The 2013 PIF Review identified some areas in which SSC needed to improve the performance of its own organisation. There had been extensive reviews and restructuring but even where there had been some significant structural changes made and new policies and processes introduced, it was too soon to judge their effectiveness. Many of the tools for supporting and developing its own staff were still in the process of development and there appeared to be too much emphasis on compliance rather than innovation and support.
The report concluded that SSC needed to model collaborative behaviour and culture. “Change requires effective implementation and SSC must demonstrate that it has won the hearts and minds of its own staff. Implementation … must be driven by a united senior leadership team and owned by the organisation as a whole.”
This was reinforced in the Central Agencies Overview. “[SSC] needs to be an exemplar of the type of culture and performance that it seeks to foster in the wider public service, focussing on delivery and working in partnership with its key stakeholder agencies.”
My observations on progress are based on a review of the new programmes and plans referred to below, interviews and focus groups with a cross section of employees in SSC as well as comments made by some of their customers. They are therefore more anecdotal than scientific or comprehensive.
The most recent Engagement Survey was undertaken in 2013 and so is now rather dated. The overall results were an improvement on the previous Survey as the percentage of ‘actively disengaged' staff had reduced significantly to 9% and the ‘engaged' staff had increased slightly to 43%. This is above the State Services median but significantly lower than the best performing agencies and the response to the question ‘I know what is expected of me at work' remained poor, at only the 13th percentile against the Gallup worldwide database. A new Engagement Survey is being undertaken in May 2015.
SSC has revamped its strategy and in 2014 introduced a new Operating Model, based on a portfolio investment model organised into four portfolios. The internal governance structure has also been sharpened. A smaller Executive Team meets informally with the Commissioner each week to share intelligence and discuss Ministerial priorities and strategy sessions are held four or five times a year.
The Senior Management Team (SMT) is led by the Deputy State Services Commissioner and comprises the four portfolio leads. The SMT meets monthly and is the decision-making forum for determining the SSC's work programme and operating matters. The four portfolio leads meet weekly and use a visual management approach to ensure that there is an integrated work programme across the four portfolios. There is a definite sense of energy and collaboration created by this approach and a ‘collaboration hub' has been created which is open to all staff, showing the issues, risks and actions across each work stream.
The Commission is working to develop an empowering and collaborative culture and has identified three core behaviours that will drive performance and support delivery of their business plan and operating model. They are graphically represented as follows:
A comprehensive set of materials and toolkits has been prepared to assist staff in applying the strategy and new operating model, including a work force strategy, a workforce action plan, a competency framework, an employee value proposition, a guide to performance management, individual performance agreements and over the past 12 months all Tier 2 and some Tier 3 staff have been mapped into the career board process. These processes underpin the Four Year Plan, which highlights SSC's ambition to be exemplary and to model, internally and externally, the behaviour they ask of others.
The competency framework and the various toolkits and explanatory materials that support it are well thought through and clear. The changed operating model is based on a portfolio investment approach with four portfolios:
- System stewardship (focuses on leadership pipeline and talent development and integrity);
- Collective Impact (supports leaders to maximise their impact and deliver results to customers);
- Learning Culture (improves performance by using information and insights to meet needs of customers);
- Better Every Day SSC (focuses on enabling SSC to implement the portfolio investment system effectively by improving behaviours and culture within SSC).
The SMT is working hard to embed this operating model and it is early days as it was only introduced in the fourth quarter of 2014. At this point it is not yet embraced, and in some cases understood, by the entire organisation. The areas that are working well largely reflect the parts of the organisation that are having the most positive impact externally. Thus the system stewardship and learning culture teams are clear and enthusiastic about their roles and their impact. Staff in other teams are less convinced. There is something missing in the design in that there does not yet seem to be sufficient ‘glue' to bind the organisation together.
There are some indicators that are relevant here. Almost half of the permanent staff have worked at SSC for less than two years and 85% have been in the organisation for less than five years. Voluntary turnover is stubbornly high, averaging over 20% per annum. There has also been a lot of change at manager level which can be unsettling for their staff.
There does not yet appear to be sufficient alignment or rapport across the three ‘outward facing' portfolios. More effort should be made to engage resources across the portfolios. For example, the SAPG should be an integral partner in the PIF Review programme, working closely with the PIF team and lead reviewers in setting the strategy for a PIF and then working with agencies to give effect to the recommendations and improvements identified in them. Similarly, could the leadership development experts be more closely involved in the performance management and development functions of the SAPG? A more streamlined or unified approach to delivery of these services would be welcomed by other agencies and if effective it could empower SSC staff to contribute across the organisation.
Feedback from focus groups suggests that there remains some dissatisfaction with the way in which poor performance and unsatisfactory behaviour is dealt with in SSC. There is no room for poor or even average performance in an agency that must be an exemplar of management and leadership skills for the State services. The introduction of a talent management plan, which is currently being developed for all employees in SSC, should assist here. Staff should be able to see just what is expected of them and the development opportunities that are available and it should force managers to sharpen their performance management skills.
Internal communication has improved significantly since the 2013 review, but is still dependent upon individuals and not consistent across the portfolios. There is a knowledge gap between employees with an outward facing role and those who work in a backroom or internal function who still struggle with line of sight to the SSC priorities.
Some staff expressed frustration with the time taken to make decisions. There is a strong sense of risk aversion within SSC that can lead to an unnecessarily cautious approach, stifling the generation of new ideas and giving rise to the over-analysis of plans before implementation. There must be a greater sense of urgency and an expectation of timeliness of delivery.
SSC has the skills in its outward facing portfolio teams that could address many of these frustrations and design deficiencies. The ELT and SMT need to make it more of a priority to achieve SSC's expressed ambition of an empowering and collaborative culture. The specialist skills in the organisation, such as the continuous improvement, talent management and leadership development specialists, should be applied to ‘walk the talk'. It is important that SSC can demonstrate to the other agencies that it has a strong internal culture and management in order to be able to demand it of them.
There is definitely a sense of forward momentum and energy within SSC. In particular, the SMT are more focussed and united in their common objectives and they have the support of their staff. SSC does not need an internal change of direction or ‘restructuring' - it is on the right track. But senior managers do need to ensure that they are spending sufficient of their time and energy on leading their own agency, and that the SSC has employed the right combination of skills and expertise to deliver their goals, thereby demonstrating their ability to meet the system level leadership challenge that BPS demands.