Public sector spotlight: Sue Evans, president, PPMA

Written by
Mary Appleton

05 Dec 2016

05 Dec 2016 • by Mary Appleton

What does your role as PPMA president entail?

For me, the role of president is to represent and influence HR across the public sector. I have an opportunity to showcase the positive stuff going on, demonstrate good practice and bring on talent. My key role is to look towards the next generation and think about our legacy. 

It’s important to give the younger generation the space to do it their way, to challenge, to change, to come at things slightly differently; to take the best from the past but shape the future for themselves.

Over the coming weeks, we will be asking HR practitioners across the public sector about their role and the challenges they face. 

What are the challenges of the role?

The first is Brexit, which I hadn’t anticipated. We need to look at our workforce and see how we might be affected. Freedom of movement [across the European Union (EU) countries] meant we never had to do that before. 

There are people saying “great, we can get rid of all the laws imposed on us by the EU”, but a lot of the employment law we’ve taken is good for our workforce; for example, equalities legislation. We can’t have a nation turning on itself, we must work at valuing diversity, and acknowledge that we need migration to deliver some of our most important services, such as the NHS.

We also need to value senior talent and what it takes to lead public services or they’ll be picked off by the private sector, which pays more. We’re almost the victims of our own success, we’ve bred some really talented people. But the advantage we have, especially in local government, is a direct connection to the people in our communities. We don’t just make a difference, our work has an impact. I know that if people in my organisation are well managed and supported, their ability to deliver on the frontline is multiplied. 

I see HR’s role as a back-office role, my team and I are the ‘force multipliers’: we multiply the functionality of the frontline. I always emphasise to my teams that what they’re doing here makes a difference and has an impact. That’s what’s keep people in public service.

A third challenge is perma-austerity – but I feel that’s something we’ve had to learn to live with.

How is the change within the public sector affecting HR?

Right across HR in the public sector, we’ve moved beyond change, we’re in the midst of a wholesale transformation of public services, transforming the way people think about the public sector and their expectations, but also the way staff and employees think about public services. We’re too paternalistic, when in fact, people need to be seen as consumers who take responsibility for themselves. We need to help people and communities to help themselves.

The big challenge is to target resources according to the needs of individual organisations and the people within those communities – this requires staff to think differently, staff with different skills, behaviours and attitudes – and that is absolutely HR’s job at the moment. I’m doing a lot of work around culture and behaviour change, thinking about how we use the behavioural framework to drive this big transformation, as well reviewing our own services. Brexit means things are only going to get harder, but it’s HR’s time to shine: to put ourselves in pole position to help and support our organisations.

Over the coming weeks, we will be discussing HRs role in the public sector with practitioners across government services. 

Is public sector HR less progressive and innovative than HR in the private sector?

No. Because of the pressures we have been under, the public sector has had to drive huge change in recent years. My own service has become almost unrecognisable over the past seven years. We’ve gone from ‘scattergun HR’ where everyone had their own little HR department, to a centralised function with business partnering and a real focus on the organisation’s needs. We’re much more business-focused. The private sector is continually surprised by what the public sector can do. We’re leaner and sort of meaner, but certainly more business-like.

Does the public sector have the HR capabilities to carry it through austerity?

We’ve had to develop those skills quite quickly. We still need to work on our commercial skills and our approach to business; you can’t work in HR and say “I don’t do the money thing”, because you have to in HR these days, and you have to know the data, it’s all evidence-based. It’s important that our business-partnering skills are properly developed and that we’re developing strong leadership skills. Leadership in HR as important as the technical elements.  

What is the future for the public sector?

There will always be a need for a public sector, that’s what I always say in staff inductions. It will be leaner and more business-focused, and it’s not getting any easier with perma-austerity being a constant fixture, but we are valued by our local communities. 

A recent survey showed that people feel local government has the biggest impact on their lives … people do understand that we empty their bins, look after schools and so on. So my expectation is that the public sector will come out of this period of transformation leaner and more effective, but that isn’t going to happen without some pain.

How can talented HR professionals develop the skills they need to work in the public sector, when there is a limited budget for professional development?

It’s about recognising knowledge exchange, building a community of practice, giving people the opportunity to network. This is what the PPMA is all about: encouraging work experience, mentoring, shadowing. None of this costs a lot, it’s within our gift. I think it’s the duty of all senior people to mentor people. Allowing people to shadow, giving them responsibility, looking after their development and having career development conversations – it’s very important. There’s been a lot of talk recently about ‘tearing up’ the annual appraisal, which is all well and good but you have to have something else in its place; in this instance, regular, one-to-one support from managers for their teams. We’re moving in that direction, but slowly. 

In terms of skills, it’s nothing expensive or complex, it’s just about creating two-way learning opportunities. In every coaching relationship, I’ve learned as much from the person being coached as they have from me. Attracting younger people into apprenticeships must remain a priority for the public sector.


As part of our public sector spotlight, we will be showcasing additional commentary and insights from public sector HR leaders over the coming weeks.