Caroline Nugent: Passionate about public sector HR

With her irrepressible enthusiasm for all things HR it’s no wonder Caroline Nugent is the PPMA’s new president

It quickly becomes apparent in HR magazine’s photoshoot with director of HR and OD at oneSource, London boroughs of Havering and Newham, and PPMA president Caroline Nugent, the best way to make her smile. Just say something along the lines of ‘think strong women, taking over the world’ (as HR magazine’s photographer did) and Nugent instantly lights up.

Talking about her 18-year-old daughter – who has just started an HR apprenticeship with the Treasury – elicits the same response. As does the topic of apprenticeships in general, HR discovers when chatting with Nugent afterwards in her office. And so do the many other people- and public sector-related topics Nugent passionately powers through.

“I’m a glass half-full person, completely,” she enthuses in reference to her passion for just getting out there and rising to whatever challenges life throws your way, and regarding how she first got into HR at the London borough of Waltham Forest, straight from doing her A-Levels.

“Because it was a very big local authority you could work in central policy unit… down the depot… so they were almost like little companies – each had its own HR department and own issues,” she says. “That was a good grounding because it made me see so many different things. Then I decided to do my degree during the evenings. At that stage I had two young children and was the chair of governors and had quite a challenging job at a senior level. You do look back and think: how on earth did I do it?!

“But it’s about wanting to do it. That’s always been my thing in life. So whatever comes along you deal with it, because actually it’s happened for a reason. Life is like that and you just have to get on with it.”

This was exactly Nugent’s reaction when one week into her new job as head of strategic HR and OD at the London Borough of Havering, back in 2012, her chief executive came to her and explained, come 2014, she was going to be overseeing HR not just for this locality but for Newham as well.

“The week I started my chief exec said ‘by the way…’,” says Nugent. “But to me again the glass is half-full, this is life, and this is a great opportunity – so why not?!”

This was the beginning of a gradual three-year process to integrate many service functions across the two councils, with Havering and Newham’s partnership epitomising the growing public sector trend to cut costs through shared services.

Nugent’s counterpart in Newham became her deputy and the HR teams, while learning about each other and sharing best practice, remained distinct. As of October last year the teams have been fully merged, with their central base established at Havering council’s Romford offices.

“I used to have separate teams when we first set up; there were 13 different service areas so we couldn’t just say ‘tomorrow we’re going to merge everything together’. So we had a rolling programme,” reports Nugent.

Satellite offices at Newham mean that Nugent and her team can split their time between the two authorities, basing themselves at one or the other for whole days to save on travel and depending on where they’re needed. Romford was chosen as the central hub simply because this is where most, even former Newham, staff lived anyway, explains Nugent.

“We got the postcodes of everyone and put them on a map, and you could see the pocket,” says Nugent, advising that other organisations across the board sector-wise could definitely learn from this employee-led, evidence-based approach when it comes to office location.

Nonetheless this has been a difficult change to manage, says Nugent: “[HR staff] have had to go through a change programme themselves. That was a challenge because some people may have worked in one place for 20 years… We lost a number of staff through redundancies; that was a challenge for a team to see colleagues go. But they’ve come through it and it’s a good team.

“For me bringing the team together culturally was important,” she adds regarding creating a main hub in Romford. “You can’t change culture if you don’t put people together. It gives you the opportunity to say ‘this is how things work in this authority’. Then it’s not about saying anyone is the better authority.”

Which brings us to the benefits of councils sharing HR services. While cost-cutting has been the chief driver, there are many knowledge-sharing benefits beyond this for Nugent, despite the very different demographics and dynamics of the two boroughs.

Nugent cites dealing with IR35 changes as one topical example. “With IR35 we had one person co-ordinating across the two authorities. That made a real difference because it is very complex and the toolkit you have to use has changed even over the last couple of weeks,” she explains.

She adds that IR35 has also brought some positive gains. “Project management is difficult because people can just go to the private sector and get a better deal,” she says. “But with social care workers we said ‘if you’ve worked here you can apply for a job without going through the full process’, because we’d almost already tested them. So our permanent social workers have gone up significantly, which means we’re able to better control that recruitment market.”

Another example of the power of a partnership approach is apprenticeships. “Newham is the most ethnically diverse borough in the country and has a young, quite transient population. Havering is more elderly and rural,” says Nugent. “Because Newham has a very young population it has a ‘Yes Apprenticeship’ programme that has been going for more than 25 years. So we were able to take some of that model across to Havering.”

“We do things like speed dating,” adds Nugent, describing apprenticeship recruitment. “Because they’re coming into a big formal building and it’s quite intimidating. When I was interviewed in Waltham Forest it was a huge committee room with 10 behind a desk. So we have 10 managers and the apprentices will go round for three minutes; you see the real person more, it’s snappy and it relaxes people.”

Ensuring that as many people from as many different backgrounds as possible access apprenticeships clearly means a lot to Nugent. “I was an Essex girl from a working class family, one of three girls… In those days unless you were very bright you didn’t go to university,” she says.

“We [in public sector HR] used to have this drive where we said ‘everyone must be a grad and every job description has to have a degree’,” she adds. “It was discriminatory, because we know certain protected characteristics didn’t have the opportunity to go to uni. If the job requires it fine. But in HR you don’t need a degree so I’m pleased there’s been this whole tide turn.”

But while she appreciates a shift in attitudes and renewed government focus on apprenticeships, most notably in the form of the levy, Nugent is frustrated with some of the finer details.

“The levy is a great thing and I’m pleased it’s come in. But I have some reservations,” she says. “Some we’ve heard are using their training budget so they won’t have a training budget as a result of the levy. Some are saying ‘we can’t do it because the administrative side of it [takes too long]’. Others, like us, even though the company may be on the register to say they can provide the qualifications, because of procurement we have to go through a procurement process. So what should be a good thing now has a number of repercussions. Hopefully there’ll be some tweaks to it.”

This is just one area Nugent would like to see more government consultation on. Public sector HR particularly often gets overlooked in the consultation process, she feels. Which brings us on to Nugent’s 2017/18 PPMA presidency and what she’d like to achieve.

“There are policy decisions that get made that affect the public sector where it would have been more helpful to be asked at the earlier stages but no-one thought of us,” says Nugent. “The CIPD will give the professional viewpoint but what it won’t know is some of the nuances we have in the public sector. So that lobbying is important.”

Nugent cites the exit cap as a prime example. She explains that while logical in principle, the cap fails to take into account that where someone is made redundant in a local authority it’s obliged to release that person’s pension and compensate the pension scheme for releasing early.

“If that cost is £100,000 because you have to pay the pension scheme for the lost revenue of someone finishing early, that is actually taken into account in local government in that £96,000 cap, so in effect that means you as an individual don’t get anything,” explains Nugent. “It’s only local authorities that have to release the pension by law when you’re made redundant; the others don’t, you can defer it. But that wasn’t recognised.”

Another key ambition for Nugent’s stint as PPMA president is to continue the body’s work getting public sector HR more recognition. Nugent is tired of professionals in the sector still being seen as the poor relations to their private sector equivalents.

The reality, says Nugent, is that over the last seven years of austerity in particular, public sector HR has become highly commercial. “Historically people might have seen the public sector as: everyone’s useless, drinking cups of tea all day. I still think that’s how we’re perceived,” she says, laughing that actually “yesterday I had a cup of tea at 7.30 when I got into the office and I was made one at five o’clock!”

Nugent points out that this commerciality is evidenced by many local authorities, hers included, now selling to other councils. “My investigations and mediation services are now sold to other councils. So they have to be business-like, they have to work professionally, they have to behave as if they were private going in to sell something at an organisation. So it does frustrate me there is still this perception.”

This partnership approach is very much the future for public sector HR and indeed public sector support functions more widely, feels Nugent. “Because we’ve had such big cuts you’re not going to do it by yourself,” she says. “It’s sharing services like we do through oneSource, or it’s ‘can someone else do it for me?’ So not necessarily everyone selling… but outsourcing to other local authorities; we’ve got to be able to say ‘yes I want to work with that authority,’ and the money then stays in the public sector.”

With her PPMA hat on Nugent is also highly passionate about helping to counteract the long-bemoaned phenomenon that “men will go for a job where they can only do 20%, whereas women will say ‘but I can only do 99%’”, and not apply for it.

“We have to give young women the confidence to try it or do some more shadowing so when the opportunity comes up they’ve been exposed to it a bit more,” she says. “That’s something I want to do more of at the PPMA. You get where you are by having someone to talk to and we don’t do enough mentoring and coaching.”

Which brings us to the end of our interview and back to where we started in our photoshoot, imagining ‘strong women taking over the world’ superhero-style (Nugent’s hair is after all “cyber purple”). Indeed HR magazine gets the sense after our inspiration-filled hour with Nugent, that she is a strong woman capable of doing exactly that.