A seat at the top table?

Why does local government seem to buck the trend when it comes to human resources? I don’t mean its policies and procedures, use of technology or even its overall contribution. I am talking about where it sits within the organisation.

I haven’t done the research (although I probably should at some point), but my guess would be that in more than 90% of local authorities across the country, the principal HR officer does not report directly to the chief executive. Contrast that with the private sector where, in most cases, the HR director has a permanent seat at the top table and not just a visiting one. Perhaps the changing titles of this role in the private sector such as chief people officer, or chief talent officer give us some clues.

But it is not just in the private sector.  Consider large housing associations, universities, charities or multi-academy trusts.  Or in government agencies where the HR director is likely to report to the chief executive. 

Why is this? Or perhaps, more importantly, does it matter? Given local authorities are fundamentally groups of employees providing people-related services to residents of a place, most of us talk quite freely about people being ‘our biggest assets’.

We charge HR teams with a range of really important tasks, from internal communication and helping to develop organisational culture to recruiting and retaining those ‘biggest assets’. At this very moment, we are asking them to devise optimal, agile and hybrid working practices in a world changed by the pandemic.   

If we agree that these activities, and many more, are fundamental to the success of our organisations, why does HR have not a permanent seat at the top table more often?

Is it because, in the eyes of chief executives and elected members, local government HR leaders are not sufficiently strategic or capable enough when compared to, say, accountants?  I do hope not. 

I suspect the answer lies, as it often does, in context. Unlike most of their comparators across the public, private and voluntary sectors, local authorities deliver an incredibly broad range of services. Readers of these pages understand that of course.  

Aside from one or two outliers that have re-adopted the committee system (for understandable reasons), most large organisations call for streamlined decision making at pace. Large senior management teams can be unwieldy and corporate support functions are often represented through one person who seeks to ‘join the dots’.

Returning to my earlier question, does it matter? For years I have been advocating for HR to have a permanent seat at the top table and I suspect I will continue to do so. However, I have come to the conclusion that it matters less than I thought it did. 

Good chief executives pay attention to what good people have to say, wherever they are in an organisation. The principal HR officer might report to the resources director, but the capable ones always have the ear of the chief executive and are well respected by their colleagues and elected members for the value they add. Many make outstanding contributions while making occasional formal visits to the top table but are always present at the key moments and at the heart of decision-making. 

So, if we agree that people matter, my plea to chief executives is to seek out good HR advice wherever you can find it and keep your principal people advisor close. And for HR colleagues wanting a seat at the top table, my advice to you to is to keep adding real value, day after day and week after week. 

By helping colleagues to solve the big problems, you should find your voice is required around the top table more regularly.  

Martin Tucker is managing director of Faerfield

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