Hello PPMA members and friends

Our post this week has been written by Alan Warner who is a Director at Albany OD. Many of you may know Alan, who is a past PPMA President and his career spanned a range of key roles in the Public Sector including HRD at Hertfordshire County Council. Now in the private sector, Alan shares his views on the role of OD in getting the right balance between the front and back office services.

“The mantra of savings to be made from the back office to protect front line services continues but the ability to achieve that objective is diminishing. Organisations have made huge strides to slim down as much as possible but a number still report that they are heading for the buffers.

Without wishing to sound trite, fronts usually have backs! Cut away the back too enthusiastically and the front can get out of balance. The ambition must be to improve the efficiency of the back without adversely effecting the front but it is not uncommon to hear those at the sharp end complaining about how much paperwork and administration they are having to do.

There seems to be a public perception that there are armies of people who cost a fortune and sit in offices doing stuff that at the end of the day has a detrimental effect on the services they expect to see. In a way that is understandable but it is no different to any other  reasonable sized business. Behind every corporation there is a back office that sorts out the basics like having people employed in the roles needed, making sure the finances are under control, sorting out accommodation, procurement and so on. Fail to do any of these things properly and the potential for disaster can follow.

The need for profitability drives business so the back office is kept to a minimum but always has to be viable by having people with the right skills and how that is achieved is key. Keeping people engaged and valued in a public services environment where finances continue to be reduced becomes a major challenge. Many organisations have found themselves so stretched that staff training and the ability to attend seminars and the like has been severely cutback or stopped altogether. However, new ways of working, new systems, changing roles and so on are putting many into new territory. They are having to do things in a way that has up to now been outside of their experience. They may well have been good at what they did before but the shift of focus can, in some cases, lead to people excelling and in others, to become completely out of their depth!

We are where we are and nobody is arguing for turning the clock back. Times of trouble and burning platforms can lead, and in many cases have led to terrific innovation and there is more to come. The housing sector for instance is starting to see a lot of interest in mergers and acquisitions and we are seeing different varieties of joining together in local authorities. Some are seeing good results but  interestingly, in the private sector, it is apparently not uncommon for such activities to flounder because of culture clashes and a lack of preparation of staff.

This goes back to having people with the right skills. Obviously the finance and legal technicalities have to be in place and good and qualified folk need to manage that. The people stuff which will include a mix of hard and soft skills needs to be up there with at least equal prominence. This is where spending time on organisation development will help to deliver a better outcome. Aligning visions, plans, strategies, infrastructure and the capabilities of staff will help to provide a smooth and well managed transition and subsequent operation.

It is not rocket science but too often senior managers skimp on the people part and  interpret OD as a training programme. Of course, training to operate new systems and so on is vital but there is more to it than that. For instance a new working practice might require the use of IT yet the organisatio’s IT rules get in the way. An extended opening hours policy can be thwarted if the phones switch off at 6.00pm. A commissioner/operations model will stumble if there are different views about how it is supposed to work, arguing that staff have been trained does not resolve the problem. Engaging staff by taking into account their thoughts, aspirations and ideas can enhance the outcome.

Organisation development is not a dark art, in fact it could perhaps be described as`stating the bleeding obvious’ which might be why some managers think they can cope perfectly well without it. This is a classic back function and is where real value can be added, allowing the front to perform without disruption to the community.

The back office needs to be well connected to what the front is trying to achieve and to see themselves not just as say HR or accountants, but as people who have a role in filling potholes or caring for the vulnerable. They need to be flexible, able to work across organisations, be entrepreneurial, innovative and imaginative. The deal is however, that they need to be valued as contributors to the whole rather than seen as a burden.

It is much healthier to see people as a team rather than labelled as front or back and opportunities may be lost by organisation imposed demarcations that result in, say, a group of commissioners formulating plans and ideas without the input of operational folk. A whole systems approach will provide better results and OD professionals can help make that happen.”

Alan Warner, Director, Albany OD