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Suzanne Simmons-Lewis talks to Francesca Okosi about taking on Brent LBC's troublesome equalities record and becomi...
Suzanne Simmons-Lewis talks to Francesca Okosi about taking on Brent LBC's troublesome equalities record and becoming SOCPO's first black president
Francesca Okosi has finally found her niche - for a while at least. At 35 years old, the director of human resources at Brent LBC is at the helm of her third personnel department in local government.
'I am the happiest I have been, and I'm really enjoying it,' she smiles. 'I've finally got to that point where I know this is the job for me - even with its ups and downs.'
But it has been no mean feat for Ms Okosi, who came to Brent when the authority was in the in the early stages of undergoing not only a major face lift, but a raft of internal surgery.
After years of bad publicity, a fragmented human resources department and a high level of race discrimination tribunals, Ms Okosi was charged with a massive departmental overhaul. Her key task was to achieve strategic direction and improve the council's equalities record. The brief is part of the council's ambitious five-year plan and Ms Okosi believes Brent has now turned that crucial corner.
Some would shy away from such a huge undertaking, but Ms Okosi says it's the kind of thing that spurs her on.
'I enjoy the challenge, I like jobs where I am required to manage change,' she says.
Throughout her 13 years in local government, she has been at the centre of a succession of challenging and sometimes turbulent times.
The business studies graduate stumbled into local government personnel while saving up to fund a masters degree in marketing. Her first job was a temporary personnel assistant post in Newham LBC in 1987, but she was quickly promoted to senior personnel assistant.
Over the next few years she took senior personnel posts in Riversdale Health Authority and Hackney LBC. From there she became the head of Havering LBC's personnel department before moving on to Merton LBC in 1997 to a similar job. She joined Brent in 1999.
'One of the most challenging times when there was a major strike in the summer of 1989 at Newham, which involved a member of my team who was also the NALGO branch convenor,' she recalls. 'It was a real challenge crossing the picket line and managing the department when half of my staff were out on strike.'
But Ms Okosi believes these kinds of challenges are part and parcel of a rewarding and varied career, from which she has gained a vast amount of experience.
Her contribution to human resources does not stop in London. She is a contributor to LGC and a national platform now beckons, thanks to her talents being recognised by her peers who earlier this year voted her vice-president of the Society of Chief Personnel Officers. Next March, Ms Okosi will be the first black president of the society.
'It's a very interesting move in my career and its exciting because it gives me an opportunity to get involved at a national level representing SOCPO in the midst of many changes in human resources,' she says.
Ms Okosi certainly hasher work cut out. She takes the position at a time when human resources in local government are generally being devalued.
In the government's drive to improve public services, money is being concentrated on front-line provision, so personnel is an easy target for cuts. The continued outsourcing of local government services means fewer council staff are managed by personnel departments.
Yet Ms Okosi is determined to be at the forefront of these changes. Her role as president is instrumental in promoting the merits of human resources nationally, she believes.
'Our key role is to develop competencies for personnel heads to deal with change,' she explains.
'Personnel will have to have a much more influencing and partnership role with other providers and there is potential for our members to have a key leadership role.'
As SOCPO president, Ms Okosi will continue the society's work in building partnerships with its health service equivalent - the Association of Healthcare Human Resource Managers. Issues of diversity and equality will also be high on her list. 'I make no apologies for that,' she says realising some may brand the move as 'typical' as she is a black women. But she explains: 'In terms of modernisation these elements are key.'
The high-flying director is not reserved about her ambition and is well aware she has achieved a great deal in a relatively short space of time. She puts this down to her upbringing where she was always encouraged by her parents to aim high and always do her best. She realises the fact she is young, female and black can sometimes be unsettling for others, but remains unfazed at the prospect.
'There were times when it has been difficult, but I realise now that if a person has a problem with my age, race or gender its their problem and not mine.' she says.
Under her direction, Brent has become the first council to have its anti-discrimination strategies approved by the Commission for Racial Equality and the council's record on equality has dramatically improved.
Once Ms Okosi fulfils her brief at Brent, the national arena awaits. 'Central government does interest me - it would be nice to see things from a national perspective,' she muses.
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