Continuity and Change: The Role of the HR Function in the Modern Public Sector
ABSTRACT As the public sector has modernised and sought to become more efficient and cost-effective, the effective and strategic management of people has received increasing prominence and there have been calls for the HR function to play a more strategic role. However, not much is known about whether the role of the HR function has changed substantively. In this paper, we present empirical evidence from six matched-pair public sector organisations in the UK to assess whether HR functional roles have changed, as envisaged, into a model more akin to the private sector. The findings highlight the complex and often contradictory nature of HR functional roles, and suggest that new and more strategic roles have not replaced traditional approaches but, rather, have been grafted on, giving rise to a variety of hybrid HR forms.
Continuity and Change: The Role of the HR Function in the Modern Public Sector Introduction The reform of structures, systems and processes within public services over the past 20 years has been well documented at an international level (Massey and Pyper, 2005; Boyne et al., 2004; Skalen, 2004; Harel and Tzafrir, 2002; Kessler et al., 2000; Bach and della Rocca, 2000; Barnett et al., 1996). The main purpose of these changes has been to increase the efficiency, cost-effectiveness and performance of public organisations, and has involved an increasing pressure from government on organisations to emulate private sector managerial practices, including performance management, customer orientation, and a heightened strategic focus (Boyne et al., 2004; Horton, 2003; Corby and Higham, 1996). Since salaries can amount to up to 80% of organisational costs in the public sector, the domain of human resource management (HRM) has received renewed attention under these reforms (Horton, 2003; Barnett et al., 1996; Corby and Higham, 1996). Potentially, it has been argued, improved human resource management could facilitate the recruitment and retention of valued staff, enhance organisational costeffectiveness and serve to promulgate a performance-driven culture through the adoption of a more strategic HR role (Bach and della Rocca, 2000; Jaconelli and Sheffield, 2000; Ferlie et al., 1996). However, despite the acknowledged significance of HRM under New Public Management (NPM), evidence as to whether or not there have been any substantive changes in the role of the HR function remains both partial and inconclusive (Selden, 2005; Lupton and Shaw, 2001; Boyne et al., 1999). This paper contributes to this important debate over the reality of change in the public sector, and seeks to answer the question: is there any evidence that the role of the HR function in the public sector has become more strategic? First, we review the relevant literature, focusing particularly on the contested meaning and enactment of strategic HR roles within a public sector context. We then explain the methods used in our research study before presenting the findings from six case studies. In the discussion and conclusions, we highlight the complex
and often contradictory nature of HRM approaches in the six organisations and argue that new, context-specific ‘hybrid’ HR roles are emerging. The Role of Human Resource Management in the Public Sector In the UK, up until the Conservative reforms which began in the 1980s, public administration was closely associated with the Weberian centralised, hierarchical model of public services, where administrative rules were determined by central government and implemented by public organisations with relatively little scope for strategising at a local level (Bach and della Rocca, 2000). Notions of paternalism, standardisation, job security, collectivism, developmental-humanism and the aspiration to be a ‘model employer’ were the values...