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How HR has helped the DWP face unprecedented change

25 Jan 2018 By Robert Jeffery

A focus on disadvantaged young people and nudge thinking have transformed one of the government’s flagship departments

The first things that strike you about the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) are the numbers. With responsibility for administering the UK’s welfare system – including Universal Credit – and driving policy around employability and pensions, you’d expect an organisation with a certain scale.

But as Debbie Alder, the DWP’s HR director general, runs through the number of employees (85,000, including around 65,000 in the Jobcentres and service centres network), applicants (125,000 annually, of which around 6,500 were hired last year) and customers (22 million), they are eye-opening for a Whitehall outsider.

As Alder puts it: “We have leaders who are responsible for between 50 and 150 employees. In most businesses, that would be a senior role. For us, that’s a leader in the middle of our organisation.”

That internal scale is matched by external impact. “What we do matters,” says Alder, pointing to the way the department’s interventions change lives, from bringing a disabled person into work for the first time to giving a benefits claimant hope of a meaningful future job. “We face constraints around funding and unprecedented change in the way we operate. That means we need to constantly invest in ourselves to be an extraordinary employer and an extraordinary HR department.”

The latest figures the DWP is keen to shout about relate to Movement to Work, the employer-led charity that aims to give unemployed 18 to 24-year-olds – particularly the hardest to reach individuals who are outside mainstream education and training – high-quality work experience and vocational training opportunities. It was co-founded in 2013 by Marks & Spencer, Accenture, the Civil Service and a handful of other employers concerned about youth unemployment, and has since grown to encompass more than 250 employers, making it the largest of its kind in the UK, with backing from the government, the CBI and the TUC. 

But the DWP is also walking the walk; the charity has secured more than 64,000 placements in its first three years, with 18,000 of those taking place within the Civil Service and the majority under Alder’s remit. “We track people after their placement and [across Movement to Work as a whole] 50 per cent go into employment and others go into education,” she says. “Those are real outcomes. Time and time again we hear about the confidence it gives people, and how it breaks the cycle of not having the experience or skills to get an opportunity.”

A placement means young people have more to talk about in an interview, and are more likely to get into a traineeship or apprenticeship, she adds. But it also brings employers into contact with a group that might lack academic qualifications but are comfortable with new digital channels: “It’s an untapped talent pool that is missed by some of our more tried and tested routes of recruitment.”

That the DWP is now interacting directly with such individuals is indicative of the shift in its remit – and how the introduction of Universal Credit has increased its public visibility over the past year. Alder talks about the operational changes this demands – a new contract agreed with unions means staff can be required to work more flexibly, including on Saturdays – and how the consolidation of the department’s physical footprint has altered where and how employees work. 

HR has invested in leadership training to prepare for ongoing change. But equally significantly, the DWP has had to recruit people with the commercial and digital skills needed to deliver a new range of public services. That puts it in direct competition with the private sector for scarce talent. Is that problematic when, aside from the usual difficulties of public sector recruitment, the department has faced historic employer brand challenges relating to the treatment of disability benefit claimants? Alder insists not: “People see day in, day out that what they do makes a difference. That’s not a bad employee value proposition. People in the digital sector in particular are joining us because of the quality of the work. 

“You are part of something bigger, and the intellectual stretch and challenge is on a different scale. When you look at the data points we hold and what we’re trying to do with them – in this competitive digital market, people want to come and work for us because they want that experience.”

HR has embraced video interviews and strengths-based questioning, which Alder says has improved diversity as well as “speed from street to seat”, while leaders have become more visible on social media in an attempt to showcase the department’s expertise. But reward also needed a rethink: “We’re never going to be a leader on pay, but we have done a lot of work on getting closer to the median of the digital market.”

The way HR operates has changed too. In her four years at the helm – after 21 years in the private sector, followed by roles at Defra and the Ministry of Justice, among others – Alder has emphasised OD skills, both as a standalone discipline and as a way for HR business partners to facilitate change.

More recently, the team has embraced data and behavioural science: “The language we use and the way we position what we do as an HR team all pulls in science.” That has meant bringing in talent, but there are also “people who did degrees in analytics and statistics but came into HR five or 10 years ago” who are becoming part of multi-disciplinary teams blending data insight with “nudge theory”. That goes hand in hand, she adds, with increasing HR’s professionalism, and she wants the majority of the HR department to be CIPD-qualified and dedicated to the discipline, while allowing for non-HR talent to shine too. 

“When you’re delivering so much cyclical activity, and hiring thousands of people a year, there’s so much work that needs to happen just to stand still,” says Alder. Those numbers, it seems, will remain significant. 

The CIPD works with the DWP and Jobcentres nationwide to support jobseekers through the Steps Ahead Mentoring programme. Click here to find out more or to get involved

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