A Lighter Touch
HUMAN RESOURCES has often been cast as the forgotten service. Local government has few directors of HR; heads of HR often report to directors of finance or resources, and their teams are viewed as prosaic pen-pushers.
Eric Cantona once derided a football colleague as a “water-carrier”, inferring that anything more than donkey work was beyond his capabilities. Many heads of HR might recognise this sentiment. Neither a frontline service like street cleansing, nor as cutting edge as IT, HR departments often grumble they are not seated at the top table.
Northamptonshire CC took a different angle, supported by the chief executive and the leader. The latter, Mick Young (Lab), is lead member for HR. underlining the council’s corporate commitment to its staff.
A year ago, things were very different and Northamptonshire’s HR function was in the mire. An Audit Commission report in October 2003 concluded that the service had uncertain prospects. The corporate perception was that HR was reactive and inward looking.
Following the commissions criticism, Northamptonshire was on the brink of outsourcing HR. with a number of other support services, to a strategic business partner. At the 11th hour, it had a change of heart. The service appointed a new director and the leader made his commitment to HR in May 2003, when he took the cabinet portfolio.
The approach was to reconfigure HR into three teams: strategic HR. organisational development and HR operations. A customer relationship manager was attached to each service area to make sure the HR team was responding to the needs of Northamptonshire’s managers and helping them lead and motivate the council’s 19,000 employees.
To balance the needs of employees with those of the council overall, the team instigated high-level strategies to drive up corporate standards. Pay and rewards were linked to performance for the 50 highest-ranking managers in the council and staff development programmes and appraisals were revamped. A new structure was in place by April 2004, and three directors and 24 strategic managers were recruited to lead and manage the reconfigured services.
Communication between HR and its customers has been improved, with the introduction of new briefings and bulletins, customer service awards and our first customer survey of head teachers and managers.
The results for Northamptonshire have been very satisfying. Eleven months after its criticism of the HR service, the Audit Commission said the council had promising prospects for the future. Northamptonshire is now hitting a range of targets, from reduced sickness absence to more women and ethnic minority employees among its top earners.
The council shares its HR expertise with the local NHS trust, Job Centre Plus and borough councils, among others. Jointwork with Northampton BC has won £250,000 from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’ s capacity building fund, which demonstrates the benefits of partnership.
The director of HR and organisational development is one of just four executive directors to sit on the councils board, with the chief executive and the three most senior cabinet members.
The council leader is happy for much of the HR strategy development to be led by managers, provided it complements the corporate vision for the council.
What has been shown in Northamptonshire is that HR is able to bring about considerable organisational change, if the organisation is willing to embrace the scale of that change.
HR departments are sometimes guilty of displaying a victim culture when they are overlooked in favour of more high-profile council functions. A better response is to build a service that cannot be ignored and wins a place at the top table on merit.
Local Government Chronicle 14.01.05