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Journal ArticleDOI

Continuity and change: the role of the HR function in the modern public sector

01 May 2009-Human Resource Management International Digest (Emerald Group Publishing Limited)-Vol. 17, Iss: 3

AboutThis article is published in Human Resource Management International Digest.The article was published on 2009-05-01 and is currently open access. It has received 36 citation(s) till now. The article focuses on the topic(s): Public sector & New public management.

Topics: Public sector (75%), New public management (69%), Tertiary sector of the economy (68%), Business sector (67%), Economic sector (61%)

Summary (3 min read)

Introduction

  • The main purpose of these changes has been to increase the efficiency, cost-effectiveness and performance of public organisations, and has involved an increasing pressure from government on organisations to emulate private sector managerial practices, including performance management, customer orientation, and a heightened strategic focus (Boyne et al., 2004; Horton, 2003; Corby and Higham, 1996).
  • First, the authors review the relevant literature, focusing particularly on the contested meaning and enactment of strategic HR roles within a public sector context.
  • The authors then explain the methods used in their research study before presenting the findings from six case studies.

The Role of Human Resource Management in the Public Sector

  • In the UK, up until the Conservative reforms which began in the 1980s, public administration was closely associated with the Weberian centralised, hierarchical model of public services, where administrative rules were determined by central government and implemented by public organisations with relatively little scope for strategising at a local level (Bach and della Rocca, 2000).
  • Under NPM, this traditional approach came to be seen as something of a liability, undermining performance and demotivating individuals (Bach and della Rocca, 2000; Farnham and Horton, 1996).
  • In a move mirrored by governments around the developed world (Selden, 2005), what were perceived as ‘best practice’ concepts of people management derived from the private sector were held up as ideals to which the public sector should aspire (Harris, 2004; Horton, 2003; Morgan and Allington, 2002; Kessler et al., 2000; Bach and della Rocca, 2000).
  • Set within the broader context of public management reforms, this paper seeks to contribute to the ongoing debate over whether or not HR functions are performing what can be considered a strategic role.

Methods

  • This is separate from, but clearly related to, issues surrounding the content of HR strategy itself.
  • Given the lack of consensus in the literature as to whether or not HR can perform a strategic role in the public sector, and what, if any, that strategic role might look like, the study adopted an essentially exploratory approach, comparing and contrasting what were perceived as strategic versus administrative roles from the perspective of organisational actors.
  • This methodology was used effectively by Kessler et al (2000) to draw out differences and similarities across similarly constrained settings, and provides a means of establishing the extent to which organisational responses emerge due to a particular set of contingencies, or due to the exercise of strategic choice.
  • Data were collected primarily by interview, with a total of 134 interviews held across the six case studies.
  • In the research design, it would have been preferable to have had a high and low performing organisation in each pair to maximise contrast (Eisenhardt, 1989); instead, the authors have a high and medium performer in the hospital and local council pairs.

Hospitals

  • In Hospital A, there was evidence that administration continued to be important, as did the implementation of government initiatives such as Agenda for Change (the new NHS job grading and reward strategy) Improving Working Lives (the government’s work-life balance initiative), and ensuring compliance with the European Working Time Directive.
  • The degree of flexibility and autonomy and local fit is squeezed into a very narrow opportunity locally.
  • Providing an efficient service, dealing with unions, and updating policies were also described by HR managers as being central to HR’s contribution.
  • The majority of line managers did not regard HR as playing a strategic role: ‘they understand the business of HR, but they’re not always understanding of the business of the Trust’ (line manager).
  • ‘if the authors tried to invoke industry-type HR policy and staff management within the NHS, we’d have b****y anarchy on their hands, also known as One line manager said.

Councils

  • As was the case in the NHS Trusts, the HR function at Council A was heavily influenced by government policy, for instance, a current focus was on bringing in single employment status for manual and office workers, although one HR manager said ‘we’re very late with it’.
  • This reflects a perhaps more reactive approach compared with Hospital B in response to government imperatives.
  • Managing relations with unions was an important part of HR’s role, although previously relations had been somewhat stagnant with draft policies being blocked by the unions.
  • This was perceived positively by senior managers.
  • HR’s strategic role in the council was felt to be adversely affected by the decentralised structure of the department.

Police

  • Within the police, it was evident that many line and HR managers felt that: ‘HR remains very much a support function, which I think is appropriate’ (HR manager, central HR).
  • The feeling was that HR’s strategic involvement at a local level was circumscribed by the centre: ‘an awful lot is centrally driven’ (senior line manager).
  • Many of the staff were also unqualified, and therefore were largely performing a clerical role.
  • Many policies were regarded by police officers ‘as a nuisance’ and the imposition of targets such as individual performance development review (PDR) returns was seen as detracting from policing work particularly since, as the HR manager noted, ‘it’s very disjointed’ so, for instance, PDRs were a requirement, but were not actually used for any purpose.
  • Many line managers wanted HR to provide advice and process information in a timely fashion, but felt that the department was unable to deliver this due to pressures caused by the administrative workload.

Discussion

  • The findings from this study provide a fascinating and detailed insight into the role of the HR function in the public sector under the Blair administration.
  • The authors can also observe interesting differences within and across the three sectors that have been the focus of this study.
  • The authors data therefore show that HRM in the public sector has moved on from the stereotypical ‘traditional’ public sector model, but has not evolved into the exclusively unitarist and managerialist human resource management role envisaged by some.
  • This creates an interesting and complex role for the HR function at the nexus between professional imperatives, government agendas, the demands of senior and line managers and their own will to change the nature of their contribution (Harris, 2004; Truss et al., 2002).

Conclusions

  • This study has explored the question of whether the role of the HR function has become more strategic under the reform agenda.
  • There is clear evidence that the HR role is becoming increasingly strategic, but this role is not replacing traditional HR roles, rather, it is being grafted on, adding to the diversity, challenge and complexity of HR in the public sector.
  • From a policy perspective, it is clear that the government’s change agenda is taking effect.
  • There is also evidence that in some organisations, such as the police, the full potential of the function is being held back by cumbersome and time-consuming procedures.
  • Of course, this study has some limitations.

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Continuity and Change: The Role of the HR Function in the Modern Public
Sector

2
Continuity and Change: The Role of the HR Function in the Modern Public
Sector
ABSTRACT
As the public sector has modernised and sought to become more efficient
and cost-effective, the effective and strategic management of people has
received increasing prominence and there have been calls for the HR
function to play a more strategic role. However, not much is known
about whether the role of the HR function has changed substantively. In
this paper, we present empirical evidence from six matched-pair public
sector organisations in the UK to assess whether HR functional roles have
changed, as envisaged, into a model more akin to the private sector.
The findings highlight the complex and often contradictory nature of HR
functional roles, and suggest that new and more strategic roles have not
replaced traditional approaches but, rather, have been grafted on, giving
rise to a variety of hybrid HR forms.

3
Continuity and Change: The Role of the HR Function in the Modern Public
Sector
Introduction
The reform of structures, systems and processes within public services over the past
20 years has been well documented at an international level (Massey and Pyper,
2005; Boyne et al., 2004; Skalen, 2004; Harel and Tzafrir, 2002; Kessler et al., 2000;
Bach and della Rocca, 2000; Barnett et al., 1996). The main purpose of these
changes has been to increase the efficiency, cost-effectiveness and performance of
public organisations, and has involved an increasing pressure from government on
organisations to emulate private sector managerial practices, including performance
management, customer orientation, and a heightened strategic focus (Boyne et al.,
2004; Horton, 2003; Corby and Higham, 1996).
Since salaries can amount to up to 80% of organisational costs in the public sector,
the domain of human resource management (HRM) has received renewed attention
under these reforms (Horton, 2003; Barnett et al., 1996; Corby and Higham, 1996).
Potentially, it has been argued, improved human resource management could
facilitate the recruitment and retention of valued staff, enhance organisational cost-
effectiveness and serve to promulgate a performance-driven culture through the
adoption of a more strategic HR role (Bach and della Rocca, 2000; Jaconelli and
Sheffield, 2000; Ferlie et al., 1996).
However, despite the acknowledged significance of HRM under New Public
Management (NPM), evidence as to whether or not there have been any substantive
changes in the role of the HR function remains both partial and inconclusive (Selden,
2005; Lupton and Shaw, 2001; Boyne et al., 1999). This paper contributes to this
important debate over the reality of change in the public sector, and seeks to answer
the question: is there any evidence that the role of the HR function in the public
sector has become more strategic?
First, we review the relevant literature, focusing particularly on the contested
meaning and enactment of strategic HR roles within a public sector context. We
then explain the methods used in our research study before presenting the findings
from six case studies. In the discussion and conclusions, we highlight the complex

4
and often contradictory nature of HRM approaches in the six organisations and argue
that new, context-specific ‘hybrid’ HR roles are emerging.
The Role of Human Resource Management in the Public Sector
In the UK, up until the Conservative reforms which began in the 1980s, public
administration was closely associated with the Weberian centralised, hierarchical
model of public services, where administrative rules were determined by central
government and implemented by public organisations with relatively little scope for
strategising at a local level (Bach and della Rocca, 2000). Notions of paternalism,
standardisation, job security, collectivism, developmental-humanism and the
aspiration to be a ‘model employer’ were the values underpinning the management
of people (Lupton and Shaw, 2001; Jaconelli and Sheffield, 2000; Boyne et al., 1999;
Farnham and Horton, 1996).
Under NPM, this traditional approach came to be seen as something of a liability,
undermining performance and demotivating individuals (Bach and della Rocca, 2000;
Farnham and Horton, 1996). In a move mirrored by governments around the
developed world (Selden, 2005), what were perceived as ‘best practice’ concepts of
people management derived from the private sector were held up as ideals to which
the public sector should aspire (Harris, 2004; Horton, 2003; Morgan and Allington,
2002; Kessler et al., 2000; Bach and della Rocca, 2000). Some of the core
components of this imported model were performance-based rewards for staff,
reducing the costs of employment, empowering organisations to take strategic
decisions in the HRM field, increased flexibility in order to respond to customer
demands, increased individualisation of the employment relationship, and
decentralisation (Skalen, 2004; Horton, 2003; Farnham et al., 2003). Critical to this
was the notion that HR functions could move away from their traditional
administrative roles and become more strategically involved in their organisations
than had hitherto been the case (Bach and della Rocca, 2000; Jaconelli and
Sheffield, 2000).
However, this raises two important issues. First, what precisely is meant by a
‘strategic’ role for the HR function and, second, how can it be applied in a public
sector context?

5
The extensive conceptual literature on HR functional roles in the private sector has
generally distinguished between roles that are largely concerned with administration,
and those that are strategic in some way (Marchington and Wilkinson, 2005;
Caldwell, 2003; Ulrich, 1998). Strategic roles have generally been viewed as focused
on activities that will have long-term implications, such as the development of
integrated HR strategies, involvement in organisational strategic decision-making,
and managing organisational change. Administrative roles, on the other hand, are
regarded as routine, reactive and tactical tasks associated with the operationalisation
of HR policies, and employee-facing roles such as welfare and industrial relations
(Marchington and Wilkinson, 2005; Boxall and Purcell, 2003; Caldwell, 2003; Truss et
al., 2002; Ulrich, 1998).
The consensus within the prescriptive literature is that a move towards a more
strategic role is desirable, if not essential, to the future of the HR function (Jamrog
and Overholt, 2004; Ulrich and Beatty, 2001), whilst the conclusion within the
empirical literature is that the role enacted by HR functions in most organisations in
fact remains primarily administrative or reactive (Selden, 2005; Guest and King,
2004; Wright et al., 2004; Caldwell, 2003; Lawler and Mohrman, 2003; Truss et al.,
2002).
The reality is that the HR function in almost all organisations is required to play
multiple and, often, conflicting roles, torn between the competing demands of
employees, employers and professional norms (Caldwell, 2003; Legge, 1995;
Kamoche, 1994). There is no evidence that one clear ‘model’ of strategic HR
function roles exists within the private sector either conceptually or empirically that
could be adopted by the public sector (Harris, 2004; Truss et al., 2002). Harris
(2002) questions whether private sector HR roles can be held up as a model to which
the public sector should aspire, even supposing one single model existed.
Substantial contextual differences have been highlighted between the public and
private sectors that impact significantly on the role that the HR function may play.
With a greater degree of openness to their environment, coupled with higher levels
of public scrutiny and monitoring, public organisations have a much broader range of
stakeholders than their private sector counterparts (Ring and Perry, 1985). These

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Frequently Asked Questions (2)
Q1. What are the contributions in this paper?

In this paper, the authors present empirical evidence from six matched-pair public sector organisations in the UK to assess whether HR functional roles have changed, as envisaged, into a model more akin to the private sector. The findings highlight the complex and often contradictory nature of HR functional roles, and suggest that new and more strategic roles have not replaced traditional approaches but, rather, have been grafted on, giving rise to a variety of hybrid HR forms. 

Their findings show that change within public sector HRM has progressed much further than earlier research would suggest. However, there is also evidence that in some organisations, such as the police, the full potential of the function is being held back by cumbersome and time-consuming procedures. There is therefore a need to investigate new ways of streamlining and reducing the burden of process, as well as investigating in more detail how tensions and conflicts within the role can be addressed.