In attempting to become a top employer, clear goal setting and accountability will become key to Bucks County Council’s strategy, says Vicki Taylor
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Change is afoot at Buckinghamshire County Council. The arrival of Gillian Hibberd, corporate director, organisational development and HR, from neighbouring Hertfordshire County Council in November 2005, signalled a makeover for Buckinghamshire’s HR department and strategies.
In just over a year in the role, Hibberd has restructured the HR service and, last September, launched a new people strategy, which aims to get the council’s 14,000 employees more engaged with the organisation. One of its aims, to be a top employer, has put its perks plan under the spotlight.
The strategy’s other objectives, which form the HR department’s framework for the next five years, include bringing in additional talent, developing existing employees, championing diversity, and transforming the organisation through its people.
The council plans to measure the strategy’s impact by looking at factors such as turnover, its spend on temporary and agency staff, absence levels, and the number of staff who say they are happy at work.
Despite being only a few months old, Hibberd believes the people strategy is already having an effect. Although it is not the only cause, it is thought to have contributed to reduced turnover rates, which have fallen from around 18% in 2005 to 12% in 2006.
Buckinghamshire is currently a county council, which operates in a two-tier environment with four district councils within its boundaries. Its services include the delivery of education, social care, transportation, libraries, trading standards and community-based services such as youth work and adult learning.
The four district councils in the county – Aylesbury Vale, Wycombe, Chiltern and South Bucks – run services such as town planning, environmental health, housing benefits and refuse collection. However, Buckinghamshire County Council’s status could be set to change, following the publication of Strong and prosperous communities – the local government white paper published in October last year, which asked authorities to consider whether they want to put in a bid for unitary or enhanced two-tier status.
"At the moment, we are a two-tier council, so we have the County Council and all the districts below us. Unitary councils don’t have that difference, [they are] just one council. If that happened in Buckinghamshire, a new authority will be created, and Buckinghamshire County Council and the four districts will be disbanded and a new authority will be created," explains Hibberd.
A top-level evaluation has shown that becoming a unitary authority would save at least £10m per year just by reducing the management headcount. "At the moment, we have five chief executives, one here and one in each of the four [district councils], so we would have one chief executive and that carries on all the way down the structure. That is going to be a massive challenge if that happens," says Hibberd.
If a new authority were created it would become operational in April 2009.
Right now, however, Hibberd is concentrating on the council’s people strategy, which includes revamping and re-communicating its benefits package."[The benefits] have been well developed, but they have not been marketed well enough so they have not been as well used as you might expect," Hibberd explains.
From the start of 2007, the council will bring all of its perks together under a single branding titled ‘more for you’. This will organise benefits into four strands – called more for you, more for your family, more for your finances and more for your health. This will be supported by a communication drive that will focus on a different perk each month.
New perks, such as access to free financial advice and an employee assistance programme, will be added this month. A review of healthcare benefits is also planned to try to equalise those on offer. Currently, private medical insurance and health screening are only available to senior managers.
With a 100-strong HR team, the department doesn’t employ outside consultants, and recently brought its payroll function back in-house after problems with its provider.
"People were getting significantly overpaid, significantly underpaid [or] not being paid at all – a whole host of problems. We have been payroll error free for the last five months so we are thrilled with the quality of the service now," explains Hibberd.
The council also reviewed whether it should outsource its benefits administration but again decided to keep it in-house. "A lot of the outsourced providers came with set packages that actually weren’t as comprehensive [as ours] and they weren’t able to easily absorb some of our existing benefits that our employees really value, in particular, the travel choice scheme," she adds.
Under the travel scheme employees can save up to 50% on bus fares and train journeys with Chiltern Railways.
When looking to provide staff with benefits, however, the council has faced the challenge of having a limited budget to work with. Hibberd explains that the government has reduced its funding, and with people living longer, the pressure on its financial resources is increasing. More of its service users, for example, need care services such as home help for longer periods of time.
As it considers itself to be in competition for employees with both the public and private sector, Hibberd adds that the council has to be creative with its resources because it can’t afford the more comprehensive benefits packages that can often be found in the private sector. "You have to be so much more creative. I think the whole re-launch of our benefits strategy will have cost no more than about £5,000. There is proof you can do some really good things without a lot of money."
The fact that employees are based in more than 300 locations, as well as some who don’t have access to an office, presents additional challenges, such as ensuring that communications reach all staff. Consequently, the council relies on electronic information, printed material and monthly team briefings to communicate its benefits package.
The county’s proximity to London, high house prices and low unemployment rates also mean that retaining staff can be tricky.
While it can’t always compete on pay, particularly when up against inner-London employers, the council believes other factors work in its favour. One of its benefits, which up to 60% of staff take advantage of, is the ability to work flexibly, including the opportunity to work from home. In addition, flexi-time allows employees to work between the core hours of 10am and 4pm, then choose when they make up the rest of their contractual time. Those who work overtime, meanwhile, can bank the additional hours and take up to 13 days extra holiday a year.
Around 58% of the council’s employees currently work part-time and Hibberd believes that this, and its other flexible working policies, enable it to attract talented people from the private sector. "[Some employees] are quite happy to come and work here, not necessarily at the same level they were before, but working all of these fantastic flexible hours that enable them to spend time with the family, drop their children off at school and come into work late."
Looking at its workforce demographics, 83% of employees at Buckinghamshire are female, suggesting that many staff are likely to be working mums taking advantage of the flexibility on offer.
However, only 41.5% of the council’s female employees are among its top 5% of earners. This is common in local authorities, but Hibberd believes the trend is shifting.
Other benefits on offer at the council include a final salary pension scheme, to which employees who join pay 6% of salary and the council pays around 20%.
Those in the private sector might think that this benefit alone, which can be like gold dust in other workplaces, would play its part in engaging employees, but this is not always the case. "[The pension is] one of the things employees really undervalue unless they come into local government from outside. [For] a lot of our employees who have worked in local government for a long time it is something they take for granted," says Hibberd.
To help combat this, and to raise awareness of the benefits package in general, the introduction of total reward statements is currently under consideration. Hibberd is unsure at the moment whether the organisation’s HR software has the right capabilities to do so, but hopes to at least develop a generic statement for staff.
"The [value of the] pension [holding] is the same for everybody so we can say ‘put your salary in here and that is how much it is worth to you’."
According to Simon Barron, a managing consultant at Hay Group, this move towards total reward is common in the public sector. "Despite the press attention around pensions and final salary [plans], most employees underestimate the value of their package. The final salary pension scheme is potentially a valuable benefit but it is not doing its job as a recruitment and retention tool if people don’t know how valuable it is," he says.
Care is also taken to ensure benefits are competitive compared with other local authorities because some vocations, such as social work, only exist in the public sector.
Barron adds that providing private medical insurance for senior managers enables Buckinghamshire to differentiate itself from other councils. "In our experience, it would be unusual to offer [health insurance]. [There is often] a philosophical debate about whether it is right to encourage people out of the NHS into private [care] given that [local authorities] are in the same sphere [as the NHS]."
With all the hard work around engagement and benefits it is clear Hibberd is keen to make the county council one of the top local authorities in the country to work for. And you get the feeling she won’t rest until it is.
Case Study: Buckinghamshire County Council
Claire Street, a democratic services officer, has worked at Buckinghamshire County Council for around five years and is responsible for writing up committee minutes and advising on issues such as cabinet member decisions. She particularly values being able to work from home and working flexibly outside the core office hours of 10am and 4pm. "We are able to work from home up to one day a week. I live outside of the area and that means that I am not having to travel in every day. [It also] saves me money."
Street adds that she really appreciates the council’s whole ethos around its flexible working policy. "The authority as a whole is really pushing flexible working, which makes you feel that you can actually use it. In some places, they might say that it is available, but it is not really supported. We are definitely supported here and we are given the IT to be able to work flexibly as well."
Gillian Hibberd, corporate director, organisational development and HR at Buckinghamshire County Council, started her career as a HR manager for retailer Kingfisher Group. Hibberd originally wanted to become a retail manager, but psychometric tests completed as part of the graduate milk round revealed she was more people-orientated, so she decided to take up a HR post offered by Kingfisher Group.
After a subsequent stint in HR for pharmaceutical chain Boots (now Alliance Boots), Hibberd moved into local government where she has worked for the last 20 years.
She took up her current role just over a year ago after six years as assistant director of HR at Hertfordshire County Council. Of her experience there, she says: "It was a fantastic place to work and I had a great time but I felt that I had taken the HR team as far as I could. They were really on top of their game, winning lots of awards and it was my desire to run a team on my own."
Hibberd explains the public sector is where her heart lies and she has wasted no time putting her experience into practice at Buckinghamshire. She has spent the last year restructuring its HR service, launching its new people strategy and reviewing the council’s benefits package.