Public sector can improve engagement by involving entire workforce in strategic decisions

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Last month’s HR magazine provided some inspirational articles all about boosting employee engagement. They all had one common theme: fully engaged employees deliver more when they feel valued. It sounds obvious, so why is it not happening more in the public sector?

Within the public sector, employee engagement has become part of the rhetoric over the past five years, used mainly by HR directors and other commentators when talking about budget cuts, and achieving more for less. But with more than 800,000 public-sector jobs predicted to be lost by 2017, the challenge for HR and OD functions in supporting this quest for engagement will undoubtedly be as demanding as any other it has faced in the past 20 years.

Research by the CIPD and PPMA in 2012 (Leading Culture Change: Employee Engagement and Public Service Transformation) provided an excellent analysis of the key issues facing the sector and the challenges in cutting budgets and reducing staff numbers. However, therein lies the problem: is engagement top of the agenda because of the budget cuts, or is there a genuine desire to foster cultures that enable employers and employees to achieve mutual outcomes?

Academics at the University of Bath find that two thirds of UK workers feel they have more to offer, and only a third feel actively engaged at work. This finding holds true across all sectors, illustrating how closely the public and private sectors are becoming aligned.

David Macleod, Nita Clarke and the Engage for Success initiative have been ambassadorial in placing employee engagement at the heart of Government thinking. But as HR, how do we support our organisations in improving employee engagement?

Employee voice is promoted as part of the Engage for Success movement, and I believe involving the entire workforce in key strategic decisions is one key area in which the public sector can improve. Command and control structures are no longer viable. The focus across the sector should be for visionary leadership from the CEO and strategic plans and priorities determined by strong employee participation. Through innovative use of technology, senior management can connect with its workforce, regardless of how large or dispersed it is, to actively involve staff in strategic decisions.

As HRD of just such an organisation, with a dispersed workforce, I can see first hand how finding time for greater staff involvement, as part of the overall engagement process, is beneficial. A new health and wellbeing plan at Cafcass started with us asking our employees what they would value most in such a scheme. They wanted to feel listened to and involved; so now we provide benefits tailored to their needs. It was significant in reaching ‘corporate citizenship’ through better engagement.

Engagement is something the employee has to offer: it cannot be required as part of the contract. There must be a strong two-way relationship between employer and employee. Trust is essential for high levels of engagement. Individuals can enjoy a strong sense of job satisfaction, but if they don’t trust their boss or their boss’s boss, they’ll question how they fit in and potentially have less connection to the organisation.

The role for HR is in persuading senior management that the small amount of extra effort and time spent involving the workforce in key decisions, will be far outweighed by the long-term benefits of higher trust, better engagement and increased productivity.

Jabbar Sardar, director of human resources and organisational development, Cafcass

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