By Max Clarke

Government plans to transform public services against the backdrop of £81bn spending cuts over the next four years will fail unless policy makers recognise the importance of supporting a step-change in people and HR management capability, to deliver higher-quality and lower-cost front line services.

This is one of the central messages from a new joint report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and the Public Sector People Managers’ Association (PPMA).

The report, Boosting HR performance in the public sector, warns the Government's public service reform plans are at risk of failing to deliver lasting improvements because too little emphasis is placed on the people and HR management issues that lead, support and embed changes in behaviour and new ways of working on the front line.

The paper argues that the success of the Government's ‘Big Society’ will hinge on whether front-line managers are equipped with the leadership skills to engage and empower staff. It demonstrates, through a range of case studies, the critical role HR plays in supporting lasting public service improvement, which, if replicated more widely, would successfully help the sector meet the challenges it faces.

For example, the report highlights the crucial role for HR in helping to ensure:

• GP consortia, which are taking on a new service commissioning role, have the skills to lead and manage changes to how critical health services are provided
• Jobcentre Plus advisers are equipped with the skills to provide more individualised support to benefit claimants to help them back into work

• Local government managers have the capability to work collaboratively with different parts of the public, private and voluntary sector to deliver more cost effective and customer focused services

Stephanie Bird, CIPD Director of HR Capability, said: "Public service transformation is critically dependent on developing new skills, changing engrained behaviours and managing the uncertainty and conflict that can arise as a result. Unless HR is involved at the heart of this process to ensure the key people management issues are addressed, public service reform plans will remain frustrated.

"Unfortunately, HR in the public sector has been seen by successive governments as a cost to be managed, or a way of making redundancies. It is no coincidence that attempts by previous administrations to create a step-change in the quality of public service delivery have failed. This government cannot afford to make the same mistakes.”

Boosting HR performance in the public sector showcases the importance of effective change management and organisational development in supporting employee engagement, positive employee relations and effective workforce planning. It also argues that HR in the public sector needs to adopt greater use of shared HR services or outsourcing to allow it to increase efficiency and free up resources to provide more strategic support for front line service delivery improvement.

Dean Shoesmith, PPMA President, believes that HR is at a crossroads. He said: "The public service reform agenda provides both an opportunity and a challenge. HR can build and establish its reputation as a key strategic function if it is at the heart of managing change, helping to facilitate service delivery redesign and building the necessary leadership and management skills for sustained public service transformation. However, if HR is preoccupied by its traditional activities, such as hand-holding line managers, then it will be left behind and its reputation as a transactional function will be reinforced. The case studies profiled in our collaboration with the CIPD show how HR is already underpinning successful public sector transformation — we hope this report provides useful guidance to support the adoption of best practice across the sector.”