What next for public sector HR?

Nic Paton takes a look at HR’s challenges in the coming five years

Police

The issues

– 1999 Macpherson report

– Absence and sick leave, compounded by rising violent crime

– Recruitment, particularly of women and people from ethnic minorities,
increasing officer numbers across the board, and putting more officers on to
the streets

– Government police reform programme, including Police Reform Act

– 2002 strategy for occupational health

The HR challenges

In many ways, the UK’s police service is still recovering from the blow of
the 1999 Macpherson report into the death of teenager Stephen Lawrence, which
branded the force ‘institutionally racist’.

Diversity has been near the top of the HR agenda ever since, and the
Metropolitan Police ran a £20m Community and Race Relations training programme.
Yet, even now, just 2.9 per cent of officers come from ethnic minority
backgrounds, and only 19 per cent are women.

An action plan called Breaking Through was published in January to provide a
framework for all forces to examine their performance in this area and identify
barriers to the promotion of equality.

But the issue refuses to go away, as shown by the sitting of the Morris
inquiry into the treatment of officers from ethnic minorities, which is due to
report this summer.

Sick leave and absence is another key challenge for HR. According to the
Home Office, the average number of days lost per officer in 2001 was 12.2,
compared with 10.2 in the public sector as a whole, and 7.2 days in the private
sector. The launch of a strategy for occupational health in October 2002,
backed by more than £15m, is making a difference, but it will remain a priority
area.

HR sits at the centre of the Government’s police reform programme, which
needs to be looked at in the context of rising levels of violent crime and
ministers’ desires to get more officers out of stations and on to the streets.

Spearheading the programme is the Police Reform Bill, which is due to be
implemented by April, and aims to improve performance monitoring and training
and communication, while encouraging more flexible working, greater diversity,
and less bureaucracy.

Civil Service

The issues

– 2004 strike over pay

– Lyons report on relocation

– Absence, sick leave and diversity

– Leading from the Front Line initiative, including proposals to reform back
office functions, such as those within HR

– Gershon efficiency review

– Delivery & Reform modernisation programme

The HR challenges

With civil servants at the Home Office and the Department of Constitutional
Affairs walking out last month, industrial relations is the most current
headache facing HR within the service.

While nominally over a specific pay claim, the dispute actually has deeper
roots – notably the way the Government chooses to award civil service pay, how
the Treasury still controls the purse strings, and the lack of a national
system of pay negotiation.

The relationship between staff and managers is also at the heart of the
issue, and is one that HR will need to grapple with over the next five years.
Certainly, there are morale and absence issues, with official statistics
showing that civil servants took 50 per cent more sick leave last year than
private sector staff.

There is also disquiet over the continuing push to relocate staff from
London to the provinces. In the past few years, more than 10,000 civil service
jobs have moved out of London alone.

Sir Michael Lyons, director of the Institute of Local Government Studies at
Birmingham University, is examining the feasibility of relocating a further
20,000 jobs out of Whitehall, and is due to report this month.

Diversity is another key area that will need to be tackled. Figures from
April last year show that just 2.8 per cent of senior civil service staff are
from minority ethnic backgrounds and 1.7 per cent are disabled.

Other challenges on the horizon include the efficiency review being
undertaken by Peter Gershon, head of the office of government commerce, looking
at how spending is allocated, which will feed into the 2004 spending round.

The Government’s Leading from the Front and Delivery & Reform programmes,
both looking at how services can be better delivered to the public, are ongoing
issues of which HR will need to stay abreast, particularly proposals to
integrate back-office HR functions with other functions.

Education

The issues

– Launch of school workforce agreement last September

– Tomlinson report on reform of GCSE and A-level system

– Implementation of the National Curriculum and testing programmes

– Hours, recruitment, retention

– Stress and sickness absence

– Pay and funding

– Affordable housing

The HR challenges

Schools minister David Miliband apparently keeps a copy of the Government’s
school workforce agreement pinned above his desk, such is its importance to
him.

Launched in September despite opposition from unions, it is designed to cut
administration, limit the amount of cover that teachers are required to give
sick colleagues and, from September 2005, give guaranteed time out for class
preparation.

Even with this, addressing teachers’ workloads, sickness and stress levels
is the fundamental task for HR over the next five years. Despite the increased
investment in education, pay and funding is the other great challenge facing HR
practitioners.

A draft agreement was reached in January on the pay level to which teachers
should aspire and to introduce an ‘excellent teacher’ pay scheme, just short of
performance-related pay. Unions also want a national pay scale.

While ministers are hoping that last autumn’s funding crisis and subsequent
redundancies will not be repeated this year, its impact on recruitment,
particularly of newly-qualified teachers, should not be underestimated. The
numbers going into teacher training are growing and an extra 50 training
schools are coming on stream in England. But the Teacher Training Agency
estimates it still needs 35,000 recruits a year to replace those who leave
early or retire.

With the Health and Safety Executive in September reporting stress levels
driving record numbers of teachers to drink and drugs, employee retention, morale
and well-being will be priorities for HR. Access to affordable housing is also
on the HR agenda, as it is across the entire public sector.

Industrial relations will be another key issue – not least because of
continuing unhappiness in some quarters over the implementation of the workload
agreement.

Last year also saw university lecturers walk out over pay, and the impact of
top-up fees on the future supply of teachers and lecturers is a longer-term
worry, too.

The issues

– Reducing Crime, Changing Lives document, unifying prison and probation
services through the creation of a National Offender Management Service

– Setting up of a Prison Pay Review Body

– The introduction of a comprehensive performance assessment programme for
prisons in April last year

– The rising prison population

– Recruitment, retention and diversity

The HR challenges

Much as in other parts of the public sector, change management will be the
watchword for HR within the prison service over the next five years.

The Government’s Reducing Crime, Changing Lives document, which emerged out
of reforms proposed by Patrick Carter, a non-executive member of the Home
Office Board, will mean substantial reform of working practices and structures
both within the prison service and the probation service.

The new National Offender Management Service, the merged prison and
probation service, is being introduced from June, amid fears among the Prison
Officers’ Association (POA) union that it will cause chaos and add to
bureaucracy.

The decision in April last year to set up a performance assessment process –
league tables, in effect – also puts HR firmly in the spotlight. Prisons are
graded from one to four, with the threat of privatisation hanging over the
poorest performers. How to manage this process and its outcomes for staff are
key tasks for HR.

But one of the biggest challenges facing HR is the swelling prison
population, now at a record 75,000 in England and Wales alone, and the stresses
and strains this puts on an already-stretched service. Welfare of prison
officers, recruitment – particularly of a younger and more diverse workforce –
retention, early retirement and the management of stress and sickness absence,
will all continue to be significant issues.

The establishment of a Prison Pay Review Body, which reported for the first
time last year, has taken much of the sting out of pay negotiations.

Nevertheless, industrial relations remain an issue. Relations between
successive governments and the POA have never been good. Last year, Home
Secretary David Blunkett announced plans to scrap the law banning strikes by
prison officers, and a strike over terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland was
narrowly averted in January.

Fire service

The issues

– Bain report into the future of the fire service

– 2002 firefighters’ strike

– Publication of the Government’s White Paper, Our Fire and Rescue Service,
followed by the publication of the Fire And Rescue Services Bill in January

The HR challenges

The bitter firefighters’ dispute of 2002 still hangs heavy over the fire
service, and managing its aftermath and the changes it has wrought are set to
be the key HR challenges for the next five years.

It cast a harsh spotlight on fire-service working practices, many of them
unchanged since the 1930s, and prompted the Government to bring its Fire and
Rescue Services Bill forward.

This legislation, which is expected to become law later this year, replaces
the Fire Service Act of 1947 and will set out in law for the first time that
the service’s role is about responding not just to fires but also to road
accidents, floods and terrorist attacks.

A key challenge, argues Carol McCletchie, director of HR at Cleveland Fire
Brigade, is to change the culture of the service so that it becomes more
outward looking. The Audit Commission will check in July how the first tranche
of the modernisation programme is going.

Changes to the service, including the introduction of an Integrated Personal
Development System, replacement of the 12 ranks with seven ‘roles’, a new pay
structure and a multi-level entry system and an accelerated development scheme,
will all keep the service’s HR professionals busy.

On top of this, new selection tests are being introduced, medical standards
for employment are being reviewed, a diversity strategy is being developed and
a new disciplinary system will be put in place.

"We are trying to get something that is flexible enough so that
existing employees are not going to be totally disenfranchised, but also makes
us more attractive to a wider, more diverse labour market," says
McCletchie.

There are also increasing moves to ‘professionalise’ HR within the service
and give local managers relevant HR skills.

NHS

The issues

– Agenda for Change pay modernisation programme

– Development of ‘beacon’ Primary Care Trusts and Foundation Hospitals

– Opt-out on the European Working Time Directive

– Bennett Inquiry accusing NHS mental health services of ‘institutional
racism’

– Recruitment

The HR challenges

As the world’s third largest employer (after the Chinese Army and Indian
railways), the HR challenges within the NHS are never likely to be small. But
with substantial changes to pay, conditions and hours, an ongoing modernisation
programme, accusations of institutional racism being bandied about and the
continuing headache of recruitment and retention to deal with, NHS HR managers
have their work cut out over the next five years.

But in the area of industrial relations, managers can be thankful at least,
with the Government having successfully headed off discontentment among
consultants, junior hospital doctors, GPs and nurses. "The most important
HR challenge within the NHS over the next five years is building on the
improving morale we are enjoying at the moment," agrees Elaine Way,
president of the Association of Healthcare Human Resource Management.

Key areas set to dominate the HR horizon include the Agenda for Change pay
modernisation programme, particularly implementing the new GP and consultant
contracts and pay deals for other NHS staff.

At the same time, the Department of Health’s New Ways of Working group is
continuing to look at how to redesign roles, for instance giving nurses limited
prescribing powers. Improving training is also high on the agenda.

The end of the opt-out clause on the Working Time Directive will also put
workforce planning at a premium. "It is no longer just a case of knowing
that the people will be there to hire," says Way.

Increasing violence against staff is likely to be another area HR will need
to work hard to tackle, not simply in ensuring zero tolerance policies are
enforced, but also helping and rehabilitating affected workers.

Way believes the ageing population will have an impact both in terms of
patient demand and recruitment. Recruitment and retention, particularly among
nurses and GPs, is likely to remain an issue.

Local Government

The issues

– Modernisation drive and moves towards ‘beacon’ councils

– Pay in the wake of the 2002 strike, and a move to equal pay audits

– Outsourcing of HR and other functions to the private sector

– Regionalisation and the possibility of regional assemblies

– Recruitment and retention, particularly of school leavers and graduates

The HR challenges

The pay strikes of 2002, when 1.2 million local government workers in
England, Wales and Northern Ireland walked out over a 3 per cent offer, may
seem a long time ago, but were a warning sign of just how much work HR has to
do in local government over the next five years.

Those strikes led to the establishment of an independent Pay Commission,
which recommended, among other things, equal pay audits for every council. The
Government’s focus, through its 2001 White Paper Strong Local Leadership –
Quality Public Services, has been on creating ‘beacon’ councils and harmonising
terms and conditions.

These processes will continue, with organisational change and service
delivery continuing to be closely linked to increased investment.

Other challenges on the horizon include the continuing battle to change
perceptions of local government, particularly among younger people, with such
schemes as the Employers’ Organisation graduate development programme, and to
attract a younger, more diverse workforce.

"The agenda is also increasingly about work-life balance, flexible
working patterns and managing sickness absence," suggests Ann Southworth,
head of HR services at Capita HR and Payroll, which runs the HR function for
Blackburn and Darwen Council.

Skills shortages are another issue, particularly in giving workers dealing
with the public the training to deal with aggressive and violent behaviour. HR
is also likely to be at the frontline of society’s growing litigiousness, both
among staff and the public, meaning there will be more case work and appeals to
be handled.

Outsourcing of HR and other functions, and how that is managed, will be
another issue. At a wider level the move to regionalisation of government, with
the possibility of regional assemblies in the north west and Yorkshire, and
even for England as a whole, could have a major impact.

"If you have a regional government, then the layer of local authorities
will shift accordingly," says Southworth.

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