It is not the impending fiscal crunch that poses the greatest threat to public service delivery, but a related people management crisis on the front line, according to a new report series from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

In the new ‘Building productive public sector workplaces’ series, the Institute highlights the sporadic and often inadequate quality of front line management in the public sector resulting in high levels of absence and an inability to tackle poor performance. Compared with the private sector, on average, public sector employers:

• are three times less likely to discipline staff;
• rate their line managers’ conflict management skills more poorly; and
• take far longer to manage formal disciplinary and grievance cases.
The report reveals worryingly low levels of trust and confidence in senior management among public sector employees, as well as their dissatisfaction with consultation over change. These factors need to be addressed to build the employee engagement necessary to deliver on political and public expectations of public service reform.

Recommendations for improvement in the report include:

• A thorough review of public sector management training to identify how to improve people management capabilities amongst front line managers;
• Action to ensure that professionals involved in the delivery of public services are equipped with people management capabilities that are recognised and valued as highly as their professional skills;
• Ensure public sector leaders at all levels understand the dynamics of organisational change in large organisations and are able to take and implement tough decisions while carrying people with them.

Ben Willmott, Senior Public Policy Adviser at the CIPD and one of the report’s authors, said: “Delivering ‘more with less’ is precisely what many organisations have had to do in the recession – and it is perfectly achievable where there are high levels of employee engagement and shared purpose. But the public sector is heading for extremely tough times, and political and taxpayer expectations are high. The challenge for policy makers is to chart a course that can motivate and engage the public sector workforce in the delivery of change, despite the need for pay restraint, redundancies and pensions reform.

“Success could bring a productivity dividend and public applause. Failure risks derailing efforts to reform public service delivery and get a grip on the public finances.

“However, there are serious question marks over the public sector’s people management capability to emulate the best of the private sector response to adversity. While there are excellent managers and examples of great performance in the public sector, across a range of aspects of management including senior leadership, capacity to effectively manage change, and absence, conflict and performance management generally, the sector is in urgent need of improvement.

“High levels of absence and poor performance need to be addressed as an absolute priority. Front-line managers need to be equipped with better people management skills. In addition, public sector leaders also need to give managers at all levels, as well as front line staff, greater opportunities to understand and ‘buy in’ to change. But ministers also need to lead by example. Political leadership, direction and accountability are essential. But so too is a strenuous effort to avoid the understandable tendency to micromanage – a tendency that can sap motivation and crush innovation and dedication on the front line.”

View the reports