27th November 2012
Nita Clarke examines how during these troubled times for the public sector, employee engagement can play a vital role in minimising the impact of the cuts and helping public services adapt.
Public services in Britain are under pressure like never before. Unprecedented levels of austerity are combining with increasing demand and the expectation of more effective and personalised services to produce the perfect storm.
It is clear that a ‘more of the same’ approach will not suffice; public services are going to have to deliver more for less. This will only happen if we can harness the power of employee engagement.
First, managing this period of austerity and adapting to the new fiscal reality will require profound and challenging organisational change.
Public sector workers are facing pension changes, pay restraint and increased job insecurity. On top of this, they are having to deal with wholesale service transformation. In this context, employee engagement is more important than ever.
The public sector has traditionally been poor at change management. Reforms have too often been characterised by the imposition of change on the workforce, rather than working with it. The Health and Social Care Act was a case in point.
It is important during periods of change to focus on the enablers of engagement. There must be strong a strong strategic narrative which makes the case for change. Actions must reflect this in order to build integrity and trust. Managers have a vital role to play in consulting employees, addressing concerns and providing reassurance. And employees must be supported to have a voice, both individually and collectively through unions, in order to express their views and influence decisions-making.
But in addition to managing change, employee engagement can drive productivity and innovation in the public sector. The Macleod report shows how employee engagement in public services delivers trust and public confidence as an end result, in the same way it as it does profit in the private sector. ORC have found that councils with good employee engagement have higher resident satisfaction and an IDeA study showed that engagement and leadership are stronger influences on performance than levels of pay.
An engaged workforce is a more efficient workforce with lower levels of sickness and staff turnover. An engaged workforce is also a more effective workforce; engaged workers better understand the needs of service users and are better equipped to meet them.
Finally, delivering more for less in the public sector will require increased innovation. The knowledge and expertise of public sector employees is a significant yet under-utilised asset. Employee engagement is key to unlocking this potential, enabling us to design public services that better meet the needs of citizens at a lower cost. The impact of engagement on innovation can be seen in our research for the Royal College of Midwives.
So what can we do about it? We have recently launched the Engage For Success movement. Building on the Macleod report I co-authored, it provides a forum for shared learning and sets out how leaders and managers from all sectors and organisations can support employee engagement. The upcoming CIPD/PPMA report ‘Leading culture change: Employee engagement and public service transformation’ will be a valuable addition to the learning in this area.
Far from being a ‘nice to have’ for good times only, engagement is vital now more than ever. Through supporting the process of transformation and driving productivity and innovation, engagement can help meet the challenge we face. It is good for employees, good for organisations and good for the country.
This article will be published in the PPMA supplement of the MJ on 29th November.