On Wednesday morning the Executive Council unanimously confirmed the Governor’s appointee, Sara Willingham, as the new NH Personnel Director – a position that affects all Executive Branch employees.
Willingham spent time with a room full of SEA members Monday evening to converse with them and explain why she is qualified for this position.
First and foremost, she is a longtime state employee who possesses important institutional knowledge related to all facets of personnel issues over three decades. She has held a number of positions within the Division of Personnel and explained that she self-initiated learning about all aspects of the agency early in her career. In addition to knowing and understanding the various personnel rules and best practices, she also has experience in labor relations. She served eight years as the Manager of Employee Relations before becoming the Deputy Personnel Director also for eight years.
Willingham has been “acting” in the position of Personnel Director since Karen Hutchins left the position. She has served as Deputy Personnel Director for eight years. Based on the concerns expressed by members in the meeting and her responses, there is no doubt Willingham will hit the ground running in her new position.
Through her many years in public service, she has established solid respectful relationships within state agencies.
Over the course of two hours, she candidly spoke with employees about some of the concerns they have in their respective workplaces. Some members even brought forward lists their co-workers wanted addressed, as well. Some of the most cited issues included performance evaluations that contained negative “surprises” for employees; evaluations being altered and influenced explicitly by the employee’s immediate supervisor’s supervisor; lack of performance evaluations taking place at all; hardships experienced with the new online job application process in NH FIRST; unfair job competition with jobs being posted externally before internal candidates have been fully vetted; the long length of time it takes to fill positions; the curtailment of the practice of all qualified internal candidates being offered the opportunity to interview; and the lack of detailed explanations being given to unsuccessful candidates.
Modernizing the classification system was also brought up as something that needs to be done. Willingham participated in a contractual study committee more than five years ago that the SEA and State jointly put into place to explore numerous complaints about the system. She acknowledged that it is more than twenty years old and that it would be nice to have the resources to see it modernized.
Willingham provided thoughtful responses to each comment or question and repeatedly emphasized her belief that training is a critical component for employees and management. She hopes to focus on providing more training opportunities. Some new curriculum is actually already in development at the NH Bureau of Education and Training. She also hopes to revive a work group that focused solely on ways to improve the performance evaluation process.
She did not shy away from any topic, even those which were a bit sensitive, such as the glitch-filled New Hampshire First (Lawson). She admitted there are problems that have not all yet been resolved, “but things are a lot better than they were,” she said. She assured members that improvements will continue to be made until things are working smoothly. She acknowledged that as with all NH agencies, resources are scarce and HR departments across state government are also feeling the strain. The “doing more with less” mantra has taken its toll on HR reps. She pointed out that, like the members in the room, understanding for state employees that provide HR functions should be afforded them.
Willingham took notes regarding some of the feedback members gave her and it seems she intends to follow up on some of the matters that were shared. The group felt confident she would do so, and will be watching to see if any changes or improvements are made in the future.
The group was impressed by Willingham’s candor and her “common sense approach” to issues. She received unanimous approval by the attendees.
We wish Sara Willingham well in her new position and look forward to working with her.