· Features

Death of a quango: interview with Nick Gargan, CEO of the National Policing Improvement Agency

It is not every day the CEO of an organisation, soon to be closed, invites a journalist to lunch to talk about strategy, but a few weeks ago I received that very phone call from Nick Gargan (pictured), CEO of the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) – and not just to meet him, but his two HR directors as well.

So, armed with this hook, I made my way to the Home Office, with a distinctly unsettled feeling, ready to witness an office full of empty desks while I bemoaned public sector cuts and redundancies with Gargan and the team.

But the reality was far from my assumption - staff are more engaged than ever.

"In 2011, 85% of our staff said they were proud of the work the NPIA is doing," a friendly and welcoming Gargan tells me. "This compares to 60% in March 2010." To put this into context: in March 2010, staff at the NPIA did not know the Coalition Government would definitely wind it up.

The NPIA was formed in 2007 to provide capability across the police service and professional expertise to police forces and authorities. It runs training and leadership development for police officers and is, in all but name, the strategic HR wing of the UK's police services. But, as part of the Government's so-called 'bonfire of the quangos', the days of the NPIA are numbered and although its life expectancy is still uncertain, chances of the body existing past the end of the year are not high.

The most likely outcome, following home secretary Theresa May's speech at the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) summer conference in 2011, is thought to be that a number of NPIA services will be discontinued and a National Crime Agency (NCA) will be formed, which will focus on operational crime-fighting and tackle serious and organised crime, economic crime, border policing and child protection.

It is most likely that operational functions carried out by the NPIA will move over to the new body and some staff have transferred into the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA). May has also outlined the formation of a new IT organisation, which will be owned by the police service and focus on the efficient delivery of police IT.

Finally, the Home Office is considering the options for the development of a further new body to oversee police training, leadership and development.

Gargan, who has headed the NPIA since 2010, admits: "We knew in the run-up to the 2010 election, through interaction with opposition spokespeople and leaks to the newspapers, that change was inevitable and we knew it would impact on staff.

"But after Theresa May made her decision, she was very conciliatory and came to visit us. I made sure employees were invited to meet her, so she could understand our diversity. We knew her decision was disappointing for staff, but I wanted us to afford her a courteous reception and for her in turn to have a real sense of our role, locations and functions."

And since then, the process of closing down the NPIA has been long - "longer than we wanted", admits Gargan, given his budget was slashed by £30 million following the Government's emergency budget in 2010. Subsequently, a further £20 million in reductions have been ordered.

Headcount has already been cut by 25%, from 2,200 to 1,600, but staff pride in the organisation has shone through. "The decision could have been debilitating, but we were galvanised and our delivery [of services] has improved," Gargan beams. It's impressive.

Focusing on 'doing fewer things and doing them better', the organisation has, in the past 18 months, launched a national police database (within budget and on time), provided mobile finger print technology to 28 police forces and launched an automatic number plate recognition service. It made early use of its enhanced policing communications, completed ahead of schedule for the Olympic Games in London, to react to the summer of riots.

It developed collaborative procurement between police forces, while it has been business as usual on its assessment of police officers. All this despite making millions of pounds' worth of efficiency savings. "Staff have responded to the challenge with dignity, professionalism and pride," explains Gargan. "And this has been down to the quality of our communications with staff."

Working with head of marketing and communications, Tim Whitaker, Gargan has set up a Twitter account, from which he regularly tweets information and writes a personal blog, allowing staff to comment. Sometimes, he receives as many as 40 comments back per week, depending on how "provocative" his thoughts are.

"We license dissent," Whitaker explains. "We don't drive it underground. Some people think the programme [to wind up the NPIA] stinks, others want to 'dance on the grave' of the NPIA and we have to allow them to deal with this and give them an outlet - we can't let things fester. We have to keep up the delivery and the agency will be needed right up until the end of 2012."

Whitaker adds: "We have to put the effort in with communication to staff. We're not 'tokenists' - we are honest as far as we know and update people weekly and daily. We want to push a message of pride as we go forward... and there's a sense of Dunkirk spirit."

It is textbook HR: a dynamic leader taking his or her people through change, using open and honest communication and proving this strategy is effective in retaining and motivating employees.

But, up to this point, Mike Knight, the organisation's head of HR, and Tanya O'Doherty, organisational development manager, had sat quietly at the table. The news that the organisation's previous chief people officer, Angela O'Connor, had left to set up her own consultancy business was still fresh and I was keen to find out from them how this had shaken up the business.

"I manage internal HR," Knight explains. "Angela was in an outward-facing role, working on strategy for the police. She was a customer of the HR department here."

Even so, O'Connor had, since she joined the organisation, been an influential commentator in the HR sector and the absence of such a dynamic figure must surely have been felt across the organisation.

But Knight and his team are not showing any signs of scaling down their strategy and O'Doherty is firmly focused on developing what is left of the organisation.

"I also manage the HR business partner team," she says. "So we are working within the business and really understand the business. We don't make any assumptions about anything. This allows us to be more flexible in the approach to meeting staff needs. We also run 'pulse checks' [staff surveys] every four to five months and we put in actions to do things better."

And although Knight is concerned not to call it 'outplacement' ("We don't want staff to leave," he laughs), the organisation has a focus on looking after the future development of its employees.

"We have POLKA ['police online learning knowledge area'] in place, where we offer staff the opportunity to have discussions about the future and we share tips and information about our HR facilities. We are developing a mentoring scheme and this is very important to Nick [Gargan]." But then Knight says something surprising: "We are still recruiting - we have to replace the vacancies and develop new staff." And while some parts of the 'business' have been affected by job losses, others still need full teams.

"We had a voluntary exit scheme in place," says Knight. "And a 'backfilling' system, where those facing voluntary redundancy in affected areas of the organisation had the option to 'swap' with other unaffected staff. HR is now more listened to than it was 15 months ago."

O'Doherty adds: "It is now a much more important time for human resources, given the context. The reputation of HR has increased and staff are much more engaged [with the HR department]."

Functions the group recognised as 'backroom' in the past are now more upstream and the HR department has gained a strategic advantage in the organisation by demonstrating its worth, at a time when this has been needed the most.

Knight has worked to build relationships with the trade unions - mainly the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) and Prospect, of which 30% of NPIA staff are members - a number that is, not surprisingly, increasing. He is optimistic about the "good relationship" he has with the unions, but admits they weren't surprised at the announcement of the NPIA's future.

The interview is drawing to an end and in most circumstances, the usual questions to close would be: 'What are your plans going forward? How can an HR strategy develop and grow your business? Or, hypothetically, what do you hope to achieve over the next year?' But these people know the answer for their business all too well. I tentatively ask what the HR department's role in ending the life of the organisation - for good - will be.

"It is a complex exercise," says Knight. "We have to consider reductions and long-term planning, what size we need to be, at what time, what functions we need and when.

"We know what areas [of the NPIA] will go into SOCA and what this will look like. Some 13 staff have already moved to the Home Office, 30 to 40 are moving to SOCA and we will concentrate on the TUPE process for them... But primary legislation will be needed for corporate services staff - we know what tranches will go, but we don't know yet what the new bodies will be."

Whitaker, ever the communications chief, adds: "We are still responsible for delivery [of services to the police] and we can't do this if we fail to listen to staff - we need to know how they are feeling. We need to think of their future development. This has to be a best practice model, not a voyage of discovery."

But from an internal HR perspective at the NPIA, the comment about Dunkirk spirit has struck a chord, as Gargan explains: "We didn't see a rush for the doors last year [only 9% of employees voluntarily left]. We have spoken to staff about humility - in that others will make the decisions about the NPIA - as well as confidence in our work and ambassadorship. We treat our staff with respect. It is a wonderful time to be involved in transition and change. Our people have stepped up."

We carry out the usual photography shoot - with our subjects keen for the pictures to be bright and optimistic - but I leave with a bittersweet feeling.

While Gargan and his team have reacted with grace under fire, the future of the police service in the UK is at the most uncertain point in its history since its foundation by another conservative home secretary - and subsequently prime minister - Sir Robert Peel, in 1813.

ACPO says government budget cuts to the police service are expected to claim 28,000 jobs in England and Wales by 2015. Hard-hitters in police HR - the Metropolitan Police's HRD Martin Tiplady as well as the NPIA's O'Connor - have left the sector.

And with the breaking up of a body designed to improve the running of the forces - in the same way an HR department serves any business - the debate is raging as to how the police force can strategise through austerity.

Almost 200 years after Peel, was May's decision a measure to save money from the public purse by closing a body performing 'less well' by the standards of an austere climate - or political motivation to close a (seemingly) well-performing organisation?

I pose the question - but on this challenge the NPIA panel remains diplomatically tight-lipped. They might very well think that; they couldn't possibly comment.

How I see it...

Ciaran McGuigan is head of examinations and assessment at the NPIA and head of its training centre in Harrogate

The NPIA owns the freehold of its residential training site in Harrogate, run by Ciaran McGuigan (pictured left), but in January 2011 it began to consult on its closure - without being allowed to bring in external consultants. In August 2011, it employed 240 members of staff and, as HR magazine went to press, this had been reduced to 145 employees and 35 contractors.

The site is made of 12 business units, each employing between one and 64 employees and the NPIA invited the heads of each unit to discussions, bearing in mind a decision had to be made by November last year. After holding focus groups with staff considering the best ways forward, such as downsizing and offering training at other sites, it was decided the organisation would move from the site.

It has applied to Harrogate Council for planning permission to convert the buildings, although what they will become remains to be seen.

"We told staff face to face," explains McGuigan. "We didn't want them to read it in the press. The issue was about the premises, not the people. The site will be lost, not jobs. We will move staff around, but we can't guarantee their job. We set a tone of transparency.

"The communications with staff have been a major success. They are accepting of the decision. This will be a prototype going forward."

He speaks with admiration of how the HR department has handled the transition in Harrogate - and across the organisation.

"Corporate HR is shrinking," he says. "But we are taking a blended approach and this has given responsibility to managers. This has allowed line managers to understand the mind-set and then they can reinforce the messages [to staff], and point people to where the tools to help them can be found. This has nurtured a culture of camaraderie and helped me get on with my day job."