Build your organisation: What should the new chief people officer’s priorities be?

The civil service's next HR chief faces a daunting task. Tim Edwards outlines what should be at the top of their ‘to-do’ list

By Tim Edwards

07 Oct 2015

“Delivering better services, with strong leadership, through good people” – that's the vision set out by Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock shortly after his appointment in May, and they are words that will ring in the ears of Whitehall's soon-to-be-appointed chief people officer (CPO).

This is the biggest HR job in the land – the CPO will oversee a staggering 400,000 civil servants – and it is about to become one of the toughest. The successful candidate will be charged with modernising the civil service in an environment of unprecedented cost reductions – no mean feat for an organisation that has already cut around 90,000 jobs since 2010. 

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To help identify the priorities for the new CPO, we’ve compiled a ‘to do’ list: 

Look within
If HR is to lead the modernisation agenda, it needs to quickly assess if its own house is in order. Does it have the right people doing the right things? We know organisational restructuring will continue to be a key theme throughout the next five years, but are there now teams of change professionals ready to dedicate 100% of their time to this activity?  

Can its people engage credibly with senior civil servants and take them on the journey needed to modernise public services? Getting the right HR structure (and the teams with the right skills) in place will enable it to deliver Hancock’s vision. This is the first thing the CPO should be thinking about when they arrive at their desk. Their success in their new role will depend on it. 

Look around
With a significant chunk of jobs already cut, this is the optimum time to shape and recruit the right skills mix in the wider civil service. The Home Office, the DWP and HMRC have moved to digitise some of their services. While this presents opportunities for efficiencies and improvements in customer services, the UK as a whole is suffering a significant shortage of digital skills. This begs the question: how can the civil service position itself as the employer of choice for people with these skills?  

The new CPO would do well to draw from private sector organisations that have developed compelling employee value propositions. One global professional services firm, for example, created an interactive ‘sat nav’ career management tool that enabled people to plot their career journeys. It included videos of employees talking about their careers and how they had moved between large and diverse departments across the organisation. It really brought alive the firm’s commitment to providing interesting and varied career paths. Taking the time to gather further external insights on how the civil service should cast its image to appeal to current and prospective employees would be an investment worth making.  

Take the lead
Against a backdrop of demoralising budget cuts, the need for strong leadership is greater than ever. The 2014 Civil Service People Survey revealed that only six in every 10 people are engaged. The effects of a disengaged workforce are well known – it cost the US economy an estimated $450bn in lost productivity 2012 – so it’s critical the civil service finds ways to engage and motivate its people during a time of continuing change. 

Lessons can be learned from other departments. The DWP, for example, has improved engagement by 10%, in part by providing clarity on its vision through the creation of “the road ahead” document. But what else must the CPO be thinking about in order to enhance the productivity of the civil service?  

Again, looking to the private sector will help. When one large engineering firm faced low levels of engagement during a time of prolonged cost-cutting, its response was to focus on improving the management capability of all people managers. It invested in developmental training for managers and ran regular upward feedback reviews. In some cases it took away managerial responsibility for those who were not reaching the standards required. This put an important building block in place for the development of a high performance culture and more engaged and productive workforce, evidenced through an increase in scores the following year. 

There is no question that the CPO faces a daunting challenge and a long list of priorities. But focusing on these three points would be a good place to start. 

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