Civil Service Award winners: Leading the way to better lives for victims of the Troubles

There was no shortage of talented individuals and teams recognised in this year’s Civil Service Awards. In this series, CSW talked to some of the winners about their work and how it felt to win. First up is Chris Atkinson, who won the Inspirational Leadership Award for his work coordinating the delivery of long-stalled plans for a payments scheme to help people left with permanent disabilities as a result of conflict in Northern Ireland. He tells CSW about the background to the project
Chris Atkinson

By Civil Service World

05 May 2021

First up is Chris Atkinson, who won the Inspirational Leadership Award for his work coordinating the delivery of long-stalled plans for a payments scheme to help people left with permanent disabilities as a result of conflict in Northern Ireland. He tells CSW about the background to the project.

A new payments scheme to support people who are permanently disabled because of injuries they sustained during the Troubles will shortly open for applications after years of political discussion. In February, a senior policy officer in the Northern Ireland Office who played a key role in progressing the scheme won the Inspirational Leadership Award in the annual Civil Service Awards for his efforts.

Chris Atkinson began working on the Troubles Permanent Disablement Payment Scheme – or the Victims’ Payments Scheme for short – in October 2018, with colleagues in the NIO’s Legacy Group.

The scheme is designed to help people left, through no fault of their own, with disablement caused by life-changing injuries from incidents such as bombings or shootings during the Troubles. Who should be eligible for the scheme had been long debated, and work to progress it in Northern Ireland had stalled. But an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 set a legal deadline for the scheme to be set up, with parliament requiring the NIO to act because of how long debates about it had been ongoing, and because there had also not been an executive in place at Stormont for more than a year and a half following the collapse of power-sharing.

Atkinson was tasked with leading the UK government’s work to meet the requirement. He led a team that consulted on what the Victims’ Payment Scheme should look like with victims themselves, support groups, political parties, academics, and statutory authorities. He also worked with the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which will support the independent board administering the scheme, and other UK government departments with an interest in it.

“I always wanted to approach this in a collaborative way, so it was really important that we worked hand in glove with the right people,” Atkinson said. “The scheme needed careful design work and to be mindful of the very particular needs of victims and survivors. I was really lucky that someone joined the team from another government department who had experience of dealing with complex schemes, another experienced in engagement, as well as others with relevant technical expertise. Wider teams in the NIO were brilliant at sharing their expertise.”

Atkinson added: “From the very get-go we sought to map out what the victims’ journey and experience should be right the way through the scheme. How do you support them from the very early stages – from ‘do I want to make an application?’ to being told whether or not they’re going to get a payment.”

Atkinson said there was a lot of expertise and experience in the victims sector and his team went out and made themselves available for as long as people wanted to talk during the consultation process.

“It was really important for us to build credibility and trust with people, as there are sensitive issues involved and it was so important to us that this scheme be people centred in its approach,” he said.

“Ultimately, the scheme is about providing acknowledgement and a measure of financial support to those who are eligible. We were prepared to drive half way across the country if that was what it took to have those conversations, or made ourselves available out of hours, as we wanted to get this right.”

Atkinson had a core team of around five people with a further 10 or so colleagues from the Legacy Group helping out at times. They were also supported by colleagues with significant experience and expertise in running consultations.

He added that the team “invested a lot of time” working with a group of NICS staff preparing to implement the proposals, both before and after the regulations were made, “to help ensure the implementation experts could pick up the scheme straight away from us”.

Atkinson is currently on secondment at the Independent Reporting Commission, which was set up to report on efforts to tackle residual paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. It is an arm’s-length body sponsored by the NIO.

How did it feel to win the award?

“It was amazing. I was just completely taken aback. It was humbling to even be shortlisted, because the two people who I was shortlisted with had done incredible things. Kelsey Williams had done an amazing piece of work around Black Lives Matter in the Department for Education and Chris Rampling, HM Ambassador to Lebanon, clearly just had so much respect and love from all of his team.

“It’s made me realise how grateful I am to have had this experience. I’ve met and got to work with some incredible people, particularly people who were injured in the Troubles.  I genuinely found them inspiring to work with and to meet.”

What lessons for other parts of the civil service are there from your experience with the scheme?

“There are a couple. One was the importance of identifying early on who would have an interest and building a relationship with them. Me and my deputy director just went out and had coffee with a couple of people who had been lobbying and campaigning around this for a long time. Sometimes there’s a nervousness within the civil service that we can’t go out and engage until we’ve got something to say. But people really value being listened to, so for me, prioritising that really helped.

“Also identifying across Whitehall who else might be interested, and who else might be able to help you. I was lucky enough to meet someone who had been involved in the Windrush scheme who was extremely useful, as were colleagues from DWP who had experience with industrial injuries, and others.”

How did you celebrate the awards win?

“I was able to celebrate with my family.”

Who nominated you for the award?

“My old deputy director, Ruth, who leads the Legacy Group very kindly put me forward, cheered on by my director, Chris, and the NIO’s perm sec – Madeleine Alessandri – who’s a very big advocate of the Civil Service Awards."

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