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Karen Grave: Overseeing transformation is a tough job

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The red lights are flashing across local government. I don’t think any of us can disagree with this, or the view that the red lights have been flashing for a very long time.

The bulk of the press focuses on, understandably, the health and social care integration challenges, but we have also more recently seen concerns raised about the robustness of our trading standards services, following a rise in vulnerable people being exploited.

No reasonable person would argue that large, complex organisations – partly ones operating in a democratic system – run perfectly, without waste. However, some ‘redundancy of effort’ in complex organisations is preferable, to ensure that critical functions, governance and accountability are upheld. This is not to protect the organisations, it’s to protect the people it serves.

Recent LGC research has highlighted the alarming cost of redundancies since 2010 across local government. Some of the numbers are absolutely staggering.

The notion that the sector has spent almost £4bn on exit packages is extraordinary enough, but there is no clear assessment as to what savings that spend has delivered to the sector. There’s a lot of debate to be had about that of course.

However, one of the aspects of this enormous structural transformation that is rarely talked about is the impact on both the workforce and the people who are very often at the heart of architecting these exists – the HR & OD professional.

The days and myths of HR as a soft and fluffy and not terribly efficient or helpful function are (or at the very least should be) consigned to a dim and distant past. The HR community, together with leaders and managers who are having to lose people to meet financial savings, share a common burden: ensuring that savings targets can be delivered in a way that protects service delivery and employer reputation is a tough ask.

But, there are additional burdens that HR & OD face. The Public Services People Managers Association is well aware of the enormous challenges that our leaders face in making hard decisions about workforce reductions. But, very often the pressures of doing so in timely ways so that budgets can be balanced, means that our HR & OD professionals are often faced with huge ethical challenges.

Good leaders and managers will be questioning whether we are making the right decisions and whether they are based on good data. To what extent are we confident that short-term decisions will hold over the medium-term, never mind the longer-term? Are we losing people we desperately need? Will it cost us more to replace people in the future, etc.?

HR colleagues will ask these questions, but we will also worry about the extra, often unseen ethical challenges. We need to advise our organisations on employment law: are our packages affordable and legal; are we ensuring we aren’t discriminating against protected groups when determining new structures and redundancy processes; are our consultation processes fair and transparent; are we confident that our managers and leaders are equipped to undertake major restructures and keep a focus on how our employees will be experiencing these changes, etc.?

But we also need to think about our organisation’s values, and the wellbeing of all our workforces. That includes those of our colleagues who are staying and those leaving.

Leaving an organisation well is very often the lasting and most profound memory an employer will have. So, we need to help people leave well and we need to reassure, enable and empower those who are staying.

I don’t know a single HRD colleague across local government who hasn’t had to manage at least a handful of major (and minor) transformations since 2010. We are a pretty resilient group of professionals but we feel the loss of colleagues too and we often feel it more, especially given how much we hold true to the principle of ensuring any job loss is dealt with fairly and in accordance with our organisation’s values.

An unspoken cost of this profound reshaping of local government is the wellbeing of our HR professionals. Our work is very often ‘emotional’. We are for many employees their voices, especially when times are tough. Colleagues talk to us and increasingly we see evidence that people are wanting HR to be more involved in day-to-day people management, not less.

As the red lights continue to flash and we rightly lead the charge for a joined-up approach to local public services within government let’s spare a thought, or several, for those HR colleagues on the frontline trying to do some of the hardest work and ensure our workforces continue to deliver day in, day out.

Karen Grave, president, Public Services People Managers Association

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