Inside the civil service's "mobile, flexible" Surge and Rapid Response Team

Written by Matt Foster on 11 January 2017 in Feature

Special report: In just two years, the Surge and Rapid Response Team has gone from an idea for coping with Whitehall’s spending squeeze to a workforce of more than 300 apprentices ready to be deployed across departments – and cut the civil service's reliance on agency staff. Matt Foster meets the team behind it

Few things focus minds like a crisis and, in 2014, the Passport Office was smack bang in the middle of one. Faced with an unexpected rise in demand, tight resources, and a growing backlog of passport applications, ministers were urged by MPs and the press to get a grip on a situation that risked causing misery for British holidaymakers. 

The subsequent decision to bring the Passport Office back under the direct control of the Home Office and scrap its agency status later in the year certainly grabbed headlines. But the event also prompted some wider soul-searching about the way the civil service deals with sudden spikes in activity.

Ruth Owen, head of the civil service-wide Operational Delivery Profession and the director general of customer service at HMRC (pictured below), is no stranger to those pressures. In 2014, the tax authority faced stinging criticism from the Public Accounts Committee after a cut in staffing precipitated a sharp drop in customer service.

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“We didn’t offer the level of service we needed to,” she says. “So it led to a conversation about the kind of capacity we need to manage surges in demand.”

Many of those spikes in demand – such as the annual rise in requests for tax credit renewals that HMRC experiences every July – have, Owen says, traditionally been met using existing staff. But this has become more difficult as headcount has fallen.

“Some of them are known surges, and whereas, in the past, we might have had flexible resources that could have coped with it, now we don’t,” she says. “But at the same time we’re becoming more customer-focused in the civil service – so we don’t want having tight resources to be an excuse for having poor service.”

Christine Ward, head of surge management for the wider civil service, explains the challenge ministers presented to senior officials following the 2014 troubles. “Could we find a better way to provide operational resilience across the civil service? Could we create a mobile, flexible workforce that could respond both to planned surges and to crisis management situations?”

The answer, Owen believed, was the Surge and Rapid Response Team – a dedicated group of staff ready to be rapidly deployed across departments at times of crisis or high demand, offering them extra clout either on the frontline or in the back office. But the Operational Delivery chief admits – albeit in classic civil service terms – that the initial proposal was not universally welcomed across Whitehall. 

“I think it would be fair to say there were mixed views,” Owen says with a grin. “Some people said: ‘You’ll never be able to create a workforce that can flex across departments because our workforce, quite rightly, are knowledgeable. They’re not just shallow skills – they can actually help customers with in-depth queries.’”

Two years on, however, and the tongue-twistingly named SRRT is now in “a really good place”, according to Owen. The team, which began with around 200 staff members and is aiming to grow to a 450-strong force in the early part of this year, has already got stuck into a “real mix” of deployments, she says.

Those have included manning helplines for concerned Brits when Greece looked set to leave the Eurozone, as well as when a terrorist attack struck the Tunisian resort of Port El Kantaoui in 2015. And Surge staff have also helped customers to get to grips with the new e-gates at Heathrow airport, and provided extra clout at the Rural Payments Agency when an EU rule change caused a big spike in demand.

The SRRT is also unusual in being entirely staffed by apprentices rather than existing administrative civil servants which, Owen says, has allowed the civil service to experiment with new, more flexible employment contracts.

“We had to be really up-front and say: ‘You need to be highly flexible, you need to be highly mobile.’ Part of the contract involves being geographically mobile, which is quite unusual at [the existing] administrative officer level. Surge staff need to be able to be deployed within 24 hours’ notice anywhere within the UK – and of course, now we’ve had an overseas assignment as well. It’s not right to ask existing employees to sign up for that.”

But as well as bringing that flexibility, the apprentices also add a fresh perspective to the civil service workforce, says Pauline Adey, who, as head of the national operational team, spends much of her time with Surge staff on the frontline.

“We have a wonderful tapestry of people,” Adey (pictured left on a visit to parliament with the team) says. “It’s that diversity that makes surge what it is. Our youngest apprentice is 17 years old. And our oldest is 63. And we have everything in between.”

Unlike some routes into the civil service, recruiting Surge apprentices is not, Adey explains, “based on qualifications”. This means it gives people who may not normally consider a career in the organisation a chance to put themselves forward as candidates.

“While they have to reach a certain level of basic skills in numeracy and literacy by the end of their apprenticeship, we don’t necessarily expect them to have that at the start,” she says. 

“So people are bringing to the table different types of skills, very human skills – empathy, having had the experience of being unemployed or in a difficult situation. And it really does help them deal with the people that we deal with. 

“I’m so proud when I hear them talking to people on the telephone or face-to-face. They have the most excellent people skills, because they are bringing those just from their own humanity and their background.”

For the apprentices themselves, says Sandra Aston, head of the Operational Delivery Profession Team, Surge is “really just the beginning” of a journey that could take them anywhere in the civil service once their training is complete.

“They get a massive amount of exposure to so many different types of departments, different ways of working – much more so than if you were an administrative officer starting in HMRC tomorrow.”

"Blistering pace"

HMRC, which looks after the SRRT, aims to provide an end-to-end service for departments which bid for their help. The team provides line management for the apprentices, draws up their contracts, and ensures they are equipped with the kind of generic customer service and administrative skills that they will need to hit the ground running in most government organisations.

But there is also an understanding that departments themselves are best-placed to get the apprentices up to speed on the individual workings of their organisation.

“What we have insisted on is that the training from departments is very focused and very tailored to the job that they’ve got to do,” Adey says. “Some of the background they might need if they were going to work in a department for 10 years, they don’t necessarily need for a deployment. They need very focused learning on what they’re going to do. And then they get in there and deliver that very quickly.”

That combination of structured apprenticeship training in the basics, with short bursts of tailored coaching ahead of each deployment, allows the team to operate at what Adey calls a “blistering pace”. “They perform very well, they’re very fresh, and they’re very focused on delivering the deployment,” she says.

Ward (pictured left), who manages the relationships between the Surge team and their temporary departmental homes, meanwhile stresses the importance of ensuring the apprentices are given a tightly defined set of tasks, saying bids from departments “have to fall within the scope of the Operational Delivery Profession”.

“That means that the work has to be dealing directly with citizens or businesses, or providing support to people who deal with citizens or businesses that make a difference to customers’ lives,” she says. “We don’t get involved with project work or with policy work. It is that operational delivery work – or supporting operational delivery – that the Surge apprentices carry out.”

As Aston explains, getting the deployment agreement between departments and the Surge team right is crucial, “so that everybody understands what they’re there to do – and, just as importantly, what they’re not there to do”.

“The more you can be clear up front about the expectation, then the less room there is really for people to be unhappy or confused about what’s being asked,” she adds.

Departments "should look internally first"

Two years into the SRRT’s existence, Owen says its reputation is growing across Whitehall – indeed, when CSW meets the Operational Delivery head, the Surge team has just scooped the Dame Lesley Strathie Operational Excellence Award at the Civil Service Awards. 

“The feedback we get from every single department that we’ve deployed in is that these guys are great,” Owen says. “They tend to bust through performance targets.”

But, despite the growing demand across the civil service for help from the SRRT, Owen is clear that the success of the model does not mean leaders can forget about the need to ensure that their own workforce planning is up to scratch. 

The relatively small Surge team will not, she says, “always be available”, so departments should still be looking to their own ranks for any spare capacity before they pick up the phone and try and send in the Surge team.

“Sometimes we get requests for 20 or 30 people and you think, ‘well, if you’re a big, national government department you can probably find 20 or 30 people’,” Owen says.

“Sometimes they can’t and there’s a genuine specialist need. But they should look internally first – and if you can’t, of course the SRRT is the place to look.”

However, while Surge’s leadership is keen to stress that the new team is not there to ease every capacity crunch facing the civil service, they do believe it can provide an attractive alternative to the usual route out of a workforce crisis – bringing in expensive agency staff.

In 2016, the cost of using the Surge team fell by 15%, a move the Operational Delivery Profession says now makes them “competitive on cost” against outside help.

The SRRT has, Ward says, now established a reputation for being “more able to conduct business” than agency staff, particularly given that they “build up expertise as they move from one department to the other”. 

“The cost-benefits are seen much quicker,” she adds. “They can be active much quicker – and their outputs are better when we are comparing them with agency staff.”

While Owen won’t be drawn on whether she sees an optimum size for the still-growing SRRT in the future, she says it is vital that the team keeps “testing and learning” in the years to come.

And the experience of setting up the unit and seeing it flourish has, Owen says, made her think “very differently” about the structure of the civil service, which is often criticised for struggling to work across departmental boundaries.

She believes frontline staff should increasingly be encouraged to think “horizontally” about their careers, not just climbing the ladder in one department, but moving across the civil service and making use of “skills that are much more transferable than they probably realise”.

“This is what I’ve really been trying to create in the Surge and Rapid Response Team,” Owen says. “Although they are, if you like, hosted by HMRC, I want them to feel like they are Operational Delivery professionals first, civil service first, and therefore don’t feel that kind of tribalism or allegiance to one particular department.

“I have tried to keep them slightly aloof from HMRC operations – because they belong to all of us.” 

Departments interested in making use of the SRRT should contact, Christine Ward, head of civil service surge Management


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Matt Foster
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Matt Foster is CSW's deputy editor. He tweets as @CSWDepEd

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