Pushing the agenda for change

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is one of those government departments that, historically, rarely makes the news.

Formed in 2001 by the merger of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions, it brings together all aspects of the government’s responsibilities for the countryside and the environment.

Times have changed though. Over the past few weeks, Defra has led the introduction of the highly-controversial legislation that bans hunting with dogs; it is leading the fight to combat climate change; and has also introduced a raft of measures to clean up local communities and tackle anti-social behaviour.

Plenty is happening externally, but Francesca Okosi, the department’s director of improvement and delivery, is also making the news internally.
The former HR director at Brent Council has been in charge of a complex change management programme since she joined Defra in 2003 – a task that she quickly realised would be a massive challenge.

“When I first got here, I talked to Sir Brian Bender [the permanent secretary], and we both agreed that Defra would be rated poorly if it was judged on the performance assessment ratings that local authorities were subject to,” she told Personnel Today.

There was a huge amount of work to do, including the continuation of the merger of what were “two very different departments, with two very different cultures”, she said. “The new department inherited some very bureaucratic and unfriendly corporate systems, which weren’t supporting business delivery.”

The Treasury, realising the scale of the challenge, has funded Defra to the tune of £45m a year for the past two years.

“The money is there because Defra was in a unique position and there was a need to raise performance,” Okosi explained. “We were one of the first government departments that said we were committed to doing something about our performance – and the Treasury decided it wanted to help us invest in this.”

Part of the overhaul was a major transformation programme for the HR function. “At the time, we had a ratio of about 1:25 in terms of HR professionals to staff – very bureaucratic, unresponsive and not really supporting the department’s objectives,” Okosi said.

So working with Richard Allen, the HR director, she started to bring in strategic HR business partners, streamline operational and transactional activity, and introduced an e-HR programme to support that.

“We devolved what was relevant out to managers to manage,” she said. “Large numbers of staff have had their roles re-focused, with more clerical tasks left to other people.”

The department has also signed a major IT outsourcing contract with IBM, and put in performance management arrangements based around a Balanced Scorecard.

Another strand of Okosi’s work has been investing in people and developing leadership. She admits that, historically, the department’s leadership has not been strong; mainly due to the way people were rewarded.

“People would come into policy roles, be very good at developing ideas and advising ministers, but people management was not strong on their radar,” she said. “It wasn’t the basis on which they had been promoted and their performance recognised.”

So Okosi introduced an assessment and development process, which has seen about 750 senior and middle managers undergo 360-degree feedback, coaching, line manager interaction and the development of action plans.

This year signals the start of taking the change programme a stage further. Defra has made a commitment to devolve and outsource services to agencies around the country that are better able to deliver it, such as the Environment Agency and local authorities.

The department has also been tasked with reducing its headcount as part of the change programme and commitment to the Gershon report. Staff must be reduced from 8,000 to 3,200 by 2008, meaning the core department will be about 60% smaller than when created in 2001.

“There is a huge amount going on now which will involve people moving from working for a core Whitehall department to working for a ‘delivery organisation’,” Okosi said. “We’re very clear that this is about helping us deliver on our strategic priorities. It’s not about change for change’s sake.

“Some of it will be painful, but we are going to support people,” she added. “We are trying to create a better organisation and want to equip people with the right skills so they are doing a job that gives them some sort of pleasure.”

If all goes to plan, by 2008, the department will have implemented its strategy, and Okosi will be out of a job.

“I probably won’t be on board by then. We’ve got a huge amount of resource in this programme [a team of 150 people], and if the programme works, you won’t need that number of people to take it forward,” she said.

What next then – a move to a role in the private sector? A possibility, Okosi said. “Everybody tells me it would be easier and more money,” she joked.

Francesca Okosi: How to implement a change programme

  • Embed the change in what you are trying to deliver. If people can see that what you are trying to do will make their working lives better or improve the work they do, they will be more willing to talk about difficult issues
  • Be upfront about what these difficult issues are, and give people support
  • Rome wasn’t built in a day – change does take time
  • It is very important to register successes and spread the learning. When people bring in new ideas, try to get that information across to other colleagues. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel
  • Have people out in the business evangelising, not just those in the centre. Others must take the lead

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