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Stop Trying to Do 'More with Less,' Prioritize Instead

Hardly anyone queries the suggestion that public sector HR teams are likely to have more work to do in the coming years and less resources with which to cope; the best response is to do less and do it well

HR professionals in the public sector have been under pressure for a while now. Almost 90% of them believe their workload will increase over the next one to three years, according to CEB data, and only 21% of them think that resource levels will keep pace. This means, quite simply, that government HR teams will have to navigate more work with at best the same resources.

Recent conversations with HR public sector workers shows although they are worried about constant pressure and the affect this is having on the morale of them and their teams, they also realize that there is an opportunity to think differently about public sector HR as well. The cuts and the workload mean that they can no longer just try to “get it done.” They actually have to think differently about what they do.

Stop Trying to Be More Efficient

The traditional way to navigate these pressures is to focus on efficiency, making processes leaner, reducing work duplication, and so on to gain more capacity without hiring new people or purchasing new technology or services from suppliers. The challenge is that the imbalance of workload to resources may be greater than what efficiency alone can mitigate.

But HR teams need to be bolder in their approach to transformation – and the workforce agrees. Almost 70% of public sector HR professionals surveyed by CEB believe that its “service delivery” (the work HR does, and the way it does it) is going to be the biggest barrier to navigating this new environment. This provides an opportunity for HR to think differently about service delivery – shifting the approach from being efficient at doing everything, to prioritizing the things that matter to the business by focusing on “value.”

Two Ways to Prioritize

Not only is it a good idea to focus on value because the efficiency route is insufficient, but also because across the public sector HR functions are not seen as being particularly valuable. On a CEB scale of 100, business leaders rate public sector HR at a fairly lowly 58. As HR teams attempt to improve the amount of value they provide, they should take two steps.

  1. Understand value from the business leader’s perspective: While senior government HR managers, understandably, see all the activities that they tend to carry out as valuable (on CEB’s list of 38, they rate all 38 traditional activities, such as performance management, essentially equal), senior line managers are more discerning in what they see as contributing to their business unit.

    So the trick is to understand the business leader’s perspective and to use that assessment as criteria to determine transformation action steps. Chart 1 provides an aggregate overview of how important business leaders think a range of HR activities are, and how effective they think their HR function is at providing them.

  2. Make principled bets and cuts: As all activities are created equal in when providing more focused HR services, HR teams should consider business value against HR effectiveness to determine how to invest in transformation efforts. As chart 1 shows, HR teams can then use this analysis to activities into three groups:

    • Unique functional strengths: These are HR’s bright spots; the activities where HR is highly effective and where leaders see how the activities contribute to business outcomes. Protect these key strengths by continuing to invest in these activities to maintain quality standards and high levels of service.

    • Achilles’ heels: These activities are ripe for fixing, activities that have high business value but where HR is not effective. The focus here should be on increasing HR’s effectiveness and fixing any challenges with carrying out these activities.

      This is where HR will need to spend time, energy and resources understanding the root causes of why performance isn’t what it should be, defining business partners’ expectations, and evaluating options for how to proceed while retaining these activities.

    • Low-hanging fruit: These activities are of lower value to the organization and areas where HR doesn’t get rewarded or penalized for its effectiveness of lack thereof. So these areas can be deprioritized by setting lower expectations among internal customers or extending the timeline for providing the service. These are also areas that could be delegated elsewhere, automated, or even terminated.

      One word of caution about low-hanging fruit: for activities in this area that HR teams know have a high impact on the organization, if done well – like workforce planning or HR analytics – HR needs to fundamentally redesign the activity by understanding what would make valuable to the organization.

    Chart 1: Prioritized HR activities in the public sector by business leaders n=918 Source: CEB Business Alignment Tool, 2016


More On…

  • Working Out HR's Priorities

    CEB’s business alignment tool will helps HR teams understand business leaders’ expectations and set priorities based on business value, and provide a customized version of chart 1 above.

  • Performance Management

    Learn more about how HR can accomplish one of its most fundamental tasks more cost effectively.

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