Opinion: Rob Whiteman on leading - and abolishing - the UKBA
Former UK Border Agency chief executive Rob Whiteman writes about the challenges and frustrations of heading up, and ultimately dismantling, the organisation
"I was briefed during the UKBA recruitment process that it would be challenging, so I went into it with my eyes wide open. On arrival, it was clear that the relationship between UKBA and the Home Office was strained. Also, different parts of the agency did not work well with each other. There had, by necessity, been a lot of piecemeal change over the years to meet new policy requirements, but no overall review of how all the teams within the system should work together.
We restructured the organisation around four areas, and developed an operating model or ‘wiring diagram’ to show all staff how the system fitted together. So border screening, immigration casework, and law enforcement activity became three new groups – each of which turned into a DG-led command when the agency was abolished – and we centralised all support roles, such as intelligence and operational guidance, which had been spread across UKBA. These were subsequently subsumed into the Home Office.
I am proud of how fast we moved against the odds to not only reorganise into these new and clearer functions, but also to hold 48 ‘viewpoint’ sessions with staff in the UK and around the world within months of the Olympics finishing. But it was far from plain sailing!
The hardest thing was the unrelenting media attention on a wide range of issues, such as backlogs, tourist visas, foreign national offenders and border checks. I remained cheerful throughout, but I was uncomfortable for my family when we had journalists at our door or I was plastered over the press. The professional frustration was that the new leadership team needed time and patience to tackle the underlying causes. In the past, I’d been lucky enough to find that motoring ahead turned organisations around; it was a hard learning experience for me that this wouldn’t be enough. The agency was overwhelmed by its bad press. Quite simply, it had become the story, and its abolition gave managers more space to concentrate on completing the changes we’d begun.
I didn’t join the UKBA to abolish it. But while everyone imagines I must be somewhat battered and bruised, not a bit of it! When the going gets tough, you learn a lot about yourself, the things to do again, and the things that didn’t work.
Keeping perspective is important. Family and friends mean a huge amount to me. My dear brother passed away at the time we abolished UKBA and, as anyone will tell you, that’s a much bigger test of one’s resilience."
Rob Whiteman was chief executive of the UK Border Agency (UKBA) from September 2011 to its abolition in March 2013, and became chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) in October 2013.
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