We were civil servants, now we… run a mental health charity

Written by Ella Joseph and Natalie Acton on 1 October 2019 in Feature

In the latest of our series about civil service leavers, we meet Ella Joseph and Natalie Acton, who together lead the charity Think Ahead, which runs a graduate scheme training people for a career in mental health social work.

Natalie Acton (left) and Ella Joseph. Photo: Think Ahead

Tell us about your career as a civil servant.

Ella Joseph: I joined the civil service in 2003, initially on secondment from the Institute for Public Policy Research, a think tank. I started out in the Social Exclusion Unit in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister – the predecessor to MHCLG. I then went on to lead the independent Leitch Review of Skills at the Treasury and then joined the Department for Education, where I worked for eight years in deputy director roles in strategy, child health and wellbeing, and special educational needs and disability.

Natalie Acton: After joining the Treasury on the fast stream in 1998, I spent four years at No.10 working for Tony Blair on social policy, crime and social exclusion. I was seconded to local government and became assistant director of children’s services at Lewisham Council – this type of external experience was highly valued by the civil service at the time. When I returned to central government, I worked in various deputy director roles in the Department for Education and the Department for International Development – including line managing offices in Burma, Indonesia and Central Asia.

EJ: In 2014, Natalie and I left the civil service (initially on secondment) to set up Think Ahead. And it’s fair to say that we’ve loved the last five years.

What did you enjoy, and not enjoy, about working in the civil service? 

EJ: I met some brilliant people in the civil service, many of whom remain good friends today, and I learnt a lot from them. I think being an effective civil servant is a real craft and the years spent working in the structure of a big department were great training for my current role.

My main gripe about the day-to-day life of a civil servant is the volume of emails – there didn’t seem to be a discerning use of “reply all”. 

NA: I really enjoyed working with politicians and always enjoyed the team working atmosphere in the civil service. But on the downside, I found that in some roles I felt removed from the impact my policy work was having in the real world. Fortunately there are so many different opportunities in the civil service and I took advantage of the opportunities to move departments and even shift my focus from domestic to international policy. I loved the challenge of having to get up to speed quickly in new policy areas.

Why did you decide to leave and what attracted you about your current job? 

NA: I felt that I’d been a civil servant for a really long time – it had been around 16 years – and I was looking for a job that would feel closer to the ultimate beneficiaries of my work. I wanted to work on an issue that I felt strongly about – which for me was mental health. When I read IPPR’s report recommending that a graduate programme in mental health social work be set up, I was really excited by it. Social workers can play a key role in supporting people affected by severe and enduring mental illness but their potential is not always recognised – so to change that, I put myself forward as the person to set up Think Ahead.

EJ: My reasons are similar. I wanted to work in a different way, where I had more autonomy to shape my work and the work environment. When the opportunity cropped up to set up an organisation from scratch, I jumped at the chance. I found the mission – to find talented people and give them fantastic training to improve the often-overlooked area of adult mental health services – compelling.

What is your new job and what does it involve? 

NA: We are the founding co-chief executives of Think Ahead, a charity running a national graduate programme in mental health. We recruit and train talented graduates and career-changers to become mental health social workers, and through our partnerships we have already helped over 50% of England’s NHS mental health trusts and 30% of local authorities to embed social work more firmly in their mental health teams.

Our day-to-day role involves leading and managing the organisation, and liaising with our trustees, government and stakeholders in the health and social work sectors.

EJ: We job-share, which is very rare for charity chief executives and far less common than it is in Whitehall. To make this arrangement effective for us and our staff, we need to be across all areas of work at all times. This investment of time definitely pays off – there are real benefits to job-sharing, like using each other to stress-test ideas and sending a signal from the top of the organisation that we support flexible working. 

What have you learnt in the new role about yourself and your skills, and how did your experience as a civil servant prepare you for the job?

NA: Setting up a new organisation from scratch would seem like a huge task to anyone, but our experience in government departments gave us confidence that we could build, manage, and motivate a team and persuade stakeholders. We knew we had the skills to set up an organisation and get a new programme off the ground.

EJ: Absolutely – working in Whitehall is a great training ground – particularly if a significant part of your job is working with civil servants. It gives you a sense of perspective of the bigger picture and the national challenges that a government and departments are grappling with on a daily basis.

What have you learnt about how frontline teams and policy makers interact?

EJ: It’s so interesting to interact with ministers and civil servants from the other side of the table. It’s a part of the job that I really enjoy – it gives you a great insight into what it’s like to be on the end of government policy, procurement and political decision-making.

NA: Running a charity that’s largely funded by government, it’s really helpful that we understand the pressures and motivations of the civil servants we’re working with. For example, if someone talks about the budget allocation process in the department, we understand the process they’re going through and how we can share information in a useful way.

What's your advice to others thinking about moving into a leadership role in the charity sector?

EJ: My advice would be that it can be hugely inspiring and incredibly rewarding. I’d really encourage anyone to consider doing a job outside of Whitehall, at least for some time, to get a different perspective – even if they then take that experience back into the civil service. The sense of being your own boss is liberating and energising. We do report to a trustee board, but we’re not part of a big structure: Think Ahead is an autonomous organisation and we have our own voice.

NA: I completely agree with that. We’re in charge of how we spend our time, but with our autonomy also comes real responsibility: the buck stops with us now. If we went back, I think we’d be better civil servants for it.

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Ella Joseph and Natalie Acton
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Ella Joseph and Natalie Acton, co-chief executives of Think Ahead, a charity running one of the UK’s most competitive graduate schemes, which trains talented individuals in mental health social work

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