Public sector HR: The challenges ahead

Brexit, the Council Spending Review, the National Living Wage and executive pay are just some of the challenges faced in the year ahead, says new PPMA president Sue Evans

As is customary for the incoming president of the PPMA, one of my first tasks is to share some of my thoughts on the challenges that lie ahead in our sector during my 12-month tenure.

I had not anticipated Brexit to be one such challenge but it would be disingenuous of me to overlook the potential repercussions on the public sector of this momentous change in our political, economic and cultural landscape.

The next few months and years will be telling, with many questions (and no doubt concerns) around employment law inevitably being raised. How will our employment rights, where EU legislation and directives are a major driver for changes in UK employment law, be affected? At this moment, I am not unduly concerned, principally because when you look across many of the measures we have put in place to protect workers, these exceed the minimum EU requirements.

In terms of the European workforce that sustains key areas of our public services such as the NHS, I foresee that any change will be gradual only as a new deal with the EU is negotiated. Bearing in mind the importance of freedom of movement to so many sectors beyond our own, I would like to think that maintaining access to skilled European workers would be a priority in any future deal between the EU and the UK. In the short term HR will have a crucial role in reassuring and supporting those in our workforce who feel unnerved and unsettled about their future in this country.

I can pledge that the PPMA will be here to support people managers and the sector as a whole as we rise to the challenges resulting from this historic decision.

Beyond Brexit, what specific issues does HR in the public sector face in view of increasing budget cuts in perma-austerity Britain? As the pressure of budget cuts continues, councils are looking at a wholesale transformation of services, with some of them ceasing entirely. Most of them will be dealing with further reductions in funding as a result of the Council Spending Review (CSR) and the focus is overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, on social care for the most vulnerable.

How can we continue to retain and attract the talent we need to remain effective and dynamic in these challenging times?

Some areas for consideration: The National Living Wage has had an impact on public sector pay scales by removing at least four points at the bottom of the scale. At the same time pay for senior members of staff has largely been frozen, which has conflated scales to the point where some managers now earn little more than the staff they manage. This imbalance needs to be redressed with the development of a new and more flexible pay spine for local government employees.

Still on the subject of pay, issues around pay caps and the publishing of information on pay for chief executives are as current as ever, which inevitably has an impact on the senior talent pipeline. We need to move away from an obsession with senior pay and acknowledge that senior leaders in the public sector carry huge responsibilities – our blue light services, children's services, education and public health to name but a few. We need to recognise and value our leaders, and accept that the remuneration they receive is commensurate with their level of accountability.

Attracting younger people into apprenticeships must remain a priority for the public sector and activities like the PPMA’s Peer into the Future programme and Rising Star awards are specifically designed to support these efforts. The impending Apprenticeship Levy may make this harder and undermine the quality of our offer – but whether the levy, details of which were due to be announced this month, goes ahead in the short to medium-term aftermath of Brexit remains to be seen.

The Employee Value Proposition for public servants in general has been impacted by the CSR. It’s therefore crucial that we review and restructure our pay and employee benefits propositions to ensure they are flexible enough to reflect the market and enable us to compete with an increasingly buoyant private sector. We need to promote the fact that the public sector is able to offer flexible hiring/working and accommodate all sorts of different working patterns. We know this is important to our existing workforce, who are likely to have caring/childcare responsibilities, but also to our new generation of employees who work to live rather than live to work. This generation is as interested in corporate responsibility and a work/life balance as financial reward.

Our proposition therefore has to be clear and relatable for both today’s and tomorrow’s civil servant. As a sector, after several years of transformation and centralisation, we are more commercially-minded and business-focused than ever before. We are at the forefront of HR in terms of our approach to knowledge and skills sharing, mentoring and work shadowing programmes. We are continuously and very consciously having open and constructive career development conversations across all teams and departments. We offer quality jobs, great flexibility, excellent opportunities for progression and the chance to make a difference to the lives of the communities we serve.

Sue Evans is president of the PPMA and head of human resources and organisational development at Warwickshire County Council