"We unravelled it. We did training. We did negotiation": How HR service Hive is supporting Parliament
Navigating working relationships in MPs’ offices can be a challenge, where time is often stretched and to-do lists seem never-ending. Sophie Church speaks to Eve Burt and Sam Mackewn, directors of Hive Support, about their mission to support MPs and their staff with bespoke HR services
“No names, no names at all, but we have had some really funny ones. We’ve had somebody on the phone … saying: ‘I think I’ve done something badly wrong – I’ve just sacked somebody.’”
When you are an MP, running your own office can come with unexpected problems, says Eve Burt, director of parliamentary human resources (HR) service Hive Support (Hive).
This particular entanglement, Burt says, occurred during Covid restrictions, when new hires often had to manage teams remotely. “It was somebody who had taken on a new graduate … who was doing the job from a kitchen table somewhere with nobody around her, expected to understand what the MP wanted,” she says. “That MP was also new, so they did not really know what they wanted. You get this immediate … head-butting thing going on. We unravelled it. We did training. We did negotiation.”
[MPs’] individuality is probably the most fun thing and it’s also the hardest. It is what makes them who they are, but it’s also incredibly difficult to wrangle
Eve Burt is married to Alistair Burt, former Conservative MP for Bury North and North East Bedfordshire. She has worked in parliamentary and constituency offices for an incredible 40 years, including 18 years as an office manager.
It was here she met fellow director Sam Mackewn. “Eve was effectively my manager,” says Mackewn. “It was great … we had a fantastic office … regular appraisals, regular check-ins, there were brilliant training opportunities.”
Mackewn quickly realised that not every young staffer was experiencing the same. So, in 2019, she helped Burt create Hive – intended as a means of supporting staffers and MPs to manage their unconventional working environment. “When you nail it down to what an MP’s office looks like, it is much more like a doctor’s surgery or a small shop [than a corporate organisation],” explains Mackewn.
For many MPs who worked in corporate settings before being elected, the realisation that they need to manage HR processes within their team can come as a shock.
“I think it is interesting when MPs come from … professional backgrounds,” she says. “They get here and they’re like: ‘Right, where’s the HR department?’ [We say:] ‘Well, there’s Members’ Services HR, they will give you advice.’ They’re like: ‘Yes, but who’s going to actually go and recruit my staff?’ It’s a bit of a shock that all of that … is their responsibility. On top of everything else, well, it’s quite horrifying.”
This is where Hive steps in. “Essentially, Hive [gives] MPs the opportunity to buy a share of an experienced, knowledgeable office manager,” Mackewn explains. “They know we understand them, we understand the staff and we always know what’s going on with [the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority] IPSA and within the House.” She adds: “[MPs] know they can use us to cover many services – whether that’s recruitment, carrying out appraisals or helping with team reviews.”
With a growing number of new MPs entering the House in recent years, Burt says the need for an HR system for staff as well as MPs is ever-more pressing.
“Sam and I talked about this for years before [we founded Hive], because we kept going: ‘This isn’t going to work in the long run; there are too many people coming into the House,’” says Burt. “I think the whole thing always comes back to the fact that, in a way, Parliament still works on the old-school idea of one MP, one member of staff.”
While MP numbers have swelled, the time they can devote to their staff has been squeezed, putting additional pressure on both parties.
Mackewn says: “We live in a kind of Amazon Prime mindset where everyone wants something the next day. You write to your MP – most MPs are still working on a kind of five, seven, 10-day turnaround – and constituents will be chasing you in two days’ time [saying]: ‘I emailed you, you haven’t replied. I’m putting that on social media.’”
Mackewn adds that the content of some casework has become more harrowing for staffers. “We’ve had some big issues – Ukraine, Afghanistan, Sudan – all those things have very personal, human fallout,” she explains, “and caseworkers are now on the end of the phone and dealing with those experiences.”
When MPs are running short of time, and staffers need counsel, Mackewn says Hive can act as a “softening between the two”. She continues: “[MPs] know they can trust us: we are not a regulator, unlike IPSA, and we are not attached to a party. It is a much more personal relationship … they can just phone us and say: ‘I’ve got all these issues in my team, what do you think I should do?’ … and we have so many of those calls, a lot of the time they don’t turn into business for us … we just like doing it.”
Though Mackewn believes Parliament is improving in the way it deals with bullying, she says that Hive can intervene in situations before they need escalating to the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS).
“The ICGS is great, but there is a threshold that things need to reach to take a complaint to the ICGS, and actually a softer, [more] informal approach [might work better if] there is the opportunity there to do that.”
“I don’t think MPs are naturally bullying,” Mackewn continues, “but a relationship can quickly turn and an earlier intervention before we reach the ICGS stage is key.”
Parliament’s lack of a proper HR department has long been a problem for those who work there, but adopting this ‘softly, softly’ approach is key to helping MPs and staff resolve their issues. Considering all the different personalities flitting around Westminster, Burt recognises you can’t make a one-size-fits-all.
“[MPs’] individuality is probably the most fun thing and it’s also the hardest. It is what makes them who they are, but it’s also incredibly difficult to wrangle. It’s the ‘herding cats’ syndrome, isn’t it?”
For Mackewn, dipping in and out of MPs’ offices – figuring out what works and what does not – is a joy of the job. Team reviews are a particular highlight, where Mackewn can act as editor: cutting and pasting effective ways of working between MPs’ offices.
“I love seeing how all the different offices work. You can take the knowledge that we have built from so many offices and every now and then you come across [something] and you think: ‘That is great’, and start introducing it to other offices.”
Now, Burt says the team are working with the Members’ HR Service – which offers legal and best practice HR advice to MPs – to prepare for the upcoming general election, and quips jokily: “Once they decided that we weren’t trying to set up in opposition to them at the beginning!”
With business buzzing, and relationships in the House slowly strengthening, Mackewn says there is no real need for marketing.
“We do get the calls where people say: ‘I was talking to so-and-so in the tea room, and they said ‘come and talk to you,’” Burt says.
However, the Hive team are eager to elevate the service further and Mackewn says the expansion plan is “ready to go”.
“I would love to be able to have a presence in more offices, because we know what we are doing is working really well and that our services are valued by the MPs that use them.”
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