Public sector: Talent management - No time to skirt tough decisions

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As new head of the body representing public-sector HR managers, Gillian Hibberd is adamant higher pay is not the answer to recruiting and keeping talent. HR must be more inventive, she tells Peter Crush.

Could Gillian Hibberd, HR director of Buckinghamshire County Council,who was last month installed as the new president of the Public SectorPeople Managers' Association (PPMA), possibly have taken on her new rolein more testing times? Absence rates among the 2.25 million localgovernment staff she represents is still a lofty 9.6 days per year (itis 6.8 for private-sector workers) but, far more seriously, commentatorsare talking about a serious shortage of talented people - not leastthose in social care following the 'Baby P' case.

In a recent report by the Local Government Association (LGA), one in 10social-worker vacancies were found to remain unfilled, with 89% ofcouncils reporting recruiting difficulties for the role. In a separatereport, 60% of councils in the North East of England say they haverecruitment problems, while in London and the South East 75% of councilsare short-staffed.

As Hibberd, who has been voted 17th Most Influential HR practitioner inthis year's rankings (p27), sits in a London hotel, beginning the firstof a busy schedule of interviews surrounding her new appointment, it isa point not wasted on her. "Last year the PPMA debated evolution orrevolution," she says. "This year I have to provide a clear vision aboutwhat talent in local government is all about - I'm basing it around'purpose, passion and performance'."

The talent agenda for local government is a complex one; the lastDelivering Through People local government workforce strategy was in2007, and set five priorities, including 'building visionary andambitious leadership' and 'skills knowledge and development' for localgovernment talent to thrive. But economic misery (Hibberd says localgovernment is not immune, with 10,000 jobs lost already) and seriousreputation issues have contrived to make talent issues acute. "Baby P ishaving a really awful effect on recruitment into local government," shemoans. "Rebuilding social work as a viable career is an urgent priority.People are rightly asking: 'Why would I want to be a children's socialworker right now?'"

According to Hibberd, the talent agenda is "no different from that ofthe private sector" but adds, because of the diversity of services localgovernment provides and ever-more fervent demand for shareholder(taxpayer) value, "employees are understandably nervous about what thefuture holds. There's a lot of passion about protecting frontlineservices," she adds. "We have high levels of employee engagement, butthe issue is about ensuring talent stays within councils and doesn'tleave."

It is reportedly twice as difficult to keep local government staff as itis to hold on to talent in the private sector. But while another one ofthe Delivering Through People tenets is 'modernising pay to reflect newstructures', Hibberd is adamant higher pay is not the way to achieve amore talented and diverse workforce. "I think we (local councils) needto develop our own talent more," she says. "I don't necessarily think weneed to rely on talent coming in from the outside and paying them more.That's not the solution. The answer is the commitment we show them bymaintaining their engagement."

To this end, one of Hibberd's first acts will be to rally support for 0%pay rises in the upcoming public-sector pay talks. Talent, she believes,cannot demand pay in such tight economic conditions, and engagement willhave to come instead from HR policies that foster involvement. "Lastyear pay awards were 2.45% rising to 2.75% after arbitration," she says."Lots of authorities are telling me this is untenable. I'll be sayingour starting base will be a 0% pay rise. If we're in negative inflation,how can we argue for anything different?"

Local government HR professionals must be inventive in making workingfor councils more satisfying, she says. As a minimum she wants everycouncil to sign up to the Skills Pledge and 'Skills for Life'programmes, policies that give them additional Learning and SkillsCouncil funding to improve staff qualifications and career paths. "HRcan help to put the value back into roles," she says. "For every Baby Pcase there are 1,000 successes, but we rarely hear of the brilliance oflocal government talent."

Helping local councils meet their commitments is a raft of guidelinesthat, in theory, should promote best practice. In the last workforcestrategy report, a host of targets were set: it wanted 90% of councilsto identify current and future workforce challenges (and act to addressthem), by March 2009; 50% of councils to introduce a total rewardspackage by 2010; 75% of those with reward management responsibilities tohave adequate training by 2010; and 60% of councils to have some sort ofassessment-based progression for staff by 2010.

The LGA believes allowing councils' HR staff to use these targets to seewhere they are should mean better talent management. But, curiously,this is one innovation Hibberd is against: "I applaud targets that showwhere HR is adding value," she says. "My bugbear is they should stopsetting all these targets, and let us get on with what we need todo."

She continues: "I disagree with the Audit Commission: it says thisrepresents less regulation but in my view it is more. If all councilsare facing scarce resources, should time and effort be put into fillingin target reports - or doing good work?"

Creating greater HR efficiency is just one of Hibberd's more specificmaxims for the year ahead. Beyond her 'purpose, passion and performance'mantra she wants to tackle organisational design and create leaders whocan take councils through the next decade. Employee contracts are alsoan area that pains her: "The public sector needs to be more flexible.From a movement of talent point of view, someone can't, for instance,move easily from the NHS to a council because of different terms andconditions. This is one area I want to iron out."

Just how likely she is to succeed with such bold plans is themillion-dollar question. "It's more than HR's responsibility, it'smanagement's too," she says, sensing change will only occur if theagenda is supported at all levels. "It's devastating when systems andprocesses fail, but hardly ever is only one person to blame."

HIBBERD ON ...

Council worker fat cats: "Most people who work in councils are nothighly paid. The average county council CEO is on 150,000-160,000 a year. A FTSE 100 CEO would not work for what we pay ourbosses. Council bosses deserve every penny they get."

Hiring for diversity: "There is no reason why councils shouldn't reflectthe communities in which they work, but we must hire on merit. I don'tlike quotas. Councils should instead make sure their jobs are availableto as many different people as possible."

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