Squaring the circle: Workforce planning amidst shifting government priorities
How do you reduce the size of your workforce and still carry out your agency’s functions effectively, hold on to your best talent, and keep up staff morale, all in the context of shifting government priorities, the details of which aren’t yet all clear? Victoria Bowes, a Director at MartinJenkins, shares some insights that could help public-sector leaders square this circle.
The publication of the Coalition Agreements last month provided some more clarity about the scale of cost savings to be made in the public sector, which will focus on back-office functions. The Government says it intends to monitor numbers against 2017 staffing levels – for a sense of scale, that’s a gap of nearly 24%.
In the year to June 2023 the workforce across all departments grew by an average of 4.5%. And it wasn’t just the size of the workforce that grew: salaries grew with a median increase of 7.2%, the highest annual increase since 2009, and roughly double the annual increase in most of the intervening years.
Moving now from workforce increases to reductions is going to require a significant shift in mindset for our public sector, a shift made harder by the present uncertainty around new priorities.
KEEPING THE SHOW ON THE ROAD WHEN THE DESTINATION ISN’T YET CLEAR
Some government agencies have already started reprioritising, starting with less painful options, to get maximum benefit with minimal disruption. A common mechanism is to pause on filling vacancies. But given the scale of the cuts that seem to be looming, attrition is only going to take you so far, not all the way.
Even if workforce reductions could be achieved through natural attrition and not filling vacancies, most staff will still find it extremely unsettling to be working in an environment where that’s the stated aim. It’s difficult to underestimate the effect of an unstable environment on people’s motivation, productivity, and focus.
Good communication, as ever, will be important here – so share what you can, often. Even if all you can say is you don’t know anything new, that will counterbalance the inevitable rumour mill that will already be cranking into action.
However, careful and focussed workforce planning will be one of your best weapons for ensuring your organisation can continue to do its work successfully.
WHY WORKFORCE PLANNING IS YOUR SECRET WEAPON
A smaller workforce means you need a tight match between the capabilities your organisation requires to do its work and the skills it has available. But in our experience, we’ve noticed several critical things that organisations sometimes overlook in this area.
Your strategy and your operational response need to be in lockstep
In the face of pressure to save money, it can be really tempting to leap straight into action. This may well be appropriate if you already know there are reductions that make sense and that you can act on. But this is also a real opportunity to have crucial discussions about strategic choices, which then become the basis on which you decide where to direct your resources in the future.
Skip that step and you risk not having the resources you need in the right place to do your highest-priority work.
During the COVID lockdowns we saw some private-sector companies think very hard about strategic priorities in order to successfully manage the new economic risks. By contrast, the government sector was partly insulated from this pressure because of the level of fiscal stimulus the government was injecting.
Deciding on trade-offs will be critical. If you try to do a little bit of everything, you’ll most likely end up achieving nothing, and so working out what to start, stop, and continue will be essential.
The right answer for right now might not be the enduring solution
It’s important to think of what skills you’ll need for the transition as well as for the longer term. In the short term you might need to inject, or re-direct, some resources to get things set up in the right way, whereas in the medium and longer term you might need more front-line skills so you can continue to do high-quality business as usual.
For example, there may be a lot of value in getting very clear up-front on the ways of working, structures, and processes you’ll need in order to achieve the same – or more – with a smaller workforce. Investing in that kind of clarity at the outset will undoubtedly pay off when you save time later through all your people being clear about how things fit together.
Develop a realistic plan for when and how you’ll make changes
This can be especially difficult in the face of an ambitious government agenda and pressure to move swiftly. But being realistic about the steps needed to make workforce changes, and about the time this will take, will help you manage expectations.
This is particularly important if you’re reducing the number of roles in your organisation, as you’ll need to do this with sensitivity, impartiality, and transparency.
Be prepared to be flexible in your approach to getting the skills you need
You’ll inevitably have a gap between the capabilities you need and what you have, but you’ll have options for how to fill the gap.
You can invest in training to build additional skills in your existing workforce, or you can buy the skills you need through recruitment. You can also use temporary or fixed-term resources to borrow the necessary capabilities. You might also just have to make do with what you have and accept some inefficiencies, matching skills to needs as best you can.
Your plan might include a combination of those approaches. For instance, you might re-deploy people through secondments while you build skills for the longer term. Or you might secure temporary support to get a new work programme off the ground while you run a process to get the right skills in the right place.
The right answer will depend on various factors, including how quickly you need access to particular skills, how specialised the skills might be, and whether you’ll need them permanently or just temporarily.
In the current context, make sure too that you understand where your current workforce may have transferable skills and can be adapted to changed priorities.
Coordinate your approach across your whole organisation
Finally, it’s vital for your workforce planning to have good coordination across your agency, rather than a multitude of disconnected change processes happening in parallel. This will ensure you know where you can best redeploy people in the same organisation and hold on to your best talent.
Good coordination will also help you avoid inadvertent impacts. For example, reducing the size of your People and Capability function could well put more pressure on people leaders. If your managers are picking up tasks that used to be done by a central team, they’ll have less capacity to manage work programmes and support their staff. Sooner or later something will have to give.
MAKING IT THROUGH TO THE OTHER SIDE WITH A WELL-FUNCTIONING WORKFORCE
Workforce reductions, in the current fiscal context, are inevitable. Delaying them may be more cruel than kind. Delay also risks having your most talented people leave before the inevitable changes begin, to bolster their prospects.
It’s better to start your workforce planning early. Getting clear on what you need to achieve and on what it will take to do that is essential for making sure you have a functioning workforce when you get through to the other side.
The choices aren’t easy. For example, while it can be tempting to share the pain evenly across the organisation, what might feel fair might not be wise when it comes to carrying out your agency’s functions effectively in the future. What could be even harder is recognising that you may need to simultaneously downsize in one area and build in another area, with different skills.
These are hard decisions that will require joined-up deliberation and careful planning.