Network goes live

The SSDA has recently appointed its first chef executive.  Elaine Essery asks new recruit Christopher
Duff to identify his priorities

Christopher Duff, first chief executive of the SSDA (the Sector Skills
Development Agency), is under no illusion about the magnitude of the tasks that
lie ahead. He knows the pressure is on, as stakeholders watch closely to see
how the SSDA shapes up and, under its stewardship, what impact the Sector
Skills Council network will have on skills and productivity.

When Duff took up his appointment on 19 April, only five trailblazer SSCs
were appointed and his staff numbered just two transferees from the NTO
National Council. So until the new body is able to take them over, DfES project
teams in Sheffield and London will continue to carry out SSDA functions.

Not surprisingly, Duff has two main priorities: to keep the work being done
by the trailblazer SSCs and potential SSCs moving forward; and to get his own
team up and running as quickly as possible.

"A lot of good work is going on with the trailblazers and many
potential SSCs which are coming up quite quickly. I want to keep all that going
and keep it productive," he says.

Duff is unable to say when more SSCs are likely to be licensed, but has
encouraging words for bidders frustrated by the department’s apparent inertia.
"We’re not in the business of holding people back," he maintains.
"If SSCs are getting up to the standards we’re looking for, we’ll push
them on as fast as possible."

During the transitionary period, the SSDA is working with about 25
expressions of interest, to help would-be SSCs meet requirements, and is
examining bids from NTOs for interim funding, which is available until August
to ensure essential work continues. This process will help identify potentially
strong aspects of the network and highlight where there may be weaknesses and
pinpoint gaps.

"We need to listen to what people are telling us they absolutely need
to do in this period," says Duff. "Once we’ve gone through all the
bids for transitional funding, we’ll take stock of what we’ve committed to,
what we need to commit to and what the likely issues are for the future. It’s
where there are worries over gaps in the network that I’d be most
concerned."

The other priority for Duff is recruiting a capable team. He hopes to have
his four directors in position during May and June, and to advertise other jobs
by the end of May.

Over the next few months, the SSDA will progressively pick up more of its
work from the interim project team.

"My plan is that, by September, the SSDA will have the capability to
take over the running of all necessary functions. We’ll have the key staff in
place and will have made that transition," he says.

By September, the SSDA will also have moved into its new offices in
Wath-upon-Dearne, a regeneration area north of Sheffield. The full complement
of 40 to 50 staff will not be reached until later.

So what does its chief executive see as the role of the SSDA?

It is, in a nutshell, to ensure that SSCs are effective and influential. The
role combines monitoring and active support. "On the one hand, we need to
judge the effectiveness and credibility of SSCs and make recommendations to the
Secretary of State. On the other, we will be very supportive in getting that
network up and running and working right alongside SSCs and would-be SSCs so
that everyone can be as effective as possible," Duff explains. "It’s
not in our interests to sit back and monitor – we’ll be actively working with
the network."

The SSDA will add value by identifying good practice, developing frameworks
for research, and highlighting and co-ordinating work around cross-sector
skills.

Duff also wants to see a congruence with other bodies. "Crucially, and
particularly in our first two years, we will be co-ordinating the influence of
the SSCs and the wider network with bodies that are providing learning – LSCs,
UfI, RDAs – then drilling down from them directly to those bodies that are
providing learning on the ground, such as further education colleges and
work-based learning providers. I want to see SSCs having clout with the
Government, suppliers of learning and other stakeholders – and I think they
will. The SSDA can facilitate that."

One way of doing so is through its board members, who were being recruited
at the time of going to press.

"We’ve had a very good quality field to choose from and I’m confident
that we’ll have a significant and influential board," Duff says.
"That will be a direct route into employers and networks of employers.
There will be a lot of leadership and support so we can get out and harness
employer enthusiasm."

Future perspective

Duff sees employer involvement as a key factor in tackling the skills and
productivity agenda from both a national and sectoral perspective. He aims to
develop a strategic, forward-looking approach to addressing the main issues for
the future, rather than simply dealing with the present.

Anxious to retain those employers who supported NTOs, Duff sees a great
opportunity to reach out to more influential employers and get them involved in
the new network.

"With capable, strategic, well-funded SSCs, employers will be more
motivated and see a bigger return from their involvement. I have faith that
their voices are going to be heard once things are up and running, but I’m well
aware that there are some transition issues we need to work on."

For Duff, the aim is to build on the strengths of the NTO network but make
that big step into something very new and different. And he is utterly positive.

"I buy into the vision," he says. "I absolutely think it’s
do-able and we can make a difference."

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