Implementing the best people strategy is tricky at the best of times, let alone in the current climate. But there are opportunities for those willing to plan ahead

The white paper Equity and excellence: Liberating the NHS demonstrates that the government has an ambitious and detailed vision for the NHS which will necessitate radical change in the way health organisations work. The new more localised and dispersed models for service delivery challenge both organisational design and people management.

Now that the future landscape is clear and the scale of the financial challenge is evident there is obviously need for immediate action but now is also the time for some calm reflection and careful planning. One thing that many public and private sector organisations know to their cost is that changing management without careful thought about the future can result in both skills loss and the retention of the wrong skills. For organisations whose future role has not yet been clearly defined the challenge is even greater.

The diversity and complexity of the public sector presents both opportunities and difficulties in situations where major change and transition is being contemplated. Difficulties because the range of services and professional specialisms makes workforce planning difficult; opportunities because the right strategic approach can result in people being reskilled and redeployed and in resources being shared effectively.

Health organisations of the future will look and feel very different and so skills and behaviours need to be different too. If your people strategy and HR policies are forward thinking, solution focused and flexible you will be able to get the best out of existing staff, work out ways to retain or attract key people, to introduce new working methodologies and to help both individuals and the organisation move forward effectively. To face the challenges of the next few years you need to identify your best people, work out how to keep them and get the best out of them.


You will already be thinking about action to reduce resources because of the immediate financial need. The following pointers will help you get the medium and longer term right:

  • How well have future needs been defined in terms of skills and behaviours?
  • Do managers understand the capabilities and potential of their staff in the context of these new expectations? And how effectively are they managing their existing resource - attendance, performance, motivation?
  • Does each service have a detailed workforce or resourcing plan? Are these reviewed and coordinated to check one isn’t predicting a drop in demand for skills at the same time another is predicting a shortage?
  • Are you clear about current and likely future need for agency and other short-contract staff?
  • Do you know who are your most talented staff and how to keep them?
  • Are plans in place to offer reskilling for staff likely to face redundancy? Are other options being explored?
  • How do your actions as an employer sit alongside any local strategic partnership or other commitment to reducing worklessness in the local community? Will partnering with another public sector employer help?
  • Will the transition period or new organisational models require different expertise, different work patterns?

Understand these issues well and you can hold on to your top talent while offering support and development to others.

Identifying people with the skills and abilities you will need can be a real challenge. It won’t always be the people you think it might be. Existing stars may not be able to adjust, other people may come into their own.

One of the approaches which we have found to be useful in supporting NHS and other public sector organisations through such change is to use bespoke assessment centres. This allows organisations to assess the abilities and competencies of key staff through an independent and expert process, creating fairness and objectivity at a difficult time.

Putting effective support processes in place is another aspect of the people management responses needed now. Getting a new job in the current climate will be tough and staff will need help to think about the skills they have and the options available to them. In many cases it may be some time since they applied for a job.

It’s important to think about the needs of those who are staying as well as those who may be going. “Survivorship” can be a problem for staff during major change, especially where the long term future is uncertain.

Make sure that line managers and HR specialists have the skills, capacity and knowledge to handle what will be expected of them. Taking an organisational development and strategic HR approach to resizing and reshaping will help deliver better outcomes for all. l

Rita Sammons is director of NHS Flexible Resourcing.