Amidst widespread concern about long-term use of agency staff in core public sector roles, it is important to remember that there are also circumstances when it makes real sense to hire experts on a fixed-term basis.
Indeed, in some specialisms the use of senior interim managers remains common – even where there is no shortage of strong candidates seeking permanent roles.
Corporate communications roles are a good example – so why might you choose to recruit a short-term director or head of communications?
1. Covering absence
Perhaps the most straightforward reason is to fill a short-term gap during a permanent recruitment process or to cover a fixed-term vacancy (such as maternity leave cover). Communications can be a high-risk area, particularly where your organisation’s reputation is concerned.
2. Short term transitions
Another reason might be to appoint an individual or a team to provide support through a specific short-term transition – in public bodies this usually takes the form of a major programme or restructure. As well as having a fixed life, the skills needed to manage transition, set up a new team or handle major change may be different to those required for continuity leadership. Where a department must be downsized, a senior professional with no long-term involvement is more objective and can be seen to run processes with no vested interest.
3. Avoid a long-term commitment
A third reason communications professionals – usually at more senior levels – are often hired on an interim basis, is that it does not involve a long-term commitment. In sectors like the NHS where many organisations face existential financial challenges, it does not make sense to commit where further churn of structures (and senior professional roles) seems likely.
Some have questioned whether it is possible to outsource “strategic thinking” – which senior-level communication should certainly be – or that a “hearts and minds” function such as communications can only be delivered by permanent staff.
But why though?
To leaders from outside the public sector, this would sound odd. Why?
At least 50 per cent of the top communications officer’s role should be listening and decoding what is being said outside an organisation and leading the response. This is all about relationships, and a skilled practitioner can develop these rapidly. In other public services, particularly local government, the leader of the communications function will typically operate at corporate Board/Cabinet level, so interims bringing this skill-set are well-versed in working across organisational boundaries of health economy scale.
Senior skills – for example in crisis management or to prepare for CQC inspection – are more generic than is often supposed. There is no substitute for experience so a seasoned professional can hit the ground running faster than an in-house candidate can learn.
Breadth of experience, including recent roles in other sectors, can provide your trust with valuable external perspective and challenge. The need to work across boundaries may also be why people from business, local government or the voluntary sector are also increasingly recruited into communications roles in the NHS.