one of the Total Place pilot areas, says HR has two other big functions in Total Place.
“HR has a role at both the hard and the soft end of this,” he says. “The soft-end challenge for HR is the culture change. The hard end is working out how to make sure the rules by which you operate don’t end up being things that get in the way. We have got to make sure our HR systems between our organisations align themselves.”
Britton says many in HR have already dealt with the technicalities of aligning pay and pension schemes between organisations, and that Total Place will simply require them to apply these rules on a larger scale. He also points out that HR will increasingly be expected to work with non-staff members of the public sector workforce.
“We need to see the public sector workforce not simply as the paid people, but the great tranche right across civil society that is engaged in delivering public services,” he insists. “We need to make sure those people have the right set of skills – we already have experience of this in social care, where the HR function, particularly around the training side, doesn’t just work with employees but works with volunteers. So it is not unchartered territory.”
What is unchartered territory for many, however, is the sheer scale of the government’s retraction of the state, says Anne Gibson, vice-president of the Public Sector People Managers’ Association.
“I don’t think there is any part of the public sector that is going to be immune from it. What we are talking about is a kind of downsizing of the state,” she says. “We are going to see some public sector organisations disappearing or becoming smaller – we are already seeing that in terms of some of the decisions the new government has made.”
With all the uncertainty about the future, HR professionals certainly face a challenge in maintaining morale and staff engagement, and Gibson says media coverage is adding to this burden. “There is quite a lot in the press that is being critical of the public sector and therefore of the public sector workforce. It is damaging and demoralising and will cause people working in the public sector to become more disengaged,” she adds.
“It is a bit of a double whammy: the fact there is a lot of criticism of the public sector – not all of which is justified – along with the fact the public sector has got to bear quite a big hit in terms of financial retraction at the same time.”