Facing up to a difficult challenge

The issues facing public services today are not just difficult, but beyond challenging. The scale of change and transformation, from significant state and public sector provision to a much smaller state and Big Society, will require public sector organisations to think and organise themselves in quite different ways.

We are seeing a spectrum of response to this. Some organisations are focusing solely on downsizing; others, having already embarked on a significant transformation journey, are accelerating their transformation plans. My own organisation is one of the latter, but there is a huge challenge in attempting this at the same time as taking significant cost out.

Organisational performance
There is no question about the impact of employee engagement on organisational performance. Achieving good levels of employee engagement requires a strong focus at the best of times. In difficult times it becomes much more of a challenge, and in these “beyond challenging” times some are questioning whether it can be done.

In my own organisation over the last few years we have sustained high levels of performance (rated as excellent by the Audit Commission), achieved high levels of efficiency savings (£72m in three years), alongside the introduction of significant change to service delivery models and associated cultural and behavioural change. This has been supported by strong employee engagement, evidenced by significant improvement in our staff survey data between 2007 and 2009.

Sustaining employee engagement

Following the spending review in the autumn of last year, we know that we need to save £150m over the next three years, losing around 3,000 jobs in the process. In response to this, we are accelerating the transformation programmes already underway across all services.

We know that to achieve this, we need to pay close attention to employee engagement. For me there are five particular features of sustaining employee engagement in difficult times:

Avoid wrapping up difficult messages or bad news in soft or bland words. Acknowledge that some of the things that are happening are difficult, will be upsetting for employees and will result in job losses. Shying away from these difficult messages will result in employees at best not being clear and at worst being misled about what you are saying. People appreciate honesty and transparency in communications from their employer. Above all, do not leave a vacuum. This will inevitably act as a magnet for speculation, rumour, and even fiction. If people are not given the facts, then they will make them up!

Keep trade unions on board as much as possible. A ‘no surprises’ culture is essential. Of course, trade unions will be concerned to protect their members as far as possible, and to lobby for alternative solutions to redundancy programmes. That is entirely right and appropriate. But in my experience trade unions, like their members, are realistic about the issues facing the public sector. Of course they do not like it and of course they will expect and insist on good consultation and employment processes. And after all, that is all part of good employee engagement.

Leaders and managers
Take time to consider the size of the task facing your leaders and managers across the organisation. They are being asked to simultaneously achieve significant budget reductions, often by re-thinking models of service delivery. In many cases they are leading dialogue which could impact on their own personal position and future career. They need to deliver difficult messages to staff at the same time as ensuring services continue to be delivered. This is a very big ask. In any organisation there will be a spectrum of experience in your leadership cadre, but the majority of them will be relatively un-tested in terms of leading organisational change and transformation of the current scale. Plan and prioritise the support they will need.

Make sure you continue to recognise good performance and success. Alongside this, as organisations change, it is important to take time to honour and celebrate the past and to recognise that there will be a grieving process associated with the change.

Employee reference group
Don’t be surprised to hear some employees be critical of the organisation. These things are difficult to get right across the organisation all of the time. We use employee reference groups that act as sounding boards. Employees from a range of functions are selected by managers, typically on the basis of who they think will provide good insight, to meet together and with senior leaders to discuss specific aspects of strategy, change programmes or communication. These are invaluable in helping us listen to the employee voice and ensuring that we understand not just what our employees are thinking, but why. However you do it, the important thing is to find ways of keeping your finger on the pulse of the organisation and to be prepared to listen and respond.

Good employee engagement always takes sustained effort, and never more so than in difficult times. But never forget the old and very simple adage – where there’s a will, there’s a way!

About the author
Anne Gibson is head of Organisational Development & Human Resources, Norfolk County Council, and president (Designate), Public Sector People Managers’ Association (PPMA).

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