Workforce Planning in Interesting Times

Picture of people in healthcare planning on a computer screen

What is the problem workforce planning is expected to solve? Where has it come from? What elements do you need in place for optimal workforce planning?

Our principal consultant Jon Freegard, an experienced strategic workforce planning manager in the public sector, helps break down workforce planning challenges in the public sector.

Not a week passes without a news report on workforce issues affecting organisations across the public sector. The themes are the same: ‘soaring’ vacancies, retention ‘crisis’, low pay, low morale, and the debilitating impact on performance. Every issue, inextricable from the other, creates a Betari-Box-like spiral of unrelenting challenge. It’s terrible to read.

Yet, from a public sector perspective, these issues must be reported. We have a fundamental right to know. There is a risk however, that admiring the problem in this way, often by showcasing extreme exceptions that prove the rule, we risk distortion and a compounding of the issues.

Day by day, seemingly against all odds, our public services function because of the determination, competence, and conscientiousness of its people. It’s not perfect, no one would claim otherwise, but it works, in the face of all the reasons we’re reminded it shouldn’t.

Where has the problem come from?

Drawing conclusions on the root-causes of the issues, and the nature of the solutions, will to some extent be influenced by one’s politics and personal experiences. Remove this bias, and certain observable facts, such as they exist, remain. There will still be too many vacancies, too many people leaving, too few joining, lower than ideal pay, and jobs which demand too much of individuals. The Monster Raving Looney Party could find themselves in power and this would be the case, much as it previously has been and would be again under a Conservative or Labour government. This will of course be a fiercely debated point.

Common ground can perhaps be found in reflecting that, on balance, we have been spoilt. Over decades we have built and benefited from brilliant public services that by most measures rank as an outlier worldwide, and competitive amongst comparable economies. Despite the state of the UK’s financial outlook and a looming recession, we’ve developed a taste for champagne service on a beer budget and want more of the same. It is not possible to sustain.

Managing expectations

Assuming all inefficiency has been removed, more funding is required to remain where we are, yet alone where we want to be. But where does that funding come from? There is no magic money tree. There may be a few more accounting gymnastics up the sleeve of the next few chancellors, but how long can we rob Peter to pay Paul? Cashing cheques today that tomorrow can’t afford is not a sustainable option. Something must give, and it must include public expectations. Our public services would benefit from policy makers having an extremely honest conversation to manage these expectations.

None of this offers a get out of jail free card or presents an apologist’s case for an inefficient service. There’s no excuse to tolerate inherent poor performance or a lack of integrity in our services. When something goes wrong there are often devastating consequences. There must always be accountability and a responsibility for learning, irrespective of prevailing budgetary constraints. We expect basics to be done correctly every time, and rightly so.

However, continuing to state the obvious regarding national workforce challenges, and expecting individual organisations operating within wider, complex systems to solve these issues is unrealistic. Within the conditions of adverse macro-economic and governmental dysfunctions, playing out across an international web of geopolitics and public health crisis, the magnitude of which has not been seen for multiple generations – is difficult. Simply put, finding solutions is not that simple. Spotting the problem is.

So what are the solutions?

That’s not to say we’re powerless. Every person individually, employee or member of public, and every organisation collectively must be encouraged to take responsibility for the things which can be controlled. To get its own house in order.

Taking a workforce planning perspective, organisations need to ask themselves:

  • Do we know where we’re going (what’s our vision, strategy)?
  • Are we doing everything within our power to influence better outcomes?
  • How do we know we are (do we measure and evaluate the things we’re doing)?
  • Are we open to feedback and to learning?

True investment in workforce planning is likely to be counted in time. Time for individuals within their role to think about these questions, starting at the top. To consider who will take accountability for workforce planning. To adopt a methodology that supports what an organisation is trying to achieve. To seek professional, competent support of workforce planning specialists if your organisation lacks these skills. But do so in addition, not in lieu of, investing time for your substantive staff for strategic thinking.

Investing time is a foundation that will enable organisations to take the first steps. Start off small, keep the scope realistic and focus on achievable outcomes that target one or two priorities. A tangible outcome is worth its weight in gold. Equally, so is engaging with specialists at the operational level at the earliest opportunity.

From that solid foundation, momentum can be generated across all parts of the organisation. Adopt and adapt what works, share best practice with your neighbours and make workforce planning a real thing that lives as part of everyday operations. You’ll then be able to articulate what you’re doing, how you’re going to continue to do more, and the impact you expect it to have based on existing evidence you’ve already generated. With the confidence gained as a result of this approach, you can extend your planning horizon as far as you possibly can. That’s a workforce strategy that has the best chance of succeeding.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet for the current challenges, some of which predate the unique cluster of crises of today. There are millions of professionals, deeply connected to public institutions, to which they have dedicated years to try and solve the issues. We collectively need a moment to reflect on where we are and what we expect our public services to do as we ascend the proverbial mountain. And do all we can to support them.

Learn about our Workforce Development solutions

Skills for Health are the leading authority on workforce competencies. Our expert workforce researchers have extensive experience working with the Department for Health and Social Care, NHS England & Improvement and Health Education England. We’ve worked hand in glove with hundreds of NHS organisations and integrated healthcare systems to develop robust workforce development programmes to help understand what the future workforce needs to look like, to deliver better patient outcomes.

Find out more >


Tam Whipp joins Skills for Health as a Technical Consultant 

Why the NHS Needs Workforce Planning More Than Ever 

Laura Schell appointed as Skills for Health Client Director 

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