· 2 min read · Features

What is the future for public sector HR?


The Public Service People Managers’ Association, (PPMA) recently celebrated a 40-year anniversary. While celebrating the past, thoughts also turn to the future of HR in the public sector.

In fact, as we move forward, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to suggest that the defining skill for HR practitioners at every level of the public sector will be an ability to focus on the future and understand how we can apply our knowledge and skills to ensure organisations and their people are in the best shape to move forward. 

The driving force behind this is austerity, the programme of budget cuts driven by central government, which is set to gather pace. Austerity and ongoing uncertainties have significantly affected every public sector organisation.

The only certainty today is that every individual in every organisation will inevitably be touched by some sort of change. 

Putting aside the politics of austerity – which is not in my remit – I believe that austerity has been good for public sector organisations. It has forced them to think beyond incremental change and reinvent how they work. 

It has created a new generation of HR practitioners who, I think, now lead in the creativity and innovation they apply to business transformation and the introduction of different business delivery models. 

It has also made us learn how to drive and deliver change quickly, effectively and efficiently. These are core skills for the future where the need to change will remain constant and the challenges for these practitioners will only increase. 

What does that future look like for HR? In the immediate period ahead I see two major challenges. 

The first arises from an increasing imperative to collaborate across the public sector. We are already seeing public sector bodies such as blue light services and councils work in partnership and share resources more than ever before. 

This need to collaborate will grow further as hybrid service delivery models involving charities, volunteers, blue light services, NHS and health, education bodies and councils grow. 

The challenge for HR will be to work across traditional organizational boundaries as well as differing cultures to align people to the important focus of delivering great services. Engaging people to think and work this way will require a rewiring of people’s loyalty to their ‘home’ organisation and towards the citizen and services they need. 

Digital transformation is a second major area of challenge. This doesn’t merely involve remote working and smart use of technology. It means a fundamental redesign of services and the way they are delivered. The challenge for HR here will be to support the creation of a new generation of public sector organisations by ensuring we have the skills, knowledge and structures in place to ensure our people work effectively. 

For all the change we have seen over the past years, the scale of transformation ahead will see nothing less than a rebirth of the public sector. 

It is therefore critical for HR not only to understand this future but to help shape these organisations alongside our managers and leaders to ensure we put our people in the best place to deliver to quality public services for our communities.

Barry Pirie is president of the PPMA, and director of people and business services at Wiltshire Council