There is so much going on other than Brexit in the world of workforce, says Caroline Nugent

Adam Bergin, Producer of the Public Sector Show, caught up with the new President of the Public Service People Managers’ Association (PPMA) at their annual conference in Bristol to explore the key challenges facing HR & OD professionals, the importance of great leadership and what the sector can offer to attract and retain talent.Is there a clear link between effective leadership and a fully functioning workforce?

In representing ‘people people’ across public services, what is the primary objective of the PPMA?

Well, we have a number of key objectives that we believe are critical to our organisations. Firstly, we see ourselves as the first point of call for the HR & OD professional community across public service organisations in terms of expertise, access to a thriving community of practitioners and for professional development. Secondly, we are in a unique position to develop workforce related responses to national and local government policy and actually be at the start of the process in developing and influencing policy with a range of stakeholders. We focus a lot of effort on developing our position around 4 key themes relating to Leadership, Workforce Transformation, Organisation Design and Future Workforce. Last but definitely not least, we aim to promote the critical role that HR & OD colleagues play in the effective running of all of our public service organisations. Our experience, expertise and vast network means we have unique insight into how to best develop our workforces.

This is such an interesting question. Most practitioners would tell you that there is – the issue is what evidence we have to definitely say what the difference can be. Capturing data on how effective any HR/OD intervention is doesn’t always happen for a variety of reasons, but evidence based management is really key here.

The measure that is probably most helpful is employee/workforce engagement. There is strong evidence that says an engaged workforce is more motivated and productive etc and ineffective leadership, if we look at it in the reverse, definitely impacts on the workforce functioning effectively.

What effect do you expect Brexit to have on people who work in public services?

Brexit has already had an effect in some parts of our workforces. We see that in the NHS we have a range of people already leaving the UK to go back and work in their countries. We are also seeing some local authority groups starting to do the same. Ultimately, the reality is that any of our views around what might happen is speculation – until negotiations start and conclude – and the election will clearly have a bearing on that. We prefer to focus on what we believe our workforces need to be successful and then we can look at how Brexit might have an impact on that. There is so much going on other than Brexit in the world of workforce that we already have our hands full.

shutterstock_291434984 resizedWhat are the biggest challenges facing public sector HR & OD professionals?

As ever, there are many and the extent to which there are challenges is often governed by which part of the sector you are in. For civil service colleagues, Brexit is probably what is taking up most people’s energy. In local government the dual challenges of further and sustained budgetary pressures, together with what is a huge crisis in social care funding, occupy a great many of us. Across all parts of public sector funding, workforce terms and conditions and pensions reforms, the health and wellbeing of our staff and integration across services are a key focus. Many of us would say that this is a fantastic time to be working in our field because the challenges we face are both complex and constant and often simultaneous change is taking place. The upside of that is that you are likely to get greater challenges and more on the job learning as a professional than in other sectors, but the downside is that we have to make sure that the wellbeing of our HR & OD staff, who are really very often at the sharp edge of workforce challenges, is also paramount.

How can public organisations better retain talent and avoid losing out to the private sector?

There isn’t an easy answer to this and we have many constraints within which we need to operate when thinking through talent management approaches. For example, national pay scales often give little room for manoeuvre on basic salaries. However, there is no question that salary is important and for some parts of the sector it is very important where wages are already relatively low. We also have to understand that in the often-constant complaining about excessive public sector salaries, post holders often have extraordinary responsibilities. An ill thought out media headline very often hides the significant challenges that many of our leaders face day in and day out.

But salary is not the only thing that matters. For many people working in public service, the ethos matters and making a difference and being valued is key. People don’t go into many of our roles because they want an easy life – challenge and variety also matters. Our workforces have profound commitments to delivering excellent public services, particularly to the most vulnerable in society. So, knowing that you are making a difference to people’s lives is a massive motivator.

Very often, ensuring that we can keep our people is a combination of factors and that combination might be different for different work groups. For example, career development can be a real motivator and not just for those roles where we have a statutory requirement to make sure our people have the latest knowledge and skills. Flexible working is also a key offering – enabling people who have a family or other caring responsibilities to still work and make a contribution is really important. We have been able to attract people into the public sector as a consequence of understanding that people have a life outside of work. We can’t always attract on salaries but we can support people in working hard and then being given flexibility to get time back.

We also have very successful apprentice and intern programmes in the public sector which means we often retain people we have developed.

Who are the individuals across the public sector that have the ability to improve people management?

The truth is that we all have the ability to improve and influence people management. But, leaders and HR & OD professional have a particularly critical role. Effective leadership sets the tone for an organisation – we have tended to move away from the view that heroic leadership is the be all and end all. But it is certainly the case that workforces take the lead from what their senior leaders say and more importantly, what they do! Political leadership is also key for many parts of public services. Working with elected representatives to ensure that working relationships can be built that will allow the political process to continue but ensure that organisations still thrive is really important.

And of course, HR & OD professionals also play a key role. We bring significant experience in organisational development strategies and interventions that can build workforce capability and of course this is maintained through progressive HR policies and process. There’s a lot about OD that is science and evidence based, but there is also a lot of art. One of the most important things the HR & OD community can do is share learning, knowledge and practice across their organisations to ensure that leadership is equipped to lead (at all levels), and that everyone is clear about the part they play in contributing to an effective organisation.

The PPMA will be chairing a variety of sessions on people management at the Public Sector Show at the London ExCeL on June 27th.