· 4 min read · Features

Cafcass CEO: What I want from my HR director

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It’s no secret that times are tough for the public sector. And in times of austerity, the public sector CEO looks for much more from HR.

Anthony Douglas (pictured), CEO of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) since 2004, is no different in demanding a lot from his HR director (HR magazine columnist Jabbar Sardar).

He even believes a good HR director is "effectively a CEO in all but name".

"They have the same ownership of the organisation," he says. "They make decisions of equal importance, and they are bloody good general managers who can step outside of the HR role and do anything that needs to be done."

While managing extreme cutbacks - Cafcass was forced to lose 100 jobs in the wake of the infamous 'Baby P' case - Douglas says his HR service has managed to strike a complex balancing act. "It is utterly loyal to the organisation's goals and 100% pro-individual employee," he says. "It's not just on the side of the managers or the individual. That's the modern HR service, which does both effectively."

Here, Douglas shares what he has learned about good HR and how the function is supporting the organisation to help as many vulnerable children as possible.

Get tough around performance

"It's important for people to know they're accountable and to be performance managed strongly, however good they are," says Douglas. "A lot of people can go off the boil. They are good, but that doesn't mean they are permanently good. You've got to be tough."

In practice, this means having a system of strong self-regulation. Cafcass is also developing individual scorecards, which will show everyone their performance information at a glance, featuring data on sickness absence, training and development, feedback and productivity. People will instantly be able to see where they need to improve and take action accordingly.

"It's better than a top-down approach to telling people what they have to do," says Douglas. "Self-assessment is one of the big routes to lower public sector expenditure. Make your data available for people to make their own decisions, it's enabling and empowering."

Frontline comes first

"Austerity is an ongoing process and will be for the next 10 years at least," says Douglas. "The first stage is to accept it and not fight it. The second is to understand what you can save and to focus on evidence-based policy and management. There have been quite a few cuts that different organisations have made in the short-term, which have been disastrous in the medium-term."

Vulnerable children have to come first at Cafcass, which means sacrificing back office management in favour of frontline staff. A programme has transferred 93% of the budget to the frontline, leaving "one of the lowest infrastructure costs in any frontline organisation", Douglas claims.

"If your frontline staff see a bloated management, they are much more reluctant to buy into the reductions," he explains. "They need to feel we're all in it together, and if we're going to shrink, we shrink together."

However, inevitably frontline services will be cut, with practitioners spending less time on cases - hours are being cut from 40 to 25 per case. "We say, don't worry about going from 40 to 25 hours, as resistance is futile. We'll fight as hard as we can to keep a safe minimum budget," says Douglas. "But 25 hours is better than 10. In many jurisdictions, children don't have this degree of protection, so use the 25 hours in a way that will help the child the most."

Measure the mood

"When you're in senior positions, sometimes you have to be inspirational. And sometimes you have to shut up," says Douglas. It's all about understanding the mood of the organisation, by measuring things like staff engagement at local levels and sickness absence, which has gone down from 16 days to 5.5 over the past three years.

Cafcass brings together piecemeal services across the country into a coherent national service, and Douglas has been struck by the "national mood". "We spend a lot of time on understanding the mood and trying to regulate that and support it," he says. "It's very situational."

In 2010, Cafcass was sitting on 13,000 unallocated cases. Then, says Douglas, as a whole organisation it decided enough was enough. There hasn't been a single unallocated case since. "It's the wisdom and power of crowds," he adds. "If you are a big organisation and you mobilise that mood, you can change things. If you misread the mood and are draconian or permissive at the wrong time, you can witness sudden decline. Things go pear-shaped quickly even if they take years to build up to something good."

Act fast

The change programme for HR at Cafcass is to become fully integrated with the frontline. "One of our best managers said in 2009, 'we can only improve the service if we have HR staff alongside us'," says Douglas. "Before then, HR culture was centralist, union-aligned and removed." HR and HR policies have since been dragged onto the frontline, and Cafcass now practises immediate intervention.

"We used to have some people suspended for four or five months," recalls Douglas. "Now we look at the case intensively on day one and don't park it for investigation. If someone has done something wrong, they might agree on the first day that they have, and we set a tariff for that. The learning comes straight away. If you drag it on, you don't learn that much more, but people become increasingly disenchanted."

This policy of fast action has bled into other areas, with Cafcass now looking at rapid skill acquisition. "When the task changes, we all have to gain skills quickly, not in extended periods," Douglas points out. Agile working is key: "We can't be like a small start-up, but we can try and understand how to apply the strengths of a start-up to a large national organisation."

Remember why you're here

Douglas has a highly personal connection to Cafcass's work. "The motivation for me stems from being an adopted child myself and wanting to put something back," he says. "I have a feel for the work and a feel for vulnerability from my personal experiences."

As a leader, visibility is vital, and he spends two days a week in local teams, having visited 50 in the past nine months. "That's my 'check and balance' on how we're doing," he says. "A few years ago, there was more anger. It's much more buoyant now."

And as an ex-social worker, Douglas knows what it's like to be on the frontline. "When I was a frontline worker, I remember going to managers and feeling more confused after the discussion," he says. "It's crucial people feel the organisation understands what they do, and that if things go wrong - as they often do - that you'll stand by them and share the risk."