“Clearly some services are under pressure. There is concern. There’s stress” – the new head of the Charity for Civil Servants on his plan to help officials through tough times

Written by Jessica Bowie on 7 December 2015 in Interview
Interview

After a few months in post, Graham Hooper tells Jess Bowie about his organisation’s work supporting civil servants in need, and outlines his plans for the future of the charity

Graham Hooper, chief executive of the Charity for Civil Servants

Graham Hooper is a man with a plan. “For me, it’s all about understanding our audiences, so we can better shape what we do,” says the new(ish) CEO of the Charity for Civil Servants. “My ultimate vision is that no-one has to struggle with life challenges on their own – that we don’t leave someone to struggle with a problem. We exist to help them with that problem, whatever it might be. How we make that a reality is the thing I need to wrestle with over the next few years.”

During a distinguished 23-year civil service career, Hooper held senior positions including head of marketing for the Home Office, head of corporate communications at the Cabinet Office and, finally, joint chief executive of the Central Office of Information (COI), where he was responsible for over 400 staff. 

In 2011, he left to work in private consultancy, advising on behavioural and strategic business issues with a range of public and private sector clients, before taking over from Merrick Wills as CEO of the Charity for Civil Servants in March.


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Founded in 1886, the charity helps civil servants, past and present, deal with issues relating to money, stress and anxiety, relationships, mental health, dementia and more. Hooper, 51, hopes his marketing background will allow him to “contribute something different to the charity”. He sat down with CSW to share his thoughts on everything from austerity to domestic violence to the importance of taking a walk.

You’ve been in the job six months now. What are some of the challenges that you’ve had to overcome?

There’s an ongoing challenge, which is how we use all the strategic insight we have within the organisation in the most effective way to build the charity for the future. Understanding the detail and the needs of the audiences we’re here to serve, and being able to adapt our services to match those needs, is something that I’m eager for us to do. But I think we’ll never quite get there. It’s one of those things you’ll always be striving to do even better.

What have you learnt about marketing from your time in Whitehall and your consultancy experience?

That if you apply marketing appropriately at the beginning of the process, it can help you save money and become far more efficient and effective as an organisation. But you need to include it at the top table and have that conversation at the very beginning of the process, not see it as a bolt-on at the end.

Was your background in marketing one of the reasons you got the job?

It’s a reason I thought it might be worth applying. I felt it gave me an opportunity to contribute something different to the charity. The thing I felt, and have felt since I’ve been here, is that the charity is in very, very good shape and it’s doing some great things. What it perhaps now needs as the next phase of development is a strategic direction.

What are the priorities for the charity, in your opinion?

Clearly some services are under pressure. The civil service is reducing. There is concern. There’s stress. There are all sorts of health and wellbeing issues that come up in different ways within the service. The difficulty we have is that isolating any one of those can be quite risky, because actually it’s an interplay between all sorts of things – whether it’s debt, other financial challenges, a relationship issue or health. If you understand your audiences and their needs in detail, you can tackle the root problem, which enables the whole to be solved and for another problem not to happen further down the process. 

What’s the most common issue among people who apply for your help?

Well, our original purpose was to provide grants to help people who were in financial difficulty, and that’s a core element of what we do. We can support people financially when they fall on hard times that weren’t anticipated, for whatever reason. So it’s people who are in quite serious difficulty, and we can support them either by providing a grant or by helping them with buying things they might need in an emergency, or with building work or whatever it might be that’s needed. That is a unique offer, and it’s usually somewhere within the mix of what we do for people.

However, because we are learning more about how that fits with everything else, all those other things I mentioned earlier build up around them. Dementia is, I think, worth mentioning specifically, because we also work on behalf of people who have been civil servants in the past, who have retired, are pending retirement and/or people who have got dementia. We have the Carer’s Passport [an initiative to help accommodate the workplace needs of civil servants with care responsibilities], but we need to find other ways of helping support those people who are looking after those with dementia, if not wrestling with early dementia themselves. It’s about what we can do in those areas to help people ensure they either stay in work, or are supported once they’ve left us.

Could you tell us about the work you’re doing on domestic violence?

We work in partnership with the Corporate Alliance Against Domestic Violence, and it’s a way of trying to draw the issue out, so people actually are prepared to talk about domestic violence. It’s about flushing out the problem in a way that enables people to ask for help. Those involved with the Corporate Alliance will receive different elements of help, so we might provide grants to help cut their rent arrears, support a single parent who’s got a problem because of domestic violence to look after their child, or whatever it might be. We help provide that safety net for them.

What fundraising initiatives are you focusing on in 2016?

There are a number of things that we do on a regular basis. We’ve just recently completed the Walking Challenge, which is a way not just of fundraising, but is actually a very important way of engaging the civil service workforce as a whole. It gets people walking – 10,000 steps a day for 50 days – which is obviously good from a health and wellbeing point of view. I think over 2,000 people got involved with the challenge this year. So it serves a very nice awareness-raising job for us, as well as delivering a health and wellbeing outcome, and a reduction of sick days – that kind of thing.

Since CSW met your predecessor a year ago, the government has announced a continuation of the pay freeze, caps on redundancy pay outs and, for some departments, huge budget cuts. Is that having an impact on the number of civil servants who are taking up your offers of support, and are you worried about the next few years?

I think “worried” is strong. At the risk of repeating myself, it comes back to that understanding of the audiences. The circumstances will change. I think that’s the point about the challenge we have. It continues to change. The context within which we operate continues to change. You’ve just described the situation that’s facing the civil service at the moment: that’s a tightening context from where it was even last year. We have to anticipate what that might mean, and I think that certainly is likely to conjure up more challenges for us of the kind that we’re already facing. So we just have to adapt and be ready to deal with whatever that generates.

Do you think there’s a point of tension, in that civil service managers might see your very existence as some admission of failure on their part?

I would hope not. A huge number of organisations have employment-related charities, from bankers through to shop workers and grocers or whatever. We’re no different from any other profession in that respect. Equally, the circumstances the civil service finds itself in at the moment are obviously very challenging for all sorts of reasons, and what we want to do is complement the work of the civil service to help support in the best way we can. So it shouldn’t be seen as an admission of any kind of failure [on the part of managers], it’s simply a way of complementing and supporting the service that senior civil servants are trying to deliver in challenging times.

During your time in the civil service, did you feel that you were made aware of what the charity offered?

The honest answer is probably no. I was aware of it; I wasn’t aware of the detail of what it did and therefore I hadn’t had as much contact with the charity as I perhaps should’ve done.

Based on your experience, what are the main differences between working in Whitehall and the private sector?

I think the civil service is a lot better at doing things than it probably gives itself credit for. A lot of the private sector is hugely impressive, but actually I still found that, probably on balance, my preference was for working with civil servants. The civil service has the desire to do things properly, from understanding the objectives, understanding the nature of a problem, interrogating the issues, developing strategies, delivering and evaluating it. Very often the shortcut was taken within the private sector: it was just a knee jerk response to something. That’s fine, but you don’t necessarily have the rigour: I like the fact [in the civil service] you can think things through and get it right, and you have to justify exactly what you’ve done within the public sector.

How would you like to see the charity developing in the future?

We need to anticipate needs and prepare ourselves to meet them in the best, most efficient and effective way possible, rather than simply waiting for those needs to become real and for us to respond. It’s not just about responding, it’s about anticipating those needs by understanding the audience we’re serving. There are things you can do that mean you might be able to develop an intervention earlier in the process that prevents a more costly intervention further down the track.

The charity is doing fantastic things. I want to understand why those things are fantastic and pick the best ones – concentrate on those that work most effectively in order to be as efficient an organisation as we can be in the future, on behalf of the people that we serve.

For more information about the Charity for Civil Servants, visit foryoubyyou.org.uk

About the author

Jessica Bowie is the editor of Civil Service World. She tweets as @CSWEditor

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