Interview: Merrick Willis

Written by Sarah Aston on 26 November 2014 in Interview
Interview

Merrick Willis, the outgoing chief executive of the Charity for Civil Servants, tells CSW about his organisation’s work to support struggling officials – and the scepticism that he encounters among Whitehall departments and senior managers

Four years into austerity measures, civil servants are feeling the squeeze: the Public and Commercial Services Union has calculated that civil servants are experiencing a 20% cut in living standards. And it doesn’t look as if the pressure they’re under will ease anytime soon: in September Sir Bob Kerslake, the outgoing head of the civil service, said of austerity that “the first five years have been challenging, but the second five years are likely to prove even harder.” 

At a time like this, Merrick Willis believes, civil servants should be benefitting from the support of their very own charity: the onetime Civil Service Benevolent Fund, now renamed – in Ronseal fashion – as the Charity for Civil Servants (CfCS). Yet most civil servants don’t even know it exists, he complains. Over the last 50 years, awareness of the help the charity provides for former and serving civil servants has collapsed: once, “virtually everybody in the civil service” knew about it, he says. No longer.  

This is “hugely frustrating” for Willis, who says that the charity’s work is sorely needed. Established in 1886, it dedicates its time and resources – it’s funded largely via regular donations from civil servants – to providing financial and emotional support to civil servants struggling with debt, mental health issues, stress and family-orientated problems. And levels of demand are high, he says. By October the CfCS had helped more than 1,500 officials, including 370 who sought mental health advice, 400 who attended the charity’s workplace advice service, and 640 who are involved in its money advice and debt management programme. “Every working day, our staff provide help and advice to at least 50 people and give out an average of £17,500,” says Willis. “They deal with a new call for help every seven minutes.”  

“Why am I finding it so difficult to get the top levels to say: ‘Yes, this is good – we will support it’?”

Demand for the charity’s mental health services has been growing, he explains, and it’s adapted by shifting away from support schemes that offer a “financial sticking plaster” and towards programmes of work that help struggling civil servants to deal with “the pressures of life”. Having undertaken this move, Willis says, “we are now able to say to anybody, at any level: ‘Actually, we can offer you a whole range of help that has nothing necessarily to do with money’.” 

There is unmet demand for this help, Willis insists. So why aren’t civil servants hearing about the charity? He replies that, in part, the answer lies in changes to civil service recruitment and staff development practices. The introduction of the Fast Stream and the increased recruitment of managers from outside government have created a cohort of senior civil servants with little experience of frontline work or life among the administrative grades who most lean on the charity, he argues, and thus weakened a “thread of continuity” within the civil service. Having not learned about the charity during their induction or seen its work in action, Willis believes, these managers don’t understand the benefits it can offer to staff – and thus to civil service organisations. Few of today’s top officials have donated to the charity since they joined the service, he says; the late HMRC chief Leslie Strathie was one of the last permanent secretaries to do so. “If you’re recruited to the Fast Stream and you’re working around the corner [from Parliament], why would you have any conception of the 350,000-odd civil servants who don’t work in London?”, he asks. 

This weakening awareness is hitting the effectiveness and reach of CfCS’s work, says Willis, because managers are less willing to promote its initiatives, allow it access to their staff or support it financially. One in five civil servants donate to the charity’s funds – but of those, “80% are in the administrative grades. Less than one in 20 senior civil servants donate,” he explains.

Some senior managers, says Willis, aren’t just unaware of the charity; they’re positively sceptical about it. Since he began work as chief executive in 2009, he’s found that many senior civil servants are very reluctant to promote the wellbeing initiatives provided by the CfCS. “We know that unfortunately there have been a number of really quite senior people who have been involved in the civil service who have quite openly said things like: ‘These civil servants have fantastically flexible terms and conditions, decent salaries, excellent alliances etcetera. Why should we be concerned with a civil service charity?’,” he complains. “Why am I finding it so difficult to get the top levels to say: ‘Yes, this is good – we will support it’?”

By offering such support, Willis argues, civil service organisations would be helping their own staff to handle problems that might otherwise hit staff productivity, retention and health. When departments do promote the CfCS’s initiatives to staff, he says, large numbers of people approach it for assistance. “We have absolutely clear evidence that where people know about us, in those areas where there is good awareness of what we do, the need comes pouring out,” Willis says, adding: “I’m not expecting suddenly for the charity to be the top of anybody’s agenda, [but] I would be delighted never again to hear of any indifference or even hostility to the very idea of a charity that supports civil servants.”

“We have something called a carers passport, which enables us to articulate their needs as carers – HMRC have really got on board with that.”

It is not all doom and gloom, however, and Willis notes that a number of departments have recognised that working with the charity can prove beneficial. He praises HMRC and the Border Force for publicising initiatives and allowing charity representatives into the workplace to explain to staff what the charity can offer. Allowing the CfCS to highlight individual initiatives, Willis says, has enabled its team to help more than 1,000 HMRC staff to cope with caring responsibilities over the last three years – and this, he says, should be celebrated. “We have something called a carers passport, which enables us to articulate their needs as carersHMRC have really got on board with that,” he adds. 

Another department supporting the charity is the Department for Work and Pensions, which holds an annual ‘dress down day’ to support CfCS’s ‘Fun Week’. Willis explains that support like this helps counter the factors contributing to the fall in awareness of the charity. In another step that should improve its profile amongst managers, the CfCS has also just been granted access to Fast Stream induction events – something that Willis sees as a really positive step forwards: “For the first time, we are now going to Fast Stream induction events, to try and make sure that fast streamers – as future managers and leaders of staff – know that we are here.”

In an age of digital marketing and social media, here’s an obvious question: why isn’t the charity pursuing other means to promote its work? Since 2012, Willis responds, it’s been trying to do exactly this: over the last two years it’s undergone a complete rebrand, and branched out to work with other charities such as Relate and Mind. “We are increasingly getting into the realms of working with partner organisations to provide services and, from the point of view of real innovation, the interesting thing we have started doing is to commission services from other charities,” he says.

Innovation and rebranding only takes you so far, however, and Willis is dependent on senior civil servants “creating an environment in which the charity is perceived as part of what is good,” he argues, adding: “Only by that happening can we do our job.”

Willis will be retiring next year; and as he prepares to pass the baton on – the charity is now starting the recruitment process – his overall attitude is positive. Though awareness levels within the civil service have fallen to an all-time low, Willis and the charity are starting to adapt to the changes in the service’s recruitment process by feeding into Fast Stream inductions – building support among future leaders. And successes in departments such as the DWP and HMRC demonstrate that there is still a significant need for the charity – stiffening its resolve to keep on helping needy civil servants.

“We do have very good support from some individuals and departments,” Willis concludes, “but I would like to see that support and understanding become uniform across the civil service.

“The best thing that we can hope for is a wider acceptance by civil service management that working with their charity – which is supported by so many of their staff – can have a significant impact on the wellbeing of their staff.” 

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