Whitehall capability reviews reveal HR failings

Central government HR has come under fire once again in the latest round of Whitehall capability reviews.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for International Development, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are the latest to be scrutinised by the Cabinet Office.

It brings the total number of reviews – evidence-based assessments of departments’ capabilities in areas such as leadership, strategy and delivery – to 12.

HR, people management and skills gaps once again emerged as common problem areas for the Civil Service. In particular, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was found to have “changed considerably” over the past decade, but “had not worked out what kinds of people and what sort of delivery model it needs”.

Recommendations inclu­ded strengthening the strategic management of HR, and increasing change management resources, including the recruitment of an experienced change director.

Elsewhere, the reviews found the Department for International Development was not leading the drive to transform people management and communications strongly enough. The Cabinet Office also called on the MoD to make people management a fundamental line management responsibility.

“Too frequently, review teams found that departments could manage their people more effectively,” the report’s executive commentary said. “This is not simply a question of HR functions, but it is about line management, starting at the top of departments.

“Boards have not prioritised people development and management, which is then often reflected in underdeveloped and underresourced HR functions, and a lack of strategic people and performance management.”

Philip Webb, head of public sector at HR consultancy Penna, described the reviews as a “breath of fresh air”. He said Gill Rider, the Civil Service’s head of HR, was addressing the HR leadership issue, and was professionalising the function across Whitehall.

Professor Cary Cooper, chairman of the National School of Government’s Sunningdale Institute – which provides management advice on how departments might deliver more effectively – said the findings illustrated how much attention the government was paying to the HR function.

Recommendations for departments

  • Better people management: Actions include developing a new people plan, rewarding management skills and addressing both poor and ‘coasting’ performance building a new performance management system in consultation with staff and developing a framework for recruitment, talent management and succession planning.

  • Better HR and other corporate services: Actions include strengthening HR leadership and systems providing more efficient services through a shared services approach, and making high-level appointments in corporate services and strengthening HR representation on the board.

  • Skills gaps: Actions include tackling specific skills gaps in areas such as research and analysis developing an over-arching skills strategy and investing in staff development and secondment programmes to develop the skills required.

Source: Cabinet Office

By Helen Gilbert

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