There was a time when civil servants and private sector professionals operated in their separate camps, with little crossover or understanding of each other’s practices.
This situation, however, changed following the formation of the independent organisation the Whitehall & Industry Group, which was formed 20 years ago to promote cross-sector working.
“Our purpose is to bring senior people from the public and private sectors together, and improve their understanding of each other,” says the group’s chief executive Sally Cantello. “Traditionally, the two sectors have operated in silos, although this is happening less now.”
The group runs a number of projects, events and workshops to bring individuals from different sectors together, focusing on attachments, secondments, non-executive directorships and ‘organisational raids’.
While the first three are fairly self-explanatory, the term ‘organisational raid’ is an unusual one. Cantello explains: “It came about when we worked with a group of NHS chief executives. They wanted to see how another organisation did things, but couldn’t afford the time to go out on secondment.
“So we decided to get them out for a short, sharp look at another organisation,” she says. “The raids went so well that we decided to offer them to our members as a standard activity, and the working title name caught on.”
Usually in an organisational raid, Cantello explains, two organisations get together to discuss a theme of interest – such as knowledge management, talent retention, and strategic planning – and share learning, information and practices.
She says this public-private sector sharing of strategies and knowledge is invaluable. “It means better informed policy, more consultation and better legislation,” she explains. “Industry knows better how government works, and can help to inform government when it’s creating policy that will affect enterprise. Government can also inform industry on how it works, and the pressures it is under.”
But participating individuals also gain, in terms of their career development and motivation. Cantello says attachments, secondments and non-executive directorships, in particular, can revitalise a career.
“They can help people at very senior levels move sideways. Sometimes, when a person has been in a certain career or industry for many years, they feel hemmed in, and that they can’t move on.”
By spending time in another organisation, even on a short-term basis, individuals gain exposure to different ways of thinking and working, which they can take back with them.
On the board at the Whitehall & Industry Group is Cabinet Office director of talent in the HR department, John Barker, who has overseen several exchange programmes within government.
“It is really helpful to have an external stimulus,” he says. “Someone bringing in skills that we don’t have in abundance, and helping us to come up with innovative solutions. It helps us to develop skills internally as well.”
Barker cites the once-a-week secondment scheme as particularly effective. “The difficulty of full-time secondments is that people can become detached from their parent organisation,” he says.
Cantello agrees that alienation can be a problem for people returning from secondments, unless it is managed well. “The person needs to have a mentor in the parent organisation who keeps in touch with them and relates to their experiences on secondment,” she says.
Another potential problem is that a person returns to their organisation, after a year away learning new skills, to find that they are expected to slot back into their old role with no opportunity for progression. It is important that secondees are allowed to use the new skills they have developed, in a role with greater responsibility. Otherwise, it can feel like a wasted exercise for the individual and the parent organisation.
Wig started arranging attachments to overcome the problem of people being away from their organisation for long periods of time. Attachments tend to be short periods of, say, three weeks or one day a week for six months. The group stipulates that attachments and secondments have to be project-based, so that there is a tangible goal and benefit for everyone.
Non-executive directorships have only been a part of Wig activities for the past four years. Cantello says they have been very popular, with 55 placements on to government boards. Like attachments and secondments, these directorships are about enabling people to share and enhance their skills in different environments.
Personnel Today has interviewed four people who have experienced a secondment, attachment, organisational raid or non-executive directorships.
Solving problems on secondment
Essie Omoma is business communications manager at the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), working for its Gateways directorate. She is on a secondment as corporate development director at Tools for Schools, a charity that aims to give every UK schoolchild access to a PC.
She says: “At OGC, I helped to establish a new directorate, which was responsible for reviewing major government procurement projects. My role involved business planning and stakeholder communications.
“The OGC was encouraging managers to widen their experience. It specifically wanted people to develop in the areas of general leadership management, risk management, delivering change and delivering through people.
“This secondment fulfils all of those areas. I have already got greater leadership skills, learned new resource management skills and a greater ability to see the bigger picture,” she says.
Omoma says the fit was perfect as the charity was looking for an experienced manager and change agent to develop specific parts of its business plan.
“It is important to maintain formal and informal links with your parent organisation and colleagues when you go on secondment or you could be forgotten. I have a named HR contact at OGC, and I already had a mentor. The HR department at OGC also has a keep-in-touch scheme, which sends out regular bulletins.
“Anyone who takes a secondment needs to get line manager buy-in and to minimise the impact on them. I made sure my departure coincided with the start of the new business planning cycle,” she says.
Non-executive director challenges
Mark Barnes is business transformation director for customer services at utility management company, United Utilities. He is a non-executive director on the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ England rural development programme board.
He says: “This position is a very good fit with my experience and profile, although I’m used to working in a very different environment. I give 20 days a year, including attending programme board meetings one day a month and reading documents evenings and weekends.
As a result, Barnes says he’s had exposure to a wide range of different environments, senior civil servants and ministers. “I’ve developed my communications, team working and leadership skills and have strengthened my ability to deliver key messages and sell myself at board level.”
Barnes says he has learned to take a more direct approach, to deal with things more speedily and to focus on the effects on the business. This has given his managing director, and others in the business, more confidence to use him to do other things, he says.
And what does United Utilities get out of the situation?
“It gets all of those enhanced skills and it is part of my personal development programme,” says Barnes. “Doing a non-executive role allows you to deliver against your current role, and grow into bigger, better roles. The project comes to an end sometime this year, and then I would like to do another directorship.”
Attachments add to network
Siobhan Kenny, director of strategy and communications at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, did a two-week attachment at BT, reviewing its corporate social responsibility strategy.
She says: “I wanted to look at another big organisation with lots of communication challenges, and how it dealt with them. It was part of my personal development plan, and I thought it would be much more useful professionally, and personally, to get involved in a proper project, rather than go on another management training course. I wanted to apply my existing skills and learn new ones.”
Kenny says that during those two weeks, she spoke to a lot of people at BT – stakeholders, external people and experts – produced a report, drawing parallels to her own job, she says there are plenty of the same challenges facing public and private organisations.
“It was refreshing to have a finite chunk of time to look at a problem, and find solutions. Short-term projects can give you great discipline to bring back to your role,” she says.
Kenny says it was also interesting to meet other people doing similar jobs in other arenas. “It is another network of people,” she says. “You realise there is another world outside your own. The experience made me think I would quite like to be a consultant,” she says.
Organisational raid with Unilever
Ursula Brennan, director general for natural resources and rural affairs at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), did an organisational raid with Unilever in November 2004.
She says: “As an organisation, it was of interest to us because it is a big organisation with a complex hierarchy and structure – so not wildly different to the Civil Service. Inter-board exchanges are a way of having a short, highly-focused exchange on matters of mutual interest.
Eight members of the Defra management board, plus some support people, and six senior people from Unilever, plus some support people, got together for a morning brainstorming session, with the Whitehall & Industry Group acting as facilitator. We had exchanged information beforehand and had set an agenda,” Brennan says.
“In practice, what was valuable was picking on a couple of topics, saying we have these challenges, and this is how we have tackled them,” says Brennan. “The discussion was quite free-ranging, but we were particularly interested in leadership. It is not often that senior people get to talk freely with each other on topics, such as leadership and management development, and in such an informal setting.
She praises the Unilever team for its openness. “People were prepared to say ‘we’ve tried this and it worked’, or ‘we’re wrestling with this but it’s not working’, that made the difference. The HR directors took away specific issues that they wanted to follow up with each other,” she says.
According to Brennan, a whole day would have been too long and would have stopped the right people attending. “Having a structured conversation that was a short, concentrated burst was right,” she says.
For more information about the Whitehall & Industry Group go to www.wig.co.uk
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