Hello PPMA members and friends

Kersten England, chief executive of City of Bradford MDC believes HR professionals have a crucial role to play in the current environment and she outlines 5 key observations about what this looks like for HR.

“I entered local government in 1990 as a gender equality and management development training officer in the HR department of Kirklees Council. Some would say this was not the most obvious place to begin a career whose path would lead to becoming a chief executive! But on the contrary it gave me immediate access to senior management and the front line across the organisation, allowing me invaluable insights into the business of the council and access to influence well beyond my grade. It also helped to work for an inspirational chief executive – Rob Hughes – who invited me over for coffee in my first week to discuss the personal and professional development of his support staff and executive team.

That first experience has served me well throughout my local government career. It also means I get how important a capable HR function is to the overall success of an organisation.

With the Prime Minister’s recent ‘Smarter State’ speech and endless coverage and speculation about the outcomes of the comprehensive spending review it can be no surprise to people in our sector that the radical remodelling of the local state in England will intensify over the coming three years. This is not simply about unprecedented reductions in funding for our sector. There are also fundamental and difficult questions to be faced about efficacy and how we deliver outcomes for the people we serve.

It is a moment to remain purpose led and focussed on our ‘true north’ – doing what it takes to create the best possible quality of life for the people and the place we serve, not just for now but more importantly for the future. Our role is fundamentally to be a broker and convener, seeking to bring all productive resources of the place (and beyond) into play to create prosperity.

So what does this mean for the work of Human Resources functions and professionals?
I’d offer these observations:

1) True North
The HR function has a very significant part to play in helping the people of the organisation to focus on and connect to what the organisation is trying to achieve. Conventionally this is about putting appraisal and performance review processes in place, commissioning/providing relevant learning and development opportunities and a broader range of employee engagement activities.

What’s needed right now is a huge hike in the intensity and dynamism of this area of work. Change is coming and the pace and scale will overwhelm our organisations unless the conversation about what’s happening, what matters and the part people can play/the choices and influence they have is constant and comes from a range of directions.

HR has always had a crucial role to play in enabling and embedding change. However, as our organisations change and develop new relationships between the citizen and the state we should be mindful that overall organisational success starts with clarity around organisational vision values and purpose.

And if we don’t refresh these for the new world we are in, then HR functions will continue to struggle to support change and will instead retreat to their comfort zones of policies and procedures. Sure there is a huge part for managers and communications teams to play – but this is not a time for demarcation debates about who communicates with staff. It’s all hands to the pump – and HR needs to be doing some of the pumping!

2) Secure capability
What’s apparent to me is how much more risky our business has become. There is little headroom or spare capacity in our system. Too many organisations have seen very capable individuals who carry much of the tacit knowledge of the organisation exit; they have slashed development budgets and failed to recruit people equipped with the skills and experience to navigate our current operating environment.

There are too many single points of failure – a very capable individual leaves and we face real difficulty. We must understand and invest in the development and recruitment of the critical skills which are required. And we need to tackle poor performance confidently and quickly. As we recruit lets not lose sight of the importance of emptying a workforce which not only possesses the skills we require but represents the places we serve.

These are categorically not contradictory imperatives. I need an HR function that leads the way in these areas – whether through development and delivery of the workforce strategy or the day to day advisory support to managers.

3) Keep people in good shape
Most of the people who work in local government live in the area they serve. The wellbeing of our workforce is inextricably linked to the wellbeing of the place. Whilst our ability to offer job security has dramatically diminished, we need to keep people in good shape and with the skills and confidence that give them a good prospect of remaining in work through their working life.

Maximising the influence and choice people have in the workplace should be a given, supporting employees through the change process is critical. Whether setting up their own business, transferring to another employer, leaving in search of work or retirement we need to take a keen interest and support people to explore their options. We need to acknowledge and support people to deal with the emotional impact of change and a capable HR function is central to this agenda.

4) Support transformation and alternative models of service delivery
It’s impossible to achieve the required pace and scale of change without an HR function that is deeply engaged with and enabling the transformation programme (or whatever it’s called in your organisation). We can’t afford stand-offs between managers who feel frustrated and delayed by HR process and bureaucracy or HR feeling that managers are trying to run roughshod over proper process and are exposing the authority to unnecessary risk.

Whether it’s transferring staff to another organisation, supporting the creation of an employee mutual, spin out company or trading company; responsive, expert HR support is a prerequisite.

5) Shaping the HR function of the future
Even as HR is enabling and supporting services across the organisation to change I am acutely aware that the function itself is inevitably caught in the very same maelstrom. I am with those who caution against relentless disproportionate reductions to support service budgets. There comes a point when these functions are unable to function effectively and the wider effectiveness of the organisation is undermined.

But – depending on the starting point – there’s a lot still to go at, e.g. in terms of more effective deployment of digital/online capability, generation and effective use of management information, resetting expectations of managers and HR’s responsibilities for people management, collaboration between HRDs in a locality and also across local authorities.

I think it’s inevitable that there will be more shared procurement and operation of transactional systems, joint services and fully shared HR functions whether through bi/tri-borough arrangements or as a consequence of devolution deals.
In conclusion I’d put a number of questions to HR professionals:

How well do you understand the organisation you serve, its priorities and the wider environment it operates in? Can you get ahead of your customers in understanding what they will need from you? How will you respond quickly and supportively? How do you build and sustain good workforce engagement and industrial relations in a period of rapid and dramatic change? What is your appetite for risk? Have you got the right capabilities in your team? How are you going to get them? How will you sustain morale and optimism in your team? What is your vision for the future of your function and have you the mandate to deliver it?

Some people think that HR is all about “fluffy stuff”.  Conversely others think it’s a “necessary evil”.  I think it’s a critical enabler of our success and a contribution my organisation will be heavily dependent on in the months and years to come.  So HR – step forward with your value proposition, my door is open!”

Kersten England is chief executive of City of Bradford MDC