Public sector talent management missing the mark

Jul 21 2005 by Print This Article

Attracting and retaining talent is a major challenge for all organisations, so why do some of those in the public sector seem intent on making it even harder?

Some of the largest organisations, such as the NHS and local governments, are also major employers, yet in terms of attracting fresh talent and managing their existing talent, they often fail to do themselves justice.

"Look at the NHS recruitment campaigns, which sell the corporate NHS brand but fail to differentiate one Primary Care Trust (PCT) from another," says Julia Oliver, head of practice for public services at recruitment firm Bernard Hodes

"There will be very clear differences in their cultures, which need to be communicated to job seekers."

Another example of public sector recruitment advertising missing the mark is 'Could You? ', a national advertising campaign run by the police, which failed to say anything about individual constabularies.

The timing of the campaign also lacked co-ordination. In 2000, Hertfordshire Constabulary faced the challenge of recruiting 400 new officers by 2003, but the 'Could You?' campaign meant that it was left competing for new recruits with all its neighbouring forces.

Against its target of 25 new officers every five weeks, Hertfordshire's actual intake was just nine, a rate at which the Constabulary would have taken until 2007 to reach its target.

With this in mind Hertfordshire launched a more localised campaign to target passive job seekers as well as people who may never have considered a career as a police officer.

Advertising took place using non-conventional media such as train station posters, busses, door drops and football stadiums. And in contrast to the somewhat forbidding message of 'Could You', the local campaign highlighted the fact that the culture at Herts Police was friendlier, more approachable and less formal than in larger forces.

Within six months, applications had risen from 50 per month to an average of 125 per month; an increase of 150 per cent.

In public sector bodies obsessed with targets, the culture often fails to acknowledge and reward good performance

But attracting talent is only part of the talent management process - keeping it is another. And in public sector bodies obsessed with targets, the culture often fails to acknowledge and reward good performance and can result in talent being poorly managed or even lost.

One former NHS employee, manager of a busy pathology department who had devoted 28 years - the whole of his working life - to a career which involved nurturing new talent, recently resigned because of that very conflict of interests.

"On the one hand there is a lot of talk about investing in people and developing their potential, but on the other there is a huge and constant pressure to save money," he said.

"It is hard to reconcile that level of budget cutting with managing talent within the workplace."

Yet some other public sector organisations have worked hard to make themselves appear to be attractive places to work.

A new survey into employee attitudes from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), found that motivation among public sector employees has been steadily increasing over the years and employees are now eight per cent more motivated than private sector staff.

Employee Relations adviser Mike Emmott says, "This maybe a reflection of the fact more funding is going into public services and better line management.

"A good line manager can help motivate staff, reduce absence, improve productivity and retain staff. It makes good business sense to ensure line managers are trained to motivate, communicate and engage with employees."

Public-sector employees have also enjoyed larger-than average salary increases over the past four years and enjoy pension rights that are the envy of most private-sector employees.

This all sounds very positive, but in terms of talent management, some organisations are still missing the point.

Few have the career scope of, say, local government, with a vast range of services - from social care and education to entertainment and the environment - to attract good candidates. Yet career progression here can be hit and miss, or worse, non existant.

Julia Oliver says: "Some public sector employers, including the NHS, have some really innovative ideas on leadership, but they need to broaden their concept of talent.

"They could be more proactive, for example by adopting a talent scout ethic. It happens in private sector recruitment, so why not in the public sector?"

She also believes that a greater transfer of cross sector skills between private and public sector bodies would enhance their talent management capabilities.

She adds, "It is about sharing best practice, which is good for the organisation, and the talent within it."