Latest Public Sector News


‘Job security without role security’

Source: Public Sector Executive May/June 2013

Dr John McGurk, learning and development adviser at the CIPD, talks to PSE about best practice in council innovation.

Getting councils to innovate can be challenging, particularly if there is no need to develop any new ways of working and a lack of capacity to devote to new ideas when resources are tight.

But without radical innovation now, resources are only going to get tighter, mean shorttermist ‘firefighting’ isn’t going to cut it in the long term. It’s motivating many to start looking at how they could do things differently.

New Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) research has highlighted best practice in transformation, looking at three high-performing local authorities.

The report considered the role of innovation in HR in Sunderland, Southend, and Sutton & Merton councils. PSE spoke to Dr John McGurk, learning and development adviser at the CIPD, about supporting organisations through transformation and why sometimes management is part of the problem.

Gauging innovation

“One council’s cutting-edge shared services approach is another’s solution from the mid- 90s,” Dr McGurk said. “So it really depends on your context, and where you are in the change programme. It’s a gauge of how innovative you can actually be.

“It would have been easy for all of those councils to have gone down standard roads, develop standard approaches or carried on doing the same thing.”

The CIPD report was led by Professor Veronica Hope-Hailey, Dean of the School of Management at the University of Bath, and identified “really innovative practice, in relative terms from local authorities that were going through real challenges”.

When the public sector considers innovation, there is often an inordinate amount of time spent on big new products and the latest technology, when Dr McGurk said: “In fact, a lot of the time it’s just about processes and doing them differently”.

Systematic development

Between increased creativity and big projects, there is “a whole lot of processing” to be done, where social, human and organisational capital come into play.

Dr McGurk said: “There’s a huge amount that can be done in terms of organisational development, especially supported by HR, that can make it much more systematic. That’s what we focused on and that’s what we saw in those councils.”

CIPD research found around 55% of councils were so-called ‘cautious’ innovators, less likely to involve employees or to agree that it is a manger’s day job to push innovation and change. But three councils were showing how innovation could be taken forward in HR.

Workforce bargain

Sunderland City Council created an internal labour market and a “bargain around innovation” with the workforce to avoid compulsory redundancies.

This safeguarded council employment whilst still delivering the changes they needed to make (this approach was covered extensively in the March/ April 2012 and May/June 2012 editions of PSE, including via an interview with the council’s head of organisational development Dave Rippon).

Dr McGurk praised “really inspirational leadership, great relationships with the unions, employees and the stakeholders” to achieve this. He said: “What they did was very innovative.

“They said people who are in current jobs might not be in the jobs that we need them for, so we’re going to select people on a basis of their competencies and strengths.

“If we see people working in finance who just sort of drifted in there but have got no fl air for it or aptitude, we need them to be transformational.

“We’re going to put them out of those roles, but what we’re not going to do is to put them out of the organisation.

“We’re going to create this framework of job security without role security – and that gives a really good flow to innovation because you then create a group of people that any manager can go to and say ‘I’m looking at how we revitalise elderly care services’ and people from different areas have got different skills to work on it.

“You put those people on that project and it’s amazing the kind of stuff you get out of it.”

Exploiting capital

Sutton and Merton councils ran a “pioneering” shared service to reconfigure human, social and organisational capital. This brought together skills and capability, collaboration and system support, which Dr McGurk said: “Its how those are configured that determines how innovative or not you actually are.”

The councils looked to exploit existing practices, following on from exploratory work around shared services. They became an “expert” in safeguarding and criminal records checks, which they can offer to other local authorities, emergency services or charities.

“Now they’re seeking to develop a much more exploitative approach to the capital that they’ve created through the change and transformation and shared services.”

Connecting with the customer as a key stakeholder was an important part of this, Dr McGurk said, which many councils pay lip service to, but do not fully engage.

“They’re getting customers involved in scoping local services, which is quite innovative.”

Listening to employees

The third case study in the CIPD research was Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, which went from being “really dreadfully reviewed”, with “shocking audit report and the worst scores you could imagine” to being seen as a beacon of innovation.

Dr McGurk highlighted the role of Robert Tinlin as chief executive in leading this transformation. Tinlin’s background in town planning offered technical capability around how councils should deliver services and helped Southend focus on some “really big ticket problems that councils are now inheriting from central government”.

This HR innovation involved organisational development and engagement through culture change, invigorating employees on the ground level to implement change.

When local services had to be changed, employees would be consulted as to the ideal situation they could imagine, with management responding: “If we think this is worth doing, let’s see how we can work around that and see where we can beg, steal and borrow money to support it.”

Southend won an ‘HR team of the year’ award at the Public Sector People Managers’ Association (PPMA) awards, and is now enjoying “really good” audit ratings, Dr McGurk noted.

Lead and engage

Leadership and employee engagement were the most important factors for innovation, he said. Developing the latter depended on regularly collecting feedback, and taking suggestions into account when making strategic and operational decisions.

“If employees feel listened to and think they’ve got some kind of voice they’ll be very supportive of change.”

Learning and development can coalesce to address human capability and build on this through internal and external courses. Dr McGurk pointed out: “If you are interested in innovation, you need to meet other people, you need to exchange ideas.

“It’s a no-brainer; you can’t stay rooted inside your own organisation.”

Freedom to change

Issues frustrating innovation include the context of “straitjacket targets and cuts”, and Dr McGurk said that this leadership has to be honest about the nature of the challenge to look at whether the journey of change and innovation is feasible.

Operational freedom is a key component of innovation in the face of cuts. The case study councils were “able to challenge the organisation internally but also to challenge the organisation’s external stakeholders and pressures”.

“They led with authenticity and a lot of challenge,” he added. “They also recognised that management was part of the problem. Some leaders at certain levels were not able to develop the changed journey as much, because they weren’t equipped.

“The issue of leadership is absolutely vital. These councils were certainly not cautious innovators.”

Systematic or creative?

Councils all over the UK are facing similar problems, but with a huge variation in circumstances and priorities, PSE asked how they could use specific examples from other local authorities to implement their own social capital?

Dr McGurk said: “This is also underpinned by trust culture and engagement. Any council anywhere can look at this, to recognise that this is an innovation project rather than just an initiative we have to undertake.

“The leaders were very systematic and structured about how they innovated, even though it looked sometimes as though they were a bit free flowing and creative.

“You let people have ideas and once you’ve developed the ideas, you then systematically start rolling them out either through pilots or different projects around the council.”

Seven key barriers to innovation in the public sector:

• Siloed working
• Evaluation systems, not designed to support innovation
• Public service users rarely invited to engage in the innovation process
• “A fetish for new shiny stuff” results in inappropriate allocation of scarce resources
• A lack of disciplined systems of innovation
• A narrow focus on financial measures of value
• Complexity caused by being required to meet the demands of too many ‘masters’.


There are no comments. Why not be the first?

Add your comment


public sector executive tv

more videos >

last word

Prevention: Investing for the future

Prevention: Investing for the future

Rob Whiteman, CEO at the Chartered Institute of Public Finance (CIPFA), discusses the benefits of long-term preventative investment. Rising demand, reducing resource – this has been the r more > more last word articles >

public sector focus

View all News


Peter Kyle MP: It’s time to say thank you this Public Service Day

21/06/2019Peter Kyle MP: It’s time to say thank you this Public Service Day

Taking time to say thank you is one of the hidden pillars of a society. Bei... more >
How community-led initiatives can help save the housing shortage

19/06/2019How community-led initiatives can help save the housing shortage

Tom Chance, director at the National Community Land Trust Network, argues t... more >


Artificial intelligence: the devil is in the data

17/12/2018Artificial intelligence: the devil is in the data

It’s no secret that the public sector and its service providers need ... more >