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Tom Marsden

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Has Britain’s public sector got talent?


Imminent pay freezes and job cuts in the public sector threaten to make the war for talent even harder to win. Faced with a gamut of challenges across the board, public sector employers need to take steps now to ensure they have the skills needed to achieve genuine reform, says Tom Marsden.

In an effort to recover from one of the worst recessions in living memory, dramatic changes are being made to the public sector. With job cuts seemingly inevitable, chancellor George Osborne has already made moves to install a two-year public sector pay freeze and crack down on public sector pensions. In previous years widespread job cuts have been mitigated but reports from the CIPD suggest that the public sector should expect 725,000 job losses by 2015. Few doubt that gaining control of the public finances is critical and labour costs will inevitably represent a significant part of how savings are realised. 

Such a crisis presents enormous personal and professional challenges but also an opportunity to make real change to public service provision. Effective talent management will be essential if real reform is to take place.

Transformation not cost cutting

It will not be enough to just reduce budgets or headcount. If the public sector is to emerge from this difficult period in a position of strength, the emphasis must be on transformation, rather than just cost-cutting. Increasing efficiency is not necessarily the same as just freezing or cutting back spending. Transforming and modernising a large, often unwieldy, organisation is extremely difficult and requires a very specific set of skills and expertise. If the public sector puts a block on all hiring and cuts back on organisations’ capacity to bring in specialist consultants, it is not clear how these skills can be obtained.

Employers need to have a long-term plan for where they want the organisation to be and, on occasion, this will need to take priority over short-term cost-cutting. It’s about taking a strategic approach, considering not just the skills that are needed today but also those that will be required in the future. This might mean bringing in specific people with specific skills or experiences, even while recruitment is frozen across the rest of the organisation.

Historically, some talent management practices in the public sector have lagged behind those in private sector organisations. However, with public sector employers no longer able to rely on job security to attract and retain high quality candidates, a strategic overhaul is required with an eye to making public bodies the ‘employer of choice’ for the next decade and beyond.

With large advertisement campaigns and high salaries no longer a possibility, public sector employers will need to take a more creative approach to targeted candidate attraction. Utilising the latest online and social media recruitment tools can help organisations identify and attract high quality candidates while reducing overall cost-per-hire. Any hiring will have to be extremely targeted. Talent pooling can help organisations to fill key positions quickly and cost-effectively by building up a pipeline of suitable candidates ahead of vacancies opening up.

Maintaining engagement through a turnaround

If retained employees are going to continue to deliver essential public services in an increasingly efficient manner, managers will need to engage retained employees through very difficult times. As the drive for efficiency is increasingly important within the public sector, close attention is being paid to existing practices. Research carried out by management consultants Knox D’Arcy claimed that on average council workers only spend 32% of their working day being productive. This figure does seem extreme, but few would deny that there is significant scope for greater efficiency in the public sector. Many engagement studies demonstrate a correlation between unproductive employees and a lack of engagement. Successful reformers will harness the power of increasing productivity into increased engagement but it is not an easy process. 

Job security and low staff turnover have long been points of attraction for working within the public sector – much less so in the future. Such developments are threatening to have a substantial impact on the recruitment and retention of talented employees. The public sector must ensure it creates a culture that rewards employees by identifying gaps in current employee development opportunities. While financial benefits and high salaries may not be viable, employers can still keep workers engaged by offering incredible development opportunities. At a time when the public sector will need to keep its top people engaged and performing well in order to meet its goals smart managers will be setting stretching their best performers.

Responsible and long-term restructuring

Although some job cuts will, it seems, be inevitable, any restructuring has to be carried out responsibly and with an eye on the long term. Kneejerk cuts should be avoided at all costs as these often lead to skills gaps further down the line. There may be some temptation to shift fixed costs to a higher variable cost structure with increased contingent labour but this must be a strategic decision not an accounting one.

In the private sector skills gaps created through over-zealous cost cutting in the past 24 months have necessitated the hiring of expensive temporary workers or led to a ‘boomerang’ effect where employees that have been made redundant, and given a healthy redundancy package, are re-employed through necessity. The public sector must learn from these errors.

What public sector employers must remember is that talent is always worth fighting for. Overhauling the public sector will require a strong, productive and engaged workforce supplemented by a few highly skilled specialists. While the transformation process will require some difficult decisions, by taking a strategic approach and making decisions with long-term success in mind, employers will give themselves every chance of succeeding and making the public sector a genuine employer of choice in the next decade and beyond.

Tom Marsden is director of professional services, Alexander Mann Solutions

2 Responses


    I have done  afair bit of outplacement of public sector people over two decades varying from HMRC through NHS to Local Govt and Education. Whilst often ignorant of working practices in the private sector, many have seized it as an opportunity and gone on to bright careers in the private sector and often set up thriving businesses themselves.

    We spent several years within a large public sector organization running information workshops to encourage people to take voluntary redundancy. Whilst this did result in a flow of the more talented to leave, it also brought forward several whose jobs were just ticking over into positions of greater responsibility where they realised a potential they did not know that they had.

    I must endorse the need to reorganise through the use of professionals, other wise it is akin to carrying out surgery with a penknife and everyone will suffer from the drop in public sector efficiency. As a former Regular Army Officer much of my time was spent in constant reorganisation to meet budgets, quite often returning to a situation that had obtained years ago (reinventing the wheel). Once we brought in outside Management Consultants with a third party take and experience of restructuring, the job became easy and the new organisation far more effective at a lower cost.Once the culture shock was over (having to say please to civilians who replaced soldiers for example) all settled in well.

    Trade Unions are strongest in the Public Sector and will not take cuts lying down. Bringing in a caring element such as professional outplacement will help to ease the process of transition both to the individuals affected and also help management through the change process. Speaking to a large Borough Council recently, the Council had already decided not to do other than the minimum dictated by law for its employees. Its HR people are preparing not only for a war but are also resigned to the flight of some of its best people who they would want to retain. The public will suffer as a result.

    The public sector would do well to study cases from the private sector before rolling out cuts and unleashing mayhem.

    I have more often seen the "boomerang" effect in the public rather than private.



    — Ed Nash Humanita Ltd

  2. Have they got talent or just staying power?

    My experience of public services locally in Medway is that their people put stoicism above competence.  I know it is tempting to adopt the titles of popular TV series in order to make a point, but as BBC Radio 4 put it last year when the banks were taken over by government – "at least when the banks were run as a private business you knew that they were going to be greedy.  Now we face an even more dangerous mixture of greed and incompetence…"

    Of course this is a broad generalisation and I am always impressed by Medway’s next door neighbours – Kent County Council, but I fear that the cuts will generate a general ‘rise to the bottom’ in terms of talent in public services.  Medway Council’s approach to cost cutting has been to increase ‘non core’ business activities such as using ‘1984 style’ smart CCTV cars to snoop behind hedges and collect revenue to pump up their inflated salaries.  They have managed to avoid looking hard at non core business and recently announced that they may have to cut education, leisure centres and waste collection, whilst they managed to overlook the ‘smoking section’, which employs people to sit covertly in pubs and restaurants in order to fine people if they light up.  I would say that this is proof positive that this organisation is not run by talented people.


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