The first set of steps required to transform a public-sector HR organization concern operational efficiency and the creation of strong connections with internal stakeholders, such as top management, rank-and-file workers, and unions. The combination and prioritization of these measures, like all the others discussed in this report, will differ based on the specific challenges and conditions of the particular country and government.
1. Improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the HR function. Leaders who want to truly improve their HR organizations should first ask themselves these questions:
- Who is doing what and at what level within the HR function, both locally and centrally?
- How much value is each core task or activity generating? Is the HR department focused on those activities that add the most value?
- Is HR properly using IT tools? For example, does it automate nonvalue-adding tasks, such as tracking employee holidays? And do these tools provide the data that operational managers really need?
- Are processes for connecting HR with other departments efficient and effective?
- Is the HR department attracting the best people? Is it recognized as a place to grow professionally?
In France, a major public agency took aggressive action to boost the efficiency of its HR functions. A detailed review of operations found that many employees—both at headquarters and in the local offices—were performing mainly low-value administrative work, such as reporting basic HR data, tracking absenteeism, and planning training sessions. In some cases, these tasks were even being done twice. HR teams were understaffed at the local level, and higher-value activities, such as leading IT projects or developing a strategic vision for HR, lacked resources. Using the lean approach, the agency conducted workshops tasked with redesigning processes and reorganizing functions, an effort that ultimately made it possible to leave certain positions unfilled after workers retired.
2. Build strong connections with internal stakeholders and management. Public-sector HR organizations need to cultivate strong relationships with internal groups, including top managers and staff running operations on the ground. One way to do this is to provide a regular flow of HR data and indicators regarding, for example, retirement projections, absenteeism, or needed skills by site. Such information can be invaluable to operational managers, but generating it requires the ability to identify useful sets of data and make them accessible with proven IT tools.
At the same time, HR leaders need to establish strong channels of communication with agency leaders. This ensures that the strategy of the HR organization and that of the overall government agency are aligned. It also gives HR a clear understanding of the issues that managers face in the field, which can lead to the development of customized solutions such as new training sessions.
HR leaders at the US Environmental Protection Agency have strengthened their ties with agency managers through tools such as the Skills Marketplace initiative, aimed at improving how staff are deployed across the organization. Designed by a joint team of HR managers and EPA staff in charge of programs and operations, the program was rolled out in 2014 after a two-year pilot. Participating employees can apply for short-term, mission-critical assignments and projects posted on an internal portal. A LinkedIn-style profile of their work on previous assignments forms the basis of their application. Those selected remain in their current role, devoting no more than 20% of their time to the new assignment. The objective is to direct time and talent toward critical projects while giving employees additional development opportunities. The program has received strong praise from frontline employees seeking to expand their professional skills and grow within the EPA.
3. Proactively develop relationships with unions. Given the high rate of union membership in the public sector—which exceeds that in the private sector of many countries, including the US, France, Poland, and Sweden—it is vitally important to involve unions in any major organizational change.
A strong partnership with unions can increase the odds of a successful transformation in several ways. First, during the design phase of the program, unions can provide insights on the potential obstacles to change based on their knowledge of the realities facing workers in the field. Second, if union leaders are involved in program design, they are more likely to become effective promoters and facilitators of change. And third, union leaders can provide valuable information during implementation about where problems are cropping up and how to address them.