Mission possible: Employee engagement in the public sector

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23rd Sep 2010
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In May of this year, David Cameron and Nick Clegg joined forces to form a coalition government charged with the unenviable task of taking the reins of a country in crisis. At possibly the lowest ebb of a global recession which had gained momentum since the latter half of 2007, the United Kingdom faced high and increasing unemployment, coupled with a record national debt of £155bn. 

Historically, our public sector has been afforded a protected status, providing the myriad public services of which our country is rightly proud. Public sector employees have always enjoyed a sense of security unavailable to those in private sector employment. What employer, after all, could be more stable than Her Majesty's Government?

It is apparent however, that this sense of security may no longer be warranted. As the private sector shows early signs of recovery, attention has turned to our national debt, and public sector employment cost is an obvious target for reductions in government spending. 

This message has already been hammered home with dramatic reductions in essential public services which have previously been regarded as sacrosanct, such as policing, defence and care services. Most Whitehall departments have been ordered to plan for savings of between 25% and 40% ahead of the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review on 20 October.

In response to this, the TUC's 142nd Annual Congress this year backed a motion rejecting the idea that cuts were necessary to repay the deficit, proposing to build "a broad solidarity alliance of unions and communities under threat", and for the TUC to "support and coordinate campaigning and joint union industrial action nationally and locally..."

Across the public sector, a workforce which has traditionally felt secure and protected has now been left exposed, and is understandably nervous. The potential for damaging industrial action in this sector now looms, as large-scale redundancies are anticipated in the near future. Perhaps even more critical at present, is a haemorrhage of talent to the private sector. Faced by fear and doubt, fuelled by poor internal communications, our public sector's most talented employees are increasingly jumping from what they perceive to be a sinking ship, to the comparatively 'dry land' of a recovering private sector.

Compounding the problem, research by The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) shows that while private sector organisations have responded to the economic situation with a focus on talent management in an effort to retain talent, public sector organisations have failed to do so.

The CIPD has already advised that the most effective way to address unrest in our public sector is by fostering greater employee engagement. The question arising from this sweeping statement is: 'How?'

Employee engagement can be neither applied nor enforced. An organisation cannot engage its employees. These employees must engage with the organisation freely, and through choice. The challenge then, is to provide the right two-way communication, via the right channels, to provide a compelling reason for employees to engage. It is particularly prevalent in the bureaucratic environment of the public sector, for employees to feel unvalued and disconnected from the strategic policies of their employer. 

The last 10 years however, have seen technology play a greater role in the lives of the population, as the UK has become a 'connected nation'. It is by using the broad array of technologies and touchpoints now available, that our beleaguered public sector can reach out to its employees on an individual basis, providing information and reassurance, and perhaps more importantly, seeking input. By listening to 'the voice of the employee', public sector organisations can start to be perceived as caring employers, and can build a loyalty and team spirit previously lacking in this sector, garnering the support of employees.

According to The Employment Policy Foundation, a United States non-profit organisation, the following factors are critical to effective employee engagement:

  • Personal communication: Employees need to be recognised, and addressed as individuals. They need to believe that their voice matters, and that they are personally valued by their employer.
  • Team spirit: Employees need to feel part of a team. This fulfils a natural human need, and prevents isolation.  Group communication supports this need.
  • Employee needs: Employers must be willing to hear out employees' thoughts, complaints and worries. While an employer can't bend to every request, employees must feel that their input is considered and used when appropriate.

Provided action is taken quickly, the prudent use of a careful balance of technology and HR expertise can be deployed to establish and maintain a two-way dialogue between employees and employer. In this way, by rewarding employees for their input and building trust, we can arrest the bleed of talent from our public services, and prevent industrial action from turning the winter of 2010-2011 into a second "winter of discontent".

Alan Bell is director of Simbiottik Ltd

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By Ian
23rd Sep 2010 11:30

As a senior HR Manager who has worked across both public and private sector, I agree that maintaining engagement at this difficult time is critical – although a lot of people in the public sector will not feel that this is the first time that job security has been under threat and I’m not sure that I would stress a single solution, such as technology.

The scale of change in some areas will be such that services will have to be rethought.  Trying to maintain the same service with less people simply does not work with budget cuts of 25% plus.  Managers are not helped by having possible outcomes aired in the media, before spending decisions and implementation plans are confirmed.  Effective communication is essential now, even if only to confirm the limited information available now and when more can be confirmed.  Engaging staff more widely than before, by face to face meetings, electronic communications, representative groups, etc. should be underway.  New ways of providing services can be explored with staff so that people are better prepared for change and managers have richer feedback on possible solutions. 

According to surveys by CIPD, Mori, etc, employee engagement patterns do vary between sectors.  The public sector has to keep employees focussed on its public sector ethos and then be very open and honest about the scale of change that it being considered.  What has worked in other sectors may not work in the public sector, however, some lessons are clear. 

It will be unacceptable for small groups of senior managers and consultants to plan change behind closed doors, with occasional meetings with trade union officials.  But this is a risk given timescales and the scale of change in some organisations.  When change is being implemented it needs to focus as much on engaging staff (and not just telling them the outcome) as on restructuring teams and cutting roles.  Here there are lessons to be learned from other sectors, such as financial services, that have had to extensively restructure over the last decade.  Managing transformational change programmes is disproportionally harder than managing single change projects, so project management skills have to be first rate.

HR teams will be at the forefront of this change and are already preparing for what, in some cases will be the most challenging and rewarding projects of their careers.

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By Charlie Duff
28th Sep 2010 10:23

Thanks for your great comment here Ian.

I'm glad you see this as a real opportunity for public sector HR - it's certainly an area where HR can have real impact and make huge difference. Do you think the public sector HR departments are up to the challenge?

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