True colours: DWP HR director Kevin White speaks his mind

Kevin White, HR director at the Department of Work and Pensions, has faced some difficult times over the past few years. A bitter dispute with the department’s union, negative press coverage, and a massive change project has all been on his agenda. He talks exclusively to Mike Berry about those challenges.

What is some of the change that has happened within the department?

The DWP has seen immense change since its formation in 2001. We created a new department out of two different departments with a number of diverse operating agencies and have put in place a radical changes to the way in which we serve our customers.

This called for a massive investment in technology and our estate, fundamental changes in business processes, staff reductions and the restructuring of internal “enabling” services such as HR, finance and IT.

What has HR’s role been in supporting this change?

This kind of change can only be delivered alongside changes in the way our people work – the people “agenda” is an essential component of the overall DWP change programme. This includes workforce restructuring, capability development, and improving our performance culture.

How has the HR function been restructured?

When the department was formed we had a very large HR function (about 5,500 staff worked on HR matters, one for every 25 people working at the DWP). We tended to operate in an ‘old fashioned’ way, rule based and bureaucratic, with virtually no information systems support, few standard procedures and an inefficient relationship with line managers. 

Right from the start the HR leadership team set the vision of an HR function that should be expert, empowering, IT-enabled and efficient. We saw ourselves at the shoulder of line managers, reinforcing and supporting them in their accountabilities to lead and manage their people. This meant growth in skills and capability, new HR operating models and investment in industry standard self-serve HR systems.

We set ourselves the target of reducing the size of the function by half over a three-year period. We introduced a new network of HR business partners, established new HR shared service centres and new centres of expertise.

We are also investing heavily in blended learning systems and solutions to make the £150m we spend on learning and development each year as effective as possible.

What is HR’s role in implementing the Gershon and Lyons reports?

We have established robust business and workforce plans to recruit, deploy and release staff to match the requirements of our change programme. This last year we reduced our staffing by 11,000 through turnover and voluntary means, within the context of agreements with our trade unions.

What have been the main lessons learned from the recent PCS/DWP dispute?

I think the main lesson was that, while it is vital to remain committed to principles that you think are right, it is important to remember that disputes have to be settled. You need to be able to identify those things that will enable that settlement once there is good will to do so – I think we did that.

Was there anything you feel could have been done better on your side?

We could have communicated our planned strategies more clearly to our people. And there may have been times during the conduct of the dispute when we might have moved more quickly to seek common ground.

How did you deal with staff concerns?

It is difficult for staff during a dispute of this kind because they receive different messages from their managers and their trade unions.

As management, you have to do your best to respond directly and honestly to the concerns staff have. We knew that a great many of our staff had concerns about our new performance assessment system. We undertook a significant consultation across DWP after its first year of operation and made a number of improvements as a result.

When we finally launched the new arrangements, we gave staff as much information as possible about the views that had been expressed and why we made the changes that we did.

What has this dispute done for relationships between the PCS and DWP?

Only a few months after the dispute ended we signed with our unions a hugely important agreement about the handling of our workforce reductions in ways that minimise the threat of compulsory redundancy. There is a very effective continuing relationship which I know both sides are keen to build on to help the DWP to become a better organisation and provide better services to our customers.

The PCS perspective

Mark Serwotka, general secretary, said hopefully DWP senior management now recognise that they need to deal with industrial relations in a more positive way and take the staff and the unions with them rather than setting them against them.

“There is no substitute for meaningful and constructive negotiations,” he said.

He was critical of the consultation process in advance of the dispute, saying it was “fairly meaningless” with little effort made to listen or respond to the concerns raised by the union. He accused management of “clocking up” meetings that they “portrayed as consultation but where the fundamental issues of concern remained untouched”.

However, Serwotka is more positive about future relations. “More now than ever we believe it is vital that a more constructive and positive relationship is developed in the DWP and stand ready to engage honestly and constructively,” he said.

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