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Public sector must restructure responsibly

The latest figures suggest that significant job cuts in the Public Sector will be unavoidable. How these difficult decisions are managed will make a big difference to organisations, employees and the public says Adrian Slater, Director of Resourcing, Public Sector, Alexander Mann Solutions.

In March, the BBC released a research report asking 49 councils across Britain about their expectations for the economic recovery. The results weren’t encouraging, with jobs losses of around 10 percent of the workforce forecast for the next three to five years. This figure represents around 25,000 council employees but, with budget freezes and cuts likely to take place across the public sector, the total number of job losses is likely to be far higher. 

The severity of this recession and the UK debt position, make job cuts far more likely than in previous years.  Widespread job cuts in the public sector have been mooted in previous downturns, but these planned headcount reductions have rarely led to employees actually losing their jobs. Short-term recruitment freezes, reduced reliance on temporary staff and voluntary attrition have usually balanced the books without cutting staff.  The current outlook is far bleaker than in previous years, however, and significant job cuts may well be unavoidable.

Deciding who should stay and who should go in a restructuring exercise, is often based on criteria other than performance.   Higher earners, usually those individuals with the most experience, are often the first to have their roles assessed as ‘at risk’. This can be hugely damaging since, although potentially delivering cost-savings in the short-term, the strategy can often prove to be counter-productive. Many employees with such transferable skills and experience don’t wait to be invited to reapply for another role in the reshaped organisation since  these individuals are usually the most likely to secure a new external role. This creates a significant knowledge-gap, which is only recognised once they have left the organisation. Employers then have little choice but to bring in interim cover at a cost that can exceed any initial savings achieved. Bizarrely, there are plenty of instances of leavers  returning to their former organisation as consultants but at a higher cost than their previous terms, of course.

Restructuring must be carried out responsibly and with a long-term strategy in place. Organisations need a clear view of where the talent resides within the organisation, so they can identify employees they can least afford to lose and make sure that any cuts are part of an intelligent, holistic approach, rather than a knee-jerk response.

If time and resource has already been invested in workforce planning, skills and competency mapping, then HR and Organisational Development will  know which areas of the workforce have the least strength-in-depth and where retention of key individuals is a priority to avoid service delivery issues. Organisations need to make clear communication with staff their top priority throughout the process and ensure the relevant unions and professional bodies are involved from the very first stages;  openness, visibility and accessibility are critical.

Although there are undoubtedly some difficult decisions now facing public sector HR directors, the changes that lie ahead should also be viewed as a real opportunity to reshape the way public sector bodies work.  Workforce processes have changed significantly over recent years.  Online resourcing, with web-based applicant management tools taking away a huge processing workload, as well as using social networks and the net to attract candidates, have fundamentally changed best practice hiring and also applicant expectations. Technology is also changing the way employees work, with better communication and mobile technologies allowing organisations to adopt newer, more flexible ways of working that help employees reach a better work-life balance. Flexi-time is common throughout the public sector, so why shouldn’t that extend beyond traditional core hours and also into flexi-location? Forward-thinking employers aren’t the exclusive preserve of the private sector.

With political posturing increasingly focusing on public sector headcount, employers need to promote the positive elements of the forthcoming changes to a highly concerned workforce and re-evaluate who is needed, and where, for the new world of work. Failure to do so may well see invaluable expertise leave, with little hope of attracting comparable replacements as the demographic time-bomb in public sector gathers pace.


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