HR in the Public Sector

Written by: Annie Hayes
Published on: 12 Jul 2016

HR  in Public Sector

Spending the public purse comes with a great deal of responsibility. Those working in HR feel that very readily. Added to this are the challenges of merged services and dealing with cultural mismatches, others have been faced with highly skilled professionals that have little ability when it comes to leadership. Some have had to manage a national shortage of qualified staff; others are dealing with unions setting the agenda and policies for everything, constricting flexibility. But for many that work in HR in the public sector, it is the intellectual stimulus of working in an arena with a complicated framework that is what they love as well and, importantly the feeling of being part of something that really matters.

What’s the culture like?

Lindsey Stafford Scott, Director of People and Culture at the East of England Ambulance Service Trust, says: “The culture has changed a lot but it is still very varied. One thing that has struck me is that the public sector is not very good at developing its managers. There is an over-reliance on HR and perhaps HR has taken on that role too readily. That is something that is not as present in the private sector where managers are more used to managing by themselves. It requires trust and flexibility.” These are two things that the public sector is finding doesn’t come easily and managers still require a lot of hand holding. That said, Stafford Scott says there is a lot of highly skilled professionals working in HR that would be capable of handing over the reins to management, if they allowed it.

Which HR skills does the Public sector demand?

Communicating with unions: Stafford Scott says: “We are working with a unionised workforce but I welcome that because it gives you a framework within which you can work. You’re also working with a workforce that has been engaged for a very long time and they expect that.” Of course this means that HR professionals in the sector need to be highly skilled at bargaining with both the union representatives and the workforce itself, they also need to be innovative in their approach to engagement.

Decline in demand for traditional HR skills: There’s also been a marked decline in the desire for traditional HR skills including employment law and case work. Of course a grounding in these areas is essential but it is no longer the sole focus of the function. “HR are now influencers. We are working in a collaborative arena and HR needs to have a certain amount of credibility and a good understanding of how people operate in the sector,” says Stafford Scott. It’s a point that Rachel Wilkinson, Director of HR at Bedfordshire Police, Cambridgeshire Constabulary and Hertfordshire Constabulary agrees with: “Personally speaking, the experiences I have had of collaboration have stretched my skills in terms of partnership working, managing multiple stakeholders and the ability to design creative HR solutions to challenging organisation wide issues and risks.”

Creativity: The ability to manage complexity and uncertainty whilst keeping your team engaged and motivated is also a key skill.  Throwing resources at a problem is not an option, so those working in the sector need to become adept at finding creative ways to address issues and problem solving. It’s a point with which Nicky Hill, Director of HR at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust agrees. She says that working with public money is a big responsibility: “You need to be very focused financially. We can’t do lots of leadership development and get external resources involved so we make use of our internal resources where possible. There is nothing wrong in pinching with pride!”

What are the HR challenges in the Public sector?

Transforming cultures: Whilst budgets are a key focus, Scott says that patient care is the focus, “We are citizen not commercially focused. One of the key challenges for us has not been looking at the bottom line profits but it has been a new emphasis on collaboration. New legislation allows for greater efficiencies to occur between services so we can’t afford to be parochial.” With services being combined, Stafford Scott says the biggest challenge has been managing the cultural fallout from different uniforms coming together. “The transactional stuff is the easy part; it’s merging people together from different services that is the real challenge. They fear damaging their unique employer brand and we have to manage that.”

The next generation: A further challenge says Stafford Scott has been appealing to a younger generation.  “We’ve had to be much more creative about what we are offering. What we have found is that our unique selling point is that we are not about making a profit and that appeals to a lot of people who want to do something meaningful.”

Resourcing and developing talent: Hill says that a problem in the NHS is that workforce planning is done nationally and now there aren’t enough nurses. “You can’t do anything about it because it is out of your control.” It is a source of frustration felt by many.

Wilkinson says that developing talent is also an issue: “Leadership development is a key challenge, in terms of developing leaders with the skills to foster employee engagement, lead through change and transformation and pioneer different ways of working.” Hill agrees: “You are working in a huge population with specialist skills but this doesn’t automatically make those people great managers.” Yet Hill also says that having a platform of fantastic people who all do their job ‘stunningly well’, gives you, “Fantastic raw material as an HR Director.”  

Policy constraints: Hill says that at Nottingham University Hospital NHS Trust there are policies for everything and they are strongly adhered to. “The need to be seen to do everything right drives the demand for policy. It can be constricting but you do get used to it.” Hill adds that at the end of the day common sense thankfully often prevails.

Not only is policy a challenge in volume but Hill says that the thing that has surprised her about working in the NHS is the lack of cohesion between different Trusts: “All the NHS Trusts have their own unique policies. Of course there are some consistent standards but everything is tailored to the organisation you work in.”

What do those in the sector say about working there?

“I enjoy the challenges and the fact that no two days are the same!  It’s rewarding to think that your efforts contribute to the delivery of services to the public and our communities, and that you can help make a real difference.  There are many diverse HR opportunities in the public sector and plenty of scope to forge a career path.  I have had the privilege of working with many talented and influential people during my career so far, all of whom have shaped my development as an HR professional and a leader.”

Rachel Wilkinson, Director of HR at Bedfordshire Police, Cambridgeshire Constabulary and Hertfordshire Constabulary