Ben Neal FAHRI is assistant secretary of people, capability and performance in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Here he talks about building HR capability and the importance of resilience in bringing about change.
Q. What are the biggest HR issues in the public sector and what are their solutions?
Maintaining and promoting HR capability in the public sector is of real importance. In most organisations, the size and scale of HR functions has increased as a proportion of overall headcount.
There are a number of reasons for this, but my gut feel is that we have tended to use additional capacity as a substitute for capability. So we can get more done, but the positive impact of that work on the organisation is debatable.
My proposition, and it is shared by numerous others, is that if we viewed HR as a profession in the same way we view accounting and IT, and invested in HR capability accordingly, we could create more efficient and capable HR functions.
Q. What are the biggest challenges the public sector faces in the next decade?
One of the biggest challenges, but also a significant opportunity, is the need to reduce broader corporate overheads by entering shared services arrangements across the public sector.
The operational and transactional services that HR functions run are largely the same for all organisations. The economies of scale that can be achieved, and the flow-on savings from such efforts, represent an opportunity to dedicate more time and effort to the things that make a difference where organisations are unique, not where they are the same.
There will always be a need to maintain key strategic and specialist services in organisations, but generic functions could be shared with relative ease.
Q. What are the essential characteristics today’s leaders need to drive real change?
Change is difficult, to state the obvious. Leaders need to be sure they’re on the right path, that options have been considered and the organisation will be better off for the change. This will encourage authenticity and allow leaders to communicate what it might look like at the end.
Resilience is also incredibly important. If you can’t operate above the resistance that invariably comes from difficult change processes, then you won’t be able to lead people through it.
Q. You list policy development and implementation as an area of specialisation. How do HR practitioners achieve best practice in this area?
There is a huge amount of literature on strategic HR, and I would encourage practitioners to read widely. Like any field of study, there are many and varied views about what works in organisations.
Theoretical models are useful in designing or planning a new approach, but they’re less helpful in implementation. Think carefully about the effect of the new approach on both the organisation and the workforce, and come up with an implementation plan that will help it succeed. Strategies rarely stand alone.