HRM refers to how employees are managed and one of the main functions of this discipline is the role of ‘employee champion’ (Ulrich 1997), however, this role has changed significantly in the public sector over the past two decades, especially for professionals. Professionals differ from other types of employees because of their expertise knowledge and skills, and consequently have more discretionary power in the workplace. The implementation of New Public Management (NPM) reforms was not uniform, although some similar changes have emerged in relation to the impact on professionals generally. The aim of the special issue was to document our understanding of professionalism ‘under crisis’ and to build on a platform of established research that highlighted some of the emerging challenges facing public sector professionals as we move towards the 2020s. Prior to exploring the impact of the changes in HRM on public service professionals it is important to consider the environment/s in which they are compelled to engage with.
Therefore before introducing the papers contained within this special issue it is appropriate to set the scene in which the policies, practices and events discussed are put into context. This editorial briefly explores the evolution of public policy, public management and HRM in public services, particularly those changes impacting on public service professionals given it is 15 years since the last special issue of Public Management Review focusing on HR issues in the public sector was published (Beattie and Osborne 2004, 2007).
The past 15 years have seen considerable change across public policy, public management practice and HRM. In terms of public policy, particularly at the national level we have witnessed a global drift to the political right. Such political philosophies tend to promulgate a smaller state with less state ‘interference’ in the everyday lives of their citizens and businesses. Therefore, we tend to see a retrenchment in the public sector workforce, particularly with civil servants at national level. Whilst in many cases this has been evolutionary there have been seismic changes in the public policy arena across a number of countries. There is perhaps limited surprise at recent events in Turkey, where public servants, including academia, the police and judiciary have been accused and in some cases even imprisoned on the basis of being suspected of challenging the Erdogan regime. Likewise, in Latin America the disputed election in Venezuela has brought much state activity to a standstill affecting services to its citizens and the employment of its public servants. Whilst acknowledging the severity of the consequences for the people and public servants of these countries, they have had a long history of political instability, however there were two political events of seismic proportions in 2016 which we would not have predicted in 2004.
The first of these was the unexpected and narrow decision of the people of the UK to vote to leave the European Union; not even the proposers of the leave campaign expected to win. The then Cameron Government, which had supported the Remain campaign, were also unprepared for this result to such an extent that little if any scenario planning had been undertaken in the event of such an outcome. Consequently, the UK civil service, which had been significantly reduced in terms of capacity and capability, as a result of previous and ongoing government austerity measures, was put very much as a disadvantage when negotiating with the highly skilled and well resourced EU negotiators. In terms of impact on HRM, whilst there has been much discussion in the media and in political circumstances about the overall effect BREXIT may have on employment there has been little discussion on the impact on UK staff, most of whom are in professional roles, who currently work for the European Commission (the EU’s civil service). However, one can assume that some of their experiences are similar to UK MEPs who have been living with the uncertainty of the actual departure date from the EU, which impacts on their daily lives e.g. some politicians have moved, at great expense, into hotels as it is difficult to renew leases on property when there is no fixed date. A key question is what outplacement support is going to be in place for UK European public servants.
The second event which would have been deemed unlikely in 2004 was the election of Donald Trump, a Republican, following the Democratic presidency of Barack Obama which had seen liberalisation in policy areas such as healthcare and significant engagement with foreign affairs. The Republicans, in recent times, have been seen as the small state party aiming to reduce the influence of the federal government on citizens’ lives. Alongside this has been Trump’s rallying call ‘to make America great again’ which has signalled a more inward-looking USA compared to the Obama administration. A key strand of Trump’s policy, which we also see in other centre-right governments, is to reduce immigration, particularly from bordering Mexico. It is here where there has been a significant clash between public policy and HRM as a result of Trump’s desire to build a wall between the USA and Mexico. As a result of a stand-off with Congress over the funding for the wall in late 2018 President Trump took the decision to temporarily close down much of the Federal Government, including the Department of Homeland Security potentially leaving the USA vulnerable to attacks. As a consequence many federal employees went unpaid over the festive season, and some had to resort to use food banks to feed their families. Yet despite this there were reports of federal employees, including the TSA, reporting for duty despite not receiving pay thus exemplifying their ‘professionalism’.
Although the above two cases are not explored in depth in this special issue they have been highlighted here to show the vulnerability and precariousness of public service employment, which traditionally had been perceived as a job for life, can be significantly affected by political changes, particularly where this is a change in government. It will be interesting to see if Denmark’s newly elected centre-left minority government led by Social Democrat leader Mette Frederiksen will spark a move away from the centre-right. Her government has emphasised traditional values of the centre-left e.g. increased support for social welfare. However, to be electable she has continued with similar tough immigration policies as her centre-right predecessors and other centre-right governments elsewhere, which could have a significant negative impact on the labour market supply, as being witnessed in the UK as a consequence of BREXIT. The role of immigration, public policy and HRM could in itself be a future special issue of this journal.
In terms of public management the shift to centre-right government proved to be fertile territory for governments to enact New Public Management (NPM) to varying degrees, particularly during periods of genuine economic austerity following the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 (e.g. UK, Greece) or imposed political austerity (e.g. Australia). NPM also promulgated the reduction of the public sector e.g. in the UK we have witnessed the transfer of many social care services, e.g. care of the elderly, to the private and third sectors. However, in recent years there has been an increasing recognition that some aspects of NPM have been too harsh and have not taken sufficient account of the needs of individual citizens and communities. Even as early as 2006 PMR (Osborne 2006) published articles relating to ‘New Public Governance’ which amongst other partnership working involves end users in some of or all of the co-creation, co-production and co-delivery of services in areas such as health, social care, housing and community planning. In HRM terms this requires an additional skills set for public servants, such as social workers, housing managers, healthcare workers and planners to enable them to work as partners with local communities rather than acting as a detached ‘expert’. This requires ‘street level bureaucrats’ to not only learn about their specialist skills area, but also to learn more generic skills around diversity, inclusion, negotiation and influencing. Examples of this have been seen recently in the Scottish Health Service where patients and carers’ groups have worked alongside clinicians and architects/designers to create several new hospital buildings. However, it should be noted that NPG is still in its early days and many remnants of NPM remain, particularly around performance management.
With regards to HRM in public services the first critical point to note is that HRM is significantly under-researched compared to corporate HRM, whilst in practice centre-right politicians thought ‘business’ models of HRM would ‘fix’ the public sector without taking account of the different cultures and public service ethos of many public servants. This special issue is an attempt to address this gap as is a forthcoming book by Beattie and Waterhouse (forthcoming) to be published by Routledge. Another key difference is that public service organisations tend to be more pluralistic than corporate organisations with a wider range of stakeholders to satisfy including: national government, elected or nominated members, professional organisations, trade unions, key client groups and the wider public. Such a range of stakeholders is challenging for public sector leaders to manage as power is not equal between stakeholders, power is also dynamic in particular shifting as different coalitions emerge depending on issues. At the start of the 21st century ‘empowerment’ was one of the key HRM buzzwords, however it has been superseded by employee engagement, a more substantial and widespread policy, although actual practice varies. The role of employee engagement is particularly pertinent to professionals as their ‘loyalties’ may be split between their organisation, profession and end-users, and has been extensively explored by Brunetto et al. (2015, 2018) in health and policing (Brunetto et al. 2017), such variations in engagement can have a profound impact on organisational commitment, job satisfaction and employee health and wellbeing. The employee engagement agenda requires much in terms of the leadership qualities of those responsible for leading professionals who themselves may have varied agendas.
When PMR last had a special issue on HRM the topics and countries involved were fairly mainstream. NPM countries and topics including: a comparative analysis of corporate and public further education in France; a comparative analysis of Strategic HRM in Australian corporate and public sector healthcare services; NPM and the UK Police Service; the relationship between communication and change in a large Australian public organisation; work-life balance in Scottish public and third sector organisations; and, partnership working in the UK health and social care sector as part of the ‘Third Way’ policy. These articles represented the topical issues of 2004 and had a significant focus on professional staff, however the papers were limited to a small number of western-centric countries. A challenge to our readers is whether or not this new special issue demonstrates an evolution or revolution of public service HRM, although of even greater importance is whether it does reflect the reality of challenges facing HRM in the public sector, and do the respective authors offer a way forward. We know turn to the specific challenges facing today’s public sector professionals. A significant theme over the past two decades is that when professionals become managers they face the ambiguous problem of having two masters – the organization and the profession, resulting in often competing agendas at play (Noordegraaf 2015). This is because the implementation of NPM was often underpinned by an austerity agenda which shaped the type of reforms implemented and in some cases led to HRM being complicit in the rise of excessive workloads, work intensification, work harassment and bullying across countries – the exact opposite of the role of ‘employee champion’. In this special issue, Nguyen et al. examines the issues of workplace negative acts on Vietnamese public sector professionals and identified the negative implications of the lack of support given to professionals. Similarly, Grima et al. examines the impact of coping measures used by French physicians in response to excessive workloads. Additionally, Wankhade et al. examined the impact of the issue of work intensification of English Ambulance Services. These types of papers are increasing and suggests that HRM managers have become nothing more than the ‘long arm’ of managers chasing financial targets. It also suggests that HRM scholars have failed to influence management practices in a positive way and instead have allowed the drive towards austerity-led government provision of services to flourish without adequately challenging it.
On the other hand, there have been some positive changes in HRM over the past decade. There has been a movement away from ‘hard’ to ‘soft’ HRM, although, this transition has been slow in relation to the management of professionals. An example of a slow, but positive change is examined by Kravariti and Johnston who undertook an extensive analysis of the talent management literature to identify the issues involved in transferring such practices to the public sector. Whilst the evidence of such practices was limited, it does suggest that positive frameworks for identifying new talent are emerging. Another positive change in HRM is the focus on managers being effective leaders, at least in terms of research. Løkke and Krøtel used a longitudinal study of 335 Danish municipal leaders, 94 supervisors and 4,449, employees to evaluate leadership quality and found that those leaders who over estimate their value, also had the highest level of absenteeism. Such robust tools could give governments more control over poor management practices. Similarly, Kruyen et al. identified new competencies required by public servants that span not only skills required to negotiate the public sector of the past; but also the public sector of the future.
The final paper – Trinchero et al., based on Italian research, introduces a new factor that may improve the wellbeing and safety of public sector employees. Psychological Capital, whilst in itself not a new construct, it is a new variable identified in Positive Organizational Behaviour that provides a buffer for professionals in coping with the negative consequences of stress. After two decades of reform, the evidence is mounting that when austerity has shaped NPM changes, the outcome has been the erosion of organizational support for professionals and a growing acceptance of chronic levels of work intensity that are simply unsustainable long term. On the other hand, the role of HRM could be to increase training in personal resources such as Psychological Capital so that employees can cope with stress without compromising their wellbeing, engagement and safety, and would complement the growth of New Public Governance.
The papers suggest a need for HRM researchers and practitioners to ‘gain their voice’ and find new ways of becoming the ‘employee’s champion, rather than the ‘rubber stamp’ of the board room. The papers also have a wider geographical spread than the previous special issue in PMR, whilst France and the UK still feature, there is representation also from Southern and Nordic Europe, in the cases of Italy and Denmark. The editors particularly welcome the inclusion of a paper from Vietnam, giving some representation to the developing world. We may also be witnessing, albeit tentatively, the beginning of the public sector pendulum swinging from hard to soft(er) HRM, particularly in the context of New Public Governance. Whilst pleased with the quality and range of papers submitted for this edition and despite the inclusion of the paper from Vietnam, the editors regret the ongoing under-representation of developing countries, particularly those from BRICS and MINT categories, in public management and HRM research. We make a plea to public management/HRM academics to address this gap, as many of these countries e.g. Bangladesh, have young and rapidly growing populations. This we suggest could be the subject of another special issue.
This article has been republished with minor changes. These changes do not impact the academic content of the article.
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ditorial Changing role of HRM in the public sector
Author(s): Yvonne Brunetto &Rona Beattie