Change has no end game

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If local government is to thrive in a post-pandemic world and be truly people-centred then investing in vital HR professionals is key, say Rebecca Davis and Manny Sandhu

From making home working the norm across entire workforces to adapting vital frontline services, local authorities have been a shining light during COVID. The fact that in many cases it was executed in a matter of days makes it all the more remarkable.

It’s testament to the agility and resourcefulness of local government – and HR and OD professionals – who have been at the heart of making this dramatic shift happen.

But success tends to bring heightened expectations. HR teams could soon find themselves having to explain why council workforce transformation programmes take two, three or even four years to complete when switching to ‘pandemic mode’ only took a week.

Admittedly, those changes in response to COVID were driven by necessity and a unique situation. Under normal circumstances such transformation should be planned, phased and framed around the organisation’s wider goals.

However, there are valid questions to be asked concerning the pace of change within local government in ‘normal’ times. And the impact of the pandemic on workforces presents us with an opportunity to consider how councils adapt to future challenges and examine the role HR professionals can play.

Most councils have either been through or are in the middle of workforce transformation programmes or have plans on the horizon. But there is no end game. Change is a continual process as local authorities deal with the cycle of financial pressures, restructures, skills shortages and evolving local needs.

That very point was made in People Profession 2030, a report recently published by The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the professional body for HR and people development.

It sets out ‘the trends and drivers that are likely to influence the world of work – and the people profession – in the next ten years and beyond’. Change is constant, it says, and successful organisations strive to respond and anticipate what the implications will be.

The report identifies a number of key trends for the HR profession, all of which will particularly resonate with those working in local government.

They include digital and technological transformation, internal, organisational change, changing demographics and diversity and inclusion strategy.

It sees the role of HR professionals as being leaders of strategic change and development, not simply reacting to it. They should be focused on future skills needs, scanning the horizon for the next technological opportunities, championing sustainability and organisational values, and developing a deeper understanding of the barriers to diversity and inclusion.

If our HR professionals are to be that strategic player, the one that challenges the senior leadership team and acts as the moral compass of the organisation, then we need to invest in them

 The latter is a key challenge. In a highly diverse region like the West Midlands, for example, the local government workforce simply isn’t representative of local demographics. My worry is the pandemic will reinforce those issues.

The need to work differently, speed up decision-making 
and take on new roles will have created new opportunities for personal growth among some staff. 

But who are the people who’ve had the chance to shine and lead in that real world challenge? Probably more from the same demographic.

How do we address this? How do we deal with local government’s ageing workforce, bring in talent from a wider range of backgrounds and create opportunities for young people?

Our HR professionals have a critical role to play in all of these challenges. But if they are to be that strategic player, the one that challenges the senior leadership team and acts as the moral compass of the organisation, then we need to invest in them.

We need to create space for HR and OD professionals and focus more on their development. With that in mind, West Midlands Employers has developed a national online pilot programme in partnership with the Local Government Association, CIPD and our network of regional employer organisations in order to address some of those capacity and capability issues head on and capitalise on the closer working relationships we have seen emerge over the last 12 months.

The Inspire People Professionals Academy takes participants through eight modules spread over 12 weeks and the first cohort will begin next month.

It’s about helping HR and OD professionals to be better prepared for the future. It’s also about bringing them closer to colleagues across the country, sharing best practice and building that crucial peer-to-peer network.
HR has underlined its importance during COVID. If local government is to thrive in a post-pandemic world and be truly people-centred then it needs to invest in these vital professionals.

Rebecca Davis is Chief Executive and Manny Sandhu is Director of Leadership, OD and Resourcing at West Midlands Employers @WMEmployers

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