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14.10.13

HR at the top table

Source: Public Sector Executive Sept/Oct 2013

The London Borough of Waltham Forest was the best public sector performer at the recent CIPD People Management Awards, winning one award and highly commended in another. The council’s director of human resources and transformation Althea Loderick has also just been personally recognised as the eleventh most influent person in the field of HR. PSE spoke to her. 

Waltham Forest Council won the ‘Building HR Capability’ category at the CIPD People Management Awards in September, and was highly commended in the ‘Change Management’ category. 

Like all local authorities, the council has faced big funding cuts in recent years and had to undergo an organisational transformation and cut posts. That has been a big challenge for the HR team, which has also faced a major restructure and reorganisation itself to deal with a 28% budget reduction over three years. 

The council’s director of human resources and transformation, Althea Loderick, told us: “Dealing with that was going to mean making massive changes to the way we did things. It was the equivalent of 23 full-time posts. 

“Obviously we didn’t necessarily take out all of those posts because there were some vacant but it was quite a significant change, it wasn’t like we could just take off a few people here and there. 

“I restructured the whole service and the way we deliver our service. We took out our business partners and developed a corporate shared service centre approach, so there was a tiered approach to the way people had their issues dealt with by HR.” 

She said one of the key factors that gave the council an edge at the CIPD awards was its carefully planned two-pronged approach to change, in which the capabilities of the HR team itself were carefully developed and tailored to suit the new structure, while general managers across the councils were trained to become ‘self-sufficient’ in handling the more basic HR tasks themselves.

Loderick explained: “There were a series of two-hour ‘espresso sessions’, bringing in managers from across the authority to take them through how this new service would work and how to operate in that environment.”

“There were big changes to the intranet and lots of how-to guides for the obvious things like recruitment and managing sickness. 

“It was about building the ability and capability of our HR function as well as building the HR skills of managers in the organisation who’d need to work in a way where they wouldn’t have access to the same level of HR support that they might previously have had. 

“They would have that access when we needed to intervene, but for the general day-to-day they’re able to get on with it on their own.” 

The ‘transition workshops’ were widely praised, with 97% of people rating them ‘good’, ‘very good’, or ‘excellent’, and staff engagement scores within the department itself were up five percentage points on their 2009 levels.

The CIPD People Management Awards judges praised the restructure and the corporate shared service centre as a bold “business-led programme” and noted that it will save the council £888,000 a year. 

Feedback 

Before those major changes to the HR services were implemented, Loderick won top-level support for the plans from the council’s management board to ensure she had support in high places, meaning those senior directors could reinforce the new message to their own directorate management teams, ensuring it wasn’t just about HR imposing its own will. 

But the new service and approach was reviewed after six months, and the feedback from staff was that HR at the council had improved, despite the reduction in posts. 

Loderick told us: “With the restructure, our service became much more clearly defined and focused, with new operating protocols, a new suite of KPIs. It tidied up the service, meaning managers experienced a more consistent and professional service. 

“Those in HR were clearer about their roles, which were linked to the CIPD professional map.” 

The two heads of service under Loderick, one leading on HR delivery and one on employee relations and policy, sit down with the directors and their second line from across the council every month to discuss all HR issues. 

“We’ve got better relations with our customers than ever before,” Loderick said. 

The change programme is not over – and the “whole council operating model” is likely to change from 2016, Loderick said, to cope with an even harsher budget environment. 

That could involve merging more back office services – joining IT with HR, legal, facilities management – to create a single ‘first line’ of support for council employees. PSE will keep readers abreast of changes. 

A structured approach to transformation 

The council has undergone major changes since Loderick arrived in 2010, starting with her first major project – changing the terms and conditions of council staff. 

Six hundred posts have been cut, though only about half of those were actual redundancies (others were redeployments and voluntary redundancies). 

Loderick said: “We’ve been very organised and structured in our approach to change.” 

That structured and consultative approach has meant that by the end of the process of changing terms and conditions, there have not been formal challenges or employment tribunals – although clearly there was opposition to the move. 

Because the council started early, it is “ahead of the game”, Loderick said. “Some councils are scrabbling around now for 2014/15 savings, and we’ve done that. 

“We’ve had structure changes, service changes, new customer contact points, more digital engagement. 

“The changes have made Waltham Forest a much more ‘change-able’ organisation. 

“That will continue with the new challenges we’ve got coming. 

“It’s about raising the ambitions of people working here and letting them see that we will support people – though we also have high expectations and will hold people to account.”

Obviously the world of public sector HR has been more difficult since 2010-11 when the scale of the budget cuts that would have to happen first became apparent. Some staff can come to associate HR with only the negative aspects of the role. 

We asked Loderick what the job had been like in recent years, and she said: “It’s a difficult job. The last few years, there have been a lot of tough things to do. That will be the way it is going forward. 

“But there have been opportunities in the midst of that, and for me, it’s been about doing those tough things well. 

“On Ts and Cs for example, I was featured in the local paper as slashing jobs and cutting people’s terms and conditions. But I didn’t come into this role to take away people’s livelihoods or treat people badly. I know I give people the maximum opportunity to be involved, to understand why things are happening. That’s the mantra you’ve got to take with you, otherwise you wouldn’t get up in the morning! But yes, it’s a tough job, you get a public kicking all the time in the public sector.”

She suggested the recent scandal about BBC executive pay-offs and HR’s role in that had added to that perception, and said: “You can be vilified. You face criticism, but you have to have self-belief and know that what you’re doing is the right thing. 

“We protect our front line as much as we can. We’d much rather reduce paid special leave than reduce services for looked-after children, for example. 

“I’m a senior person in the public sector, funded through people’s council tax, and I can’t expect to have an easy job.” 

Top table 

Loderick’s role is broader than many of her counterparts in local authority HR, as it also includes transformation and ICT on top of HR and organisational development. That broad role is a factor in her seat at the ‘top table’ of the council and gives her more influence over strategic direction. 

She said: “There’s a constant debate in HR about whether we sit at the top table or not. I do, partly because I have that broader role. I’ll have counterparts at other authorities who won’t have as much in their remit as I do, they may sit in a different place in the organisation. 

“But as a profession, for HR directors – particularly in the public sector – part of our role and the reason for being in those top discussions is about recognising that there’s more too our roles than ‘just’ HR. 

“When I first took on IT, for example, my first thought was ‘oh my God’! But you soon realise it’s intrinsically linked to the rest of the job. 

“What’s great about my job is having the capacity to pull all of the levers that make the organisation tick – HR, IT, transformation, organisational development. There’s not an awful lot else you need to keep the organisation running and to keep the front line out there and supported. 

“I want to re-state how important it is to have the right people on the team. It’s great to get this personal recognition, but it’s also about the team – both the team under me, and the team on the board. It makes such a massive difference.”

A summary of the programme 

Extract from the award entry for Building HR Capability:

The Human Resources (HR) Transition Programme is a strategic reconfiguration of the council’s HR and Learning and Organisational Development (L&OD) functions, and the implementation of a new, corporate shared service centre (CSSC). 

The project entailed moving from a traditional, directorate-based HR service to a functional structure providing HR delivery, employee relations and policy, schools HR improvement and shared L&OD. A three-layered shared service centre underpinned this structure. 

This shift in approach is based on a clear HR vision and new strategic HR priorities closely aligned with the council’s corporate objective to empower staff and make managers more self sufficient. At the heart of the project were two key strands: 

First, a comprehensive package of training, development and support for HR employees, including assessment centres, workshops, an away day, Myers Briggs Type Indicator tests, coaching and new intranet pages. The package was designed to support staff through the change process and equip them with the skills they needed to work effectively in the new structure. 

Second, a mandatory Self Sufficient Manager (SSM) programme was launched to help managers take on more HR responsibilities. 

Managers were given training and attended workshops and regular ‘espresso sessions’ to learn new HR skills. 

A series of ‘How to’ guides was developed, covering key HR procedures, and a new SSM intranet portal was launched, bringing together advice, documents and processes.

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