Karen Grave: ‘I hope the worst of austerity is over’

24 May 2018 By Robert Jeffery

Apprenticeships and gender pay are the next battles HR must fight, says the president of the Public Services People Managers Association

On the face of it, Karen Grave, incoming president of the Public Services People Managers Association (PPMA), arrives at a time when the worst of the sector’s budget cuts are reportedly over, with a pay settlement offering one million local government employees a 2 per cent rise over two years.

But the deep cuts caused by austerity and the challenges of transforming the HR function for the digital age are more than enough to keep the HR leader – who has held a range of senior roles, most recently at Gloucestershire County Council – fully occupied, as she explains to People Management.

What did you make of the findings from gender pay reporting within the public sector?

I absolutely welcome the intent to understand the disparity between pay among men and women. I wish it hadn’t been necessary to go down the legislative route, but we’ve seen over several years that it’s the only way it was going to be addressed. I’m not surprised by the disparity [on show in the public sector]. The data in some London boroughs, for example, is awful, while other places favour women. But there is a lot going on here and we should be very careful about the conclusions we draw. 

There will be some disparity between pay based on the length of time served, and where there’s a tension between vacancies coming up – for example, because someone is retiring after 30 years benefiting from traditional incremental pay methods – and the constrained budgets to bring someone new in. In those circumstances, you reduce the starting salary for the next person coming in. I’m not justifying it, but some of the decisions that are made about pay are not as crude as ‘am I paying a woman less and am I doing that deliberately?’

We have to do more work, based on the data we’ve got, to understand if there is a systemic issue where public sector workforces value women less, or if it is an organisational issue; for example, we typically have many more women working part time in caring professions where salaries aren’t always as good as we would hope. Where there are structural imbalances in organisations we have to look at whether there are ways we can rectify them, because what I really want us to avoid is creating barriers and divisions between communities in the workforce. 

Do you think the worst of austerity is over?

I certainly hope so. But, particularly in local government, I have a real concern that while there is additional funding for health and social care – and while the pressure on education and children’s services is being recognised – it’s not yet clear whether new resources are just plugging a gap or providing a basis for stabilisation and future development.

While pay isn’t everything, breaching the [public sector] pay cap had a huge psychological benefit and that is very encouraging. But I’d like to see a reward proposition that isn’t just based on pay. Progressive employers have been looking for a long time at total reward and at how employee engagement and aspects of health and wellbeing work with pay to give a holistic approach that delivers more engaged and productive workplaces.

Does HR have the capacity and capability to deliver the change public sector employers require?

Capacity concerns me, but I think capability worries me more. I’m confident that we are getting people through [in HR] who are more capable businesspeople. I’m not as confident that the delivery mechanisms are always as forward-thinking as they might be. I’m not sure we use technology enough, for example, or things like masterclasses and action learning.

My biggest concern is people having sufficient time for their own development. I was struck when Leeds City Council chief executive Tom Riordan described his HR team as being the Praetorian Guard of leadership and values at the organisation. That’s music to my ears. That’s what all our HR leaders now and in the future should be aspiring to. But you can only do that if you take your own development seriously.

Do you welcome the use of big data in HR, and is it properly understood?

A lot of the HR community is still quite scared about data. I’m a firm believer in big data, but it’s only useful if you have the confidence and experience to find insight in the data and use it to make a case or a recommendation about a decision. 

HR and L&D are no more immune than other professions to [adopting] approaches that we think work but don’t test through evidence. It’s important to remember to continually challenge ideas and not be afraid to ditch things if you have evidence that they’re not working. There is no one answer to every problem, but there is a set of tools we can work with. 

Is the apprenticeship levy working for the public sector?

I haven’t heard anyone in the sector say an increased focus on apprentices is a bad thing. Our initial understanding was that it would help us get more young people into the sector. What has mitigated against that is the actual mechanics of the process. I don’t agree with the 2.3 per cent [requirement for apprentices in the workforce] being imposed on the public sector – it’s too swingeing. 

The reality is for organisations that are putting money into the levy, and for various reasons cannot find the range of people to get their levy back, it’s a tax. And that’s ludicrous. I don’t want to see the government change the emphasis on apprenticeships, but we have to look at it honestly and, if that means we have to change the focus on targets to deliver better, more sustainable apprenticeships in the long run, then we should.

What gives you cause for optimism?

I’m encouraged by the positivity I see out there, and the resilience, passion and commitment of our people who are often working in very tough circumstances. HR and OD colleagues are becoming much more integral in broader workforce transformation programmes. We’ve got some incredibly talented people and we’re getting more confident.

While there are certainly challenges, and a lot of our colleagues are working harder rather than smarter, there are green shoots in terms of being able to explore completely different solutions. We’ve got some very interesting learning about operating models. We’ve gone through the automatic outsourcing debate and we’re now starting to see a lot of services coming back in-house – but they’re coming back in on the basis that HR and OD professionals are much more commercially oriented and are able to offer both impact and value to their organisation. That starts to turn us into a more exciting and future-oriented profession.

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