A comment from Brightandsmiley on an earlier post reminded me of a former colleague’s invaluable method of ‘defining something by what it isn’t rather than by what it is’. His unerring skill in applying this rule made him simultaneously amusing and deadly as a neighbour at corporate events.
He was particularly good at unpicking strategy documents to show many up for the vacuous wastes of ink and paper they undoubtedly were. I well remember the terror in an unfortunate presenter’s eyes when my friend innocently asked if he could also see the Past Strategy to go along with the Future Strategy we were being ‘sold’.
“Afterall,” he sweetly observed, “any forward-thinking organisation would surely not want to get caught without a strategy for dealing with the past to go alongside any bright and gleaming strategy to deal with the future.”
Readers will know that I am fond of the great Yes, Minister which, for my generation, skewered how public service worked (or didn’t). That programme’s analysis of the real meaning of departmental titles was masterly. For example, the then Ministry for Agriculture was actually the Ministry for Farmers, the Minister of State for Roads similarly was actually the Minister for Traffic Jams and so on.
In my corporate experience there is more than a grain of truth in this label confusion. I’ve seen management accounts where there was no financial information that you could use to manage anything. Devolved budgeting where there was no budget and no devolution. Being ardent converts to and disciples of ‘lean’ and then inventing processes to implement it that make string theory look straightforward.
But of all the bits of the many organisations I have lurked around the one that gets the most criticism and, ill-informed, abuse of the ‘inherent misnomer’ type is … yes, you’ve guessed it HR.
‘Its not human and got nothing to do with resourcing.’ Heard that one? Thought so. I’m sure any HR professionals reading this will have their teeth well and truly clenched by now. But be not afraid. What follows is a plea on your behalf.
Good HR professionals and outstanding HR planning are going to be at the heart of any successes that get pulled out of the hat of the wholesale change now facing the public sector. Yet it seems to me that these are areas that get thought about last rather than first.
For example. Minister A decides one Friday that Organisation X should go. He tells his SPADs. The SPADs tell their favoured journalist mates. Cue headlines: ‘Minister wields trusty axe’, ‘Minister on taxpayers’ side’, ‘Go get ’em Minister!’ or ‘Lucious Linda (23) is backing Minister’s cuts campaign (see page 3).’ Embargoed news release emailed over to Organisation X. Minister and SPADs head out of office. Job done. Day well spent.
Meanwhile civil servants and leadership of Organisation X run round like headless chickens. Media begins to follow up story. Who is Organisation X? What do they do? How many staff are involved? Where are they based? When will it happen? What will it cost? Why is this a good idea?
Media lines sorted. Goes a bit quiet. Someone says, “How are we telling the staff?” Headless chicken time again. Organisation does its best but some folks still find out from radio or TV.
From this point on Organisation A’s HR folks are playing catch up. They’re fire-fighting while trying to sensibly plan for a range of options for the future. A range because no one knows what the Minister actually wants. All anyone knows is what he doesn’t want. That’s right our old friend: ‘A thing defined in terms of what it isn’t rather than what it is’.
I watched the brilliant Gosford Park again at the weekend. the housekeeper explains to a relatively new lady’s maid the secret of being an exceptional servant. Anticipation. Knowing what their masters and mistresses want before they do and working out ways of meeting those needs that appear effortless.
The problem for HR, and for public servants generally right now, is that only having clarity about what is not wanted provides far too many permutations to make planning feasible or a good investment of time.
But I take my hat off to my HR colleagues who are giving it their very best shot. Perhaps we’ll reach a point where HR, finance etc., are considered at the option appraisal stage rather than the running around like headless chickens post-leak phase. If I were you I wouldn’t hold my breath for that.