Talent management in the NICS

David Whelan talks to Jill Minne, Strategic HR Director for the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS), about the proposed outcomes of the organisation’s recently published People Strategy.

In April of last year, restructuring within the NICS saw the centralisation of HR functions. Previously, each government department held its own HR team supported by a central corporate HR unit but now, aligning with the draft Programme for Government ambitions for a more collaborative approach, all HR functions are carried out by NICSHR.

NICSHR is structured across six functional areas with a business partner service providing advice and support on strategic HR issues to leadership teams in each of the nine NICS departments.

With the shift came an opportunity for change right across the 23,000 strong organisation.

“The largest challenge is the scale of our ambition and ensuring that the changes reach the wide diversity of jobs across the civil service,” Minne explains.

Central to the task has been the development of the NICS People Strategy 2018-21.

Minne says: “Unprecedented challenges mean that we need new and innovative ways of working and the outcomes-based approach underpinning the draft Programme for Government, means we must have a more collaborative approach to decision-making, work across functional, organisational and sectoral boundaries to deliver change.

“There are many examples of good practice across the NICS and in an organisation of this scale and complexity, there is both a challenge and an opportunity to identify those exemplars and ensure that they are up-scaled to really add value.”

The strategy is based on the overall vision of the NICS for a “well-led, high-performing, outcome-focussed and inclusive NICS in which diversity is truly valued”, with a number of key actions identified for achieving each aim.

Minne points out that there is now a greater recognition that the civil services’ people are its greatest asset: “Our people, above everything else, are the most important part of the NICS. They make a difference, often in difficult circumstances, by developing policies and delivering services across Northern Ireland that affect everyone who lives here. The strategy is there to ensure every civil servant reaches their potential and performs to the highest levels.”

To this end, she suggests that the method for creating the strategy and the way in which it will be delivered is as important as the aims it set out to achieve.

Founded on a collaboration, the strategy was developed by involving over 700 people of varying grades across all departments. The actions which flowed from this work will be designed and implemented through a co-design approach.

While the People Strategy sets out long-term aims for transformative cultural change, change has already started in some areas. A major focus for the organisation has been around ensuring that it becomes more inclusive: “Ensuring that we are truly diverse and that we represent the citizens we serve,” she states.

Initiatives such as the NICS’s recent signing up to the Stonewall Diversity Programme, its first International Women’s Day celebrations and involvement in Belfast Pride as well as participating in International Job Shadowing Day are indications of progress being made.

“There are many examples of good practice across the NICS and in an organisation of this scale and complexity, there is both a challenge and an opportunity to identify those exemplars and ensure that they are up-scaled to really add value.”

Minne also notes the achievements of NICSHR in its first year of operation. “At the same time as establishing our new organisation, achieving cost savings and developing the new People Strategy, we have delivered business continuity in terms of existing HR services, met increased demand for our services, such as the surge of recruitment and vacancy management activity following a period of moratorium and we’ve also delivered new services such as our cancer support network and mediation.”

Changes have also been introduced around leadership development within the NICS, but she accepts that much more to do in relation to talent management.

Minne said: “What we have is a one-year implementation plan setting out the early initiatives which can be delivered now and the major projects which we will get underway.”

Quizzed on whether the three-year strategy was restrictive for transformation ambitions, she explains: “I’ve said from the outset that we are not going to be constrained by project plans, templates or timelines and that the strategy is very much fluid and responsive. I also appreciate the benefit of setting out milestones and assessing progress. I would hope that within the three years, people will recognise major changes.”

Talent identification

Minne points out that work is already underway in rolling out a range of bespoke civil service leadership development programmes aimed at building the capacity of middle-to-senior management. Under the strategy it is hoped that a new way of working can be developed that will not only support individual performance but also offer a more holistic and concerted approach to development and efficiency. “With the support of a centralised NICSHR we have the opportunity to create a uniform approach and equip management to have continuous conversations with staff around development, rather than solely the current mid and end of year reviews.

“Another area where we can make a difference is around mobility. The civil service has, largely, a good existing model of staff mobility, whereby staff can assess the competency framework of a higher post and then move to achieve those competencies. As part of our work within the People Strategy we have the opportunity to consider these development opportunities right across the service and not just within each individual department.”

Technology

Minne believes that technology will have a big part to play in relation to the eventual outcomes of the strategy.
E-Learning is already a major feature within the NICS, with Minne highlighting that training around unconscious workplace bias and GDPR has recently taken place in this way. However, work is also underway to provide greater potential for agile working, with technology being an enabler for both business and social benefits.

“The rewards for agile working are well rehearsed. As well as better business efficiency, we would also hope to see wider benefits such as the ability to attract young people and a different skills-base. We must also strike a balance recognising that we also operate a public-facing service and to what degree agile working can be suitable.”

Another major focus for the NICS is around data analytics and utilising it to drive policy. It will also help in getting ahead of the curve on skills shortages and skills development within the organisation.

Workplace wellbeing

Pointing to the NICS as a microcosm of society, Minne highlights that often the issues that affect society are reflected in the workplace. Currently, around one in five people in Northern Ireland show signs of a potential mental health problem. The NICS has been proactive with new initiatives such as equipping staff with a new mediation service and training to address work-related issues and promoting the use of their welfare team.

Minne says: “Our work will include building on our health and wellbeing framework with particular emphasis on mental health and support for colleagues facing life challenging events.”

Concluding, Minne says: “This People Strategy presents an ambitious agenda for the NICS that will require co-ordinated and collaborative action across the NICS and new thinking in terms of collaborative planning, resourcing, data collection, performance management and programme delivery at all levels.

“My hope is that people will genuinely feel that we have delivered significant changes over the strategy’s lifetime and that we can continue to build on that for the NICS of the future.”

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