People count – reshaping the public sector workforce

As Whitehall continues to grapple with spending cuts and rising demand for public services, many are finding themselves in an uncertain territory of thinking in new ways, not least about how they use one of their most expensive resources – their people.

Against this backdrop, conventional models of public sector employment are already evolving rapidly, requiring new skill sets – for example around commissioning and managing services. Deeper and more radical change is now needed which transcends traditional organisational boundaries if we are to continue to deliver even basic services within the current and continuing fiscal constraints.

Our recent work with the Ministry of Defence (MOD) underlines that Whitehall and the wider public sector, is thinking very differently about the delivery of services.

The associated pressures on headcount at the MOD mean that the retained, or core MOD, will need to be smaller – and its in-house skills deeper – a cross-Whitehall issue.

This means examining wider questions: what should the Department deliver and how can it configure itself in response to a tough fiscal environment and changing workforce aspirations? And what kind of innovative employment model can deliver this transformation? Every Whitehall department should ask itself these questions.

The first step towards an answer is considering what Whitehall departments need to ‘own’ and deliver themselves, what they can ‘share’ across services and organisations and what they can ‘buy’ from others.

All of these options have significant workforce implications. For example, how do you motivate and engage a workforce that may be employed across a range of entities? Human Resource (HR) practitioners will need to become more strategic ‘resource brokers’, predicting, smoothing and managing peaks and troughs in workforce supply and demand across many employing organisations.

Unlike the private sector, where a significant number of organisations have a HR presence at the top table, in the public sector HR does not enjoy the same profile uniformly. Perceptions of the function are at worst a gatekeeper, slowing organisational change or with cumbersome polices, and at best a transaction specialist, supporting workforce change that is ‘designed’ by senior officers.

HR needs to develop the capacity and capability to be at the forefront of service redesign, becoming ‘workforce architects’ through providing evidence based, innovative thinking about the construct of service and the deployment options across the front, middle and back office. This includes encouraging and facilitating collaboration and co-design across public services, and creating enabling frameworks that effectively plan, attract, retain and motivate the workforce.

We’re not suggesting there are easy answers to any of this – the radical workforce reform that is required will throw up many challenges. But what is very clear is that we’re entering a new, uncertain world where these are debates which must be had, and urgently.


Juliet Stuttard | Director
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