The one with the taxman

Back at the end of September I attended a conference hosted by Hodes called “Connectivity: the competitive edge”. I had fully intended to a write a few posts about the content and then time passes, you know…

One of the people presenting was Mike Falvey, Chief People Officer for Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. So in answer to the question who’s the person who’d most like to hate? The only answer that beats “the taxman” is “the taxman’s HRD”. Mr Falvey however, was not what I expected. He was energetic, charismatic and, dare I say it, fun. And here is a man who is facing a challenge that would make most people want to curl up in a ball and cry for mummy. The other interesting thing about him as an individual is that he is not a ‘lifer’ in the civil service and has worked both in the corporate sector and run his own business.

Due to the delightful combination of economic downturn and Messrs Cameron & Osborne, the civil service was in a position where in November 2009 they were obliged to commit to reducing HR spend by 50%… yes 50%. Now i’ve been on the receiving end of some challenging budget calls but 50% is a monster. That said what were they starting with?

Before commencing the “Next Generation HR Programme” (as they dubbed their initiative) there were 8000 HR people in the Civil Service with 6000 of those servicing what he referred to as ‘the big 7’ (DWP, MOD, HMRC, Home Office, MOJ, DfT, Defra). There was very little if no collaboration, very different systems and processes operated across departments and shared service or centralised resources were not high on anyone’s agenda pre-2009. Therefore maybe 50% wasn’t a monster but the culmination of the all the incremental budget cuts the civil service *could* have made when the sun was shining rather than making hay. It must also be said that Mr Falvey didn’t go into detail of the staff numbers of the big 7 at that same point but it seemed there was a lot of opportunity to do things differently and better.

If you ever sit with a friend, colleague, advisor, coach, head-hunter, etc, and talk about having challenging stakeholders imagine being an HRD in the Civil Service. Think about having politicians, senior civil servants, unions, the press and the employees themselves as stakeholders at a time when every other part of the public sector is also trying to make cuts and significant cuts of that. Then think about your stakeholders and breathe out. That’s political with both a small and big P.

All that aside, the main point that really landed with me came almost as an afterthought fairly near the end of his session, when in an almost off the cuff remark, Mr Falvey said something along  the lines of “due to the age of austerity, we were not able to use consultants and it all had to come from within”. Coming back to the time pre-Lehman’s when the world was rosier; I imagine a commitment to save 50% of Civil Service HR would have been accompanied by a hefty commitment to one of McKinsey, Accenture, BCG, LEK or similar but due to the controls on spending they HAD to do it themselves.

The question I keep on coming back to (and unfortunately there’s no way to test it) is would the outcome have been any different/more or less successful with the consultants?

I am not a management consultant hater by any means. I know some great management consultants and they are bright and can add significant value IF USED APPROPRIATELY. However, it does seem they have become the defacto validators of plans and in the case of what the civil service were doing, they weren’t reinventing the wheel.

So the other question I am left with is this: are management consultants brought it by ‘the business’ because they don’t have the answer or are they demanded by ‘the masters’ who won’t back a plan without a consultancy rubber stamp? Is the only reason the senior HR team at the Civil Service ‘got away’ without using consultants was because their stakeholders knew it would be unpalatable to ask for the rubber stamp when the cupboard was bare?

More questions than answers I’m afraid but it was an interesting session and if you get the chance to hear Mr Falvey or one of his contemporaries speak I would advise you doing so. It definitely smashed my expectations of ‘the taxman’s HRD’….

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The one with the taxman

  1. Another good post Rob. I wrestled with your question “are management consultants brought it by ‘the business’ because they don’t have the answer or are they demanded by ‘the masters’ who won’t back a plan without a consultancy rubber stamp?”

    In my experience a lot of larger consultancy practices work on a dependency model, though they won’t call it that of course. I got deep into a huge project being run by a big consultancy for a big company and I was staggered at the lack of value being created for the customer. The behaviour was vulture like – I heard many conversations around just how much they could rip from the customer. I’ve seen bamboozling arrays of PowerPoint used to befuddle and muddle, to coordinate and shift blame everywhere. Well almost everywhere, if you get my drift.

    And I’m sure that not all big practices are like this.

    And very often folks in companies are afraid to speak out. And that plays to a dependency model too. That fear makes it very difficult for companies to find out what is going on.

    And I’m sure that not all companies are like this.

    In my experience most customers do have the answer and they don’t know it. So I see my role as being a facilitator, an instigator of conversations and dialogue from which practical answers to problems can flow. I share the information as widely as possible and encourage folks in the organisation to come up with ways of making better things happen. The knowledge is transferred simply and quickly to the customer. They can see what they need to see and can disengage me as soon as they wish (and the other way around – I’ve just resigned a customer willing to pay more because I don’t think they’re taking enough action with the learning I’ve shared so far). And because I don’t have to service some mighty organisational machine behind me I can charge considerably less than bigger practices too.

    And I’m sure that not all small practices are like this.

    I’m sure Mr Falvey and co will do well.

  2. It certainly is a thought provoking post, Rob. I’m of the opinion of Doug. Most people in the organisation do have the answer. They just either do not have, or do not know who to call on in order to help the conversations to happen, for the answers to be surfaced. There’s a bit if a Catch 22 here. If you don’t have the right people, do you get a consultant in to train them, and if you do, do you trust them enough to do as good a perceived job as the consultant?

    The other side to this, is that if we’re not seeing the consultant add value, are we being brave enough to disengage them? Or do we believe that we’ve commissioned there service and therefore have to see it through? I’m sure the big players do add value, and I’m sure the small players add value too. One area I think it worth also considering is, how well does the business provide the insight in order for Consultant X to do their job effectively?

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