The Blog

Public Services Reform: Lose Your Staff and You Have Lost Both Purpose and Your Ability to Deliver

I do find it both incredible and alarming how often senior public sector managers, executives (and indeed managers and executives in the business and charity sectors too) and politicians fail to recognise the critical importance of their staff towards the fulfilment of their ambitions and delivering desired outcomes.

I do find it both incredible and alarming how often senior public sector managers, executives (and indeed managers and executives in the business and charity sectors too) and politicians fail to recognise the critical importance of their staff towards the fulfilment of their ambitions and delivering desired outcomes.

This is most particularly the case during significant programmes of change - and after all, what public sector body is not currently engaged in one or more change (or even, 'transformation') programmes?

The recent publication of the results of a staff survey at Somerset County Council -

- was all too typical. Whilst it would be wrong to single Somerset County Council out, I do suggest that every managerial and political leader should both read and reflect upon it, for it makes for a sober read.

Public services rely on their staff (their people) to deliver outcomes, often in challenging circumstances and increasingly, with fewer resources. In my experience, the vast majority of people employed to deliver public services, whether they are employed in the public, social, charitable and/or business sectors - strive to do their best. As Former Vice-President Al Gore said in a different context, all too often we find "good people trapped in bad systems", and I would add, sometimes 'trapped and capped' by poor leadership and inadequate management.

There is a need to ensure that staff feel valued. Now this means more than paying them a decent salary or wage, albeit that the public sector is not always a generous employer and understandably finds it hard to increase pay significantly at a time of severe budget cuts. Pay does matter and, in my view, every public service organisation in all sectors should, at the very least, be a 'living wage' employer and should also be ensuring that pay at least keeps abreast of inflation and rises in the cost of living, especially for lower paid staff.

The recent decisions by the Mayor of Seattle to introduce a city-wide minimum wage and employment rights and conditions should be example for all public leaders.

If pay matters, then so too do terms and conditions of employment. It is fundamentally wrong to impose arbitrary changes to terms and conditions without due process and negotiation. And it is a lazy leader or manager who thinks that changes to terms and conditions are the answer to their financial problems. It is even worse, of course, when senior managers and executives think that it is necessary and/or acceptable to change low paid and junior staff's terms and conditions whilst protecting their own. Double standards and hypocrisy are absolutely unacceptable, and understandably cause resentment and undermine confidence in an organisation's leadership.

Change, and the uncertainty that it creates are never easy. People need time and support to come to terms with change - although sadly, there is often little time and few resources available to fund such support. The fact is, however, that those resources must be found, or any change programme will be weakened and may well fail. If you don't take your people with you, almost any change initiative is doomed.

Support on it's own is, of course, insufficient. Staff (and where they have trade unions, the unions too) should be involved in all elements of change programmes including: policy determination as advisors and consultees (rather than decision makers); in the design of the implementation plans; and in monitoring and reviewing the implementation with an ability to influence revisions to the plans.

Of course, service users, the wider public and other stakeholders should also be involved in these processes but in my experience, it is a grave error to exclude staff and their representatives. It need not slow a process down and in the long term, is more likely to ensure a sustainable change. It is an often-quoted truism that much innovation and ideas for positive change come from staff and service users.

Ignoring their input is commonly much to the detriment of service users and the organisation itself. The motor industry in particular has learned and subsequently profited from this painful lesson.

What matters is to be clear about the nature, scope and authority of the involvement process, which should go beyond traditional consultation practices.

I don't believe that any change programme should be allowed to proceed unless it is underpinned by five elements:

  • excellent leadership

  • a communication strategy based on a clear narrative that includes listening and dialogue, winning 'hearts and minds'; and not simply telling people, especially in some hectoring, aloof or threatening style
  • a people and talent strategy, including clarity on processes and opportunities for assessment, training, promotion and new opportunities and where necessary, agreed redundancy terms
  • an involvement strategy for staff and other key stakeholders
  • and, adequate project and change management capacity and skills

Truly radical and sustainable change is never secured by incremental and shallow tinkering at the edges. 'Systematic change' requires disruption and sometimes some chaos. It requires leaders to challenge orthodoxy and vested collective comfort; and to introduce new ideas. This does not have to alienate staff.

And change, especially when related to budget pressures and cuts or radical new ways of doing different things (or stopping doing things) may result in some casualties. This is inevitable. But when this happens, people need to feel that they are respected and are well treated; as well as having opportunities to be considered and trained for new roles. And those colleagues who remain are always looking on, observing and noting. Memories are long in this regard and impacts on morale. This is not a time for employers to dilute redundancy policies or curtail training programmes, outplacement assistance and counselling.

And then there is the issue of the behaviours of leaders of change programmes. It is clear to me that they must:

  • lead by example and demonstrate that they are doing so

  • end any privileges and privileged protection for senior people (and any perceptions of such); without trust, any 'people strategy' is doomed
  • have a clear narrative and communicate well, which includes being transparent; having a clear vision and consistent set of messages (clearly delivered, without any hint of patronising); and being excellent listeners
  • be visible, available and accessible to all staff and other stakeholders for conversations, formal or informal
  • consult on key business plans, decisions and strategies before they are finalised
  • review and be ready to change programmes and work-streams within them where necessary; this is not a time for ego-posturing and thin-skins.

My final comments are left for Human Resources professionals. They 'should' be ensuring that their organisations are adopting progressive, fair and inclusive change management practices. Unfortunately in my experience, they are too often worried more about tactical compliance than they are about strategic changes, or even sometimes and very sadly, the values of the organisation. This requires, sometimes, a long and hard look in the mirror.

Public services require well-motivated staff. Surviving a long period of austerity and major change requires this motivation to be sustained, and ideally enhanced. And this requires and demands truly exemplar and consistent leadership from managerial and political leaders. The ultimate beneficiaries will be the service users and the wider community.