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The pressure of cuts will not always see the strong survive. Cary Cooper argues that in public services it is often the best people who go and that managers should act fast.

I recently spent time with some senior public sector workers in local government, the health service, police, fire service and education. They were all worried about the substantial cuts, but surprisingly they could also see the opportunities of doing things differently, given the necessity of making savings.

They felt, however, that there were two constraints on them. First, that some of their best and most talented people would leave - either through the voluntary redundancy schemes or be poached by the private or voluntary sectors - creating a massive ‘talent vacuum’. Unlike the private sector, who can use financial and other levers to retain people, this is unavailable or rarely used in the public sector, which leads to their second major issue, underperformance.

Most public sector bodies rarely, if ever, target the underperformers, either during a normal working week or when implementing a redundancy programme or during some other major restructuring activity. Therefore, when cuts occur, the people taking the voluntary redundancies are likely to be some of the best and talented, which, in HR jargon, is called ‘regrettable turnover’ (where an employer is losing key staff without the possibility of replacing ‘like for like’ or perhaps not being able to replace them at all). If decisions about underperformers are not taken, what will remain will be a higher proportion - although probably still a minority - of less able or motivated people, leaving many of the public sector bodies less capable of delivering better public services with even less staff.

On balance, even given these dilemmas, this group of dedicated public servants were more upbeat than I had expected, but they did seem exhausted from ‘change fatigue’. The change programmes from one government to another seem to be wearing them down, even though they more or less accepted the old euphemism that ‘change is here to stay’!

Part of the problem I think comes from the fact that they feel they have little control over events, not just from government interventions, but also from the fact that many feel they have no means under their control to retain the really talented people, or even to get rid of the persistent underperformers. Although they hear a great deal about transformation in the public services and the need for greater engagement through the McLeod report, they see little change at the coal-face.

The big question here is how do we change the culture of many of these public sector bodies? I suspect we need an infusion of better trained, more self confident and highly skilled managers at all levels of the public sector, people who are more secure in their own abilities to risk change without worrying about potential setbacks or even the occasional failure.

As Sir James Goldsmith once wrote, “the ultimate risk is not taking a risk”, or even as Henry Ford put it, “failure is only an opportunity to begin again more intelligently”. For the current crop of senior public servants there is plenty they can do. First, urgently recognise the ‘brightest and best’ they currently have and develop a talent pool.  Provide them with training and development and make them feel valued and want to stay because they see a future in their particular public sector. Second, find out where these managers feel the blocks to progress, and encourage them to come up with solutions however atypical or novel.  Give them the space and opportunity to change small things first and then bigger things later. And finally, with all the doom and gloom around, try to think of novel ways to make your bit of the service more fun, a place where people want to come to work, and with a smile on their face!

In the long run, this feeling of lack of control, as extensive research indicates, can lead to stress, burnout and further and higher levels of ‘regrettable turnover’. We need to find a way of retaining the future talent in the public sector, and to confront poorer performance in a developmental rather than punitive way. We need public sector leaders who take advantage of this opportunity for change in a way that keeps them engaged and healthy. What we need more of are leaders, as Mark Twain described in one of his books: “keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can somehow become great”. That is our challenge!

Cary Cooper CBE, is Distinguished Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University Management School, Chair of the Academy of Social Sciences and co-author of the recent book Employee Morale: Driving performance in challenging times.


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