Eric Robinson has learned a lot over the last couple of years – not least that his staff were “way more flexible” than he was when the world turned upside down in 2020.
“I’m one of these people who has worked for so long by coming into the office that it was harder for me personally to move to a more remote way of working,” the Disclosure and Barring Service chief exec adds.
The three and a half years since Robinson joined DBS – after a stint leading Wirral Borough Council – have been a time of profound change for the organisation, which carries out criminal-record checks for employers and decides if people must be barred from working in certain areas, such as with children. In that time, it has launched a new strategy, which he says has been implemented so successfully that it is now looking at launching a refreshed strategy next year.
But the “fast track of hybrid/remote working” brought about by the Covid pandemic has been one of the most transformative changes. “Staff had always wanted to work in a hybrid way,” he says. “And the fact that that had a significant positive effect on our performance was a big learning point for us as an organisation.”
The first year of the pandemic brought its challenges – with higher-than-anticipated demand for checks, the adjustment to new working arrangements and high rates of staff absences, DBS fell shy of its turnaround targets for two out of three types of checks in 2020-21.
But overall, Robinson says flexible working arrangements have massively boosted productivity. In 2021-22, the organisation issued 7.1 million DBS certificates – up from 5.96 million in 2019-20, before the pandemic. Active subscribers to its Update Service climbed from 1.77 million to two million in that time, and it issued 81.8% of enhanced DBS certificates within 14 days – surpassing the government’s target of 80% and its own rate of 78.3% two years earlier. With a customer satisfaction index score of 81.4% in 2021, DBS was the highest-rated public sector organisation for customer satisfaction.
“I was struck because I didn’t expect performance to improve through people working from home; I thought, intuitively, it would probably dip. I was impressed by our staff being way more flexible than I was in terms of being able to deal with that,” he admits.
Hybrid working took some time to implement fully – while its 300 barring staff began working from home as soon as the March 2020 lockdown happened, it would be another 11 months before the disclosure service could begin working remotely. As chair of DBS’s Gold Command, Robinson spent a lot of time alongside them in its Liverpool headquarters at the start of the lockdown to oversee its pandemic response. “It felt, in solidarity with them, I needed to be visibly in the office as well,” he adds.
But like most civil servants, he spent a great deal of the pandemic working from home – and while this was jarring at first, he learned to embrace the change as, freed from his commute, it enabled him to explore new pursuits.
“I’m now the family cook – and I love it,” he says. “I was cooking before but I would describe it as ‘samey’ and a bit perfunctory. Now, I’ll get a recipe out and try a few different things, increase my repertoire. It was something that you could spend more time on because if you’re working from home and you’re able to nip out to the shops in the day or whatever – it’s just very different. There’s something relaxing about doing another task.”
The love of cooking has stayed with him, he says. “I’m surprised how much I look forward to spending a couple of hours cooking and making new things. That’s an escape in itself from any pressure of work – certainly at the weekends, being able to spend a bit of time doing that and learning new tricks.”
DBS has now settled into a hybrid model, with different teams spending varied amounts of time at home and in the office. Robinson sees it as a win-win for productivity and morale: “For some staff working from home improves performance because that flexibility allows them to work more effectively and at the times that they want.”
And offering flexible working has given DBS access to a nationwide recruitment pool. “So it’s almost as if we’ve done it and now we need to make sure that every aspect of the organisation is fit for that purpose – as opposed to a couple of years ago, when everybody was coming into the office five days a week and everybody worked and lived on Merseyside or around Darlington. Now we’re in a very different place.”
With that “established pattern” in place, DBS leadership is looking at what the rebalanced working arrangements will mean for the organisation long term – for contracts, engaging with staff, and for its infrastructure.
“So for example, we have two large buildings,” he says – referring to DBS’s bases in Liverpool and Darlington. “Do we still need that? Should we look at public sector hubs?”
“Staff had always wanted to work in a hybrid way”
Robinson’s career has been dominated, he says, by two themes: safeguarding and operational improvement. “They’re the things that get me out of bed in the morning in terms of making a difference,” he says.
His approach to leadership has been informed by years working on the frontline as a social worker, before moving into a series of managerial roles in local government and social services. He learned some valuable lessons as a director of social services in Enfield and later in Cambridgeshire, he says. One was that “the management of the external environment was critical to the success of what you did internally”.
“There was that need to manage the world in which we operate, not just the insular world of the organisation, that struck home to me and has been relevant throughout my leadership experience,” he says. “One of the things we tried to do at the DBS is work with our stakeholders and partners in order to help them do the job they want to do, which in turn helps us do our job better.”
The years he spent in local authorities also taught him to value and leverage the knowledge and experience of the staff working under him. “That sense of how you empower staff to have a voice and then become as a result a more effective and higher performing organisation was something I learned in my earlier leadership career,” he says.
Over his first nine months leading DBS, he held more than 50 “listen and learn” sessions with small groups of staff. “It wasn’t about me telling staff what we were going to do; it was more about asking them what we needed to do, what could make their ability to do their job easier and better,” he says.
That input, along with 41,000 responses to a consultation exercise that he calls the “big conversation” with stakeholders and staff, have helped to create DBS’s “sense of direction and strategy”, Robinson says.
Published in September 2020, the DBS 2025 Strategy set out five-year plans for the organisation – improving quality through new “customer journeys”, switching suppliers and using technology more effectively; raising its profile and communicating more widely with the public; developing a diverse workforce and HR improvements; and making workplace improvements such as remote working, office upgrades and cutting environmental waste.
It came alongside a five-year technology roadmap, which aims to modernise services, deliver tech transformation and improve its IT services. Its goals include the creation of a new website and digital portals; developing relationships with new IT suppliers; and improving infrastructure and remote access to checking systems.
Robinson says DBS has hit “every milestone” in the roadmap so far, putting it on track to meet its goals by the 2025 deadline – despite the challenge of having to “continue to fly the plane whilst we’re building a new plane”.
“Because we have, historically, some quite old technology, the maintenance of that is quite a significant aspect for us keeping our service running and keeping things safe – and at the same time, we’re creating the new infrastructure that will enable us to leave the old ones and move to something else,” he says.
Meanwhile, the operational and performance improvements DBS has made mean it has “basically delivered all the things we said we’d do in the strategy in 2020 – I’m talking about 96% completed within 2.5 years”, Robinson says. It is now working on a refreshed strategy, which is set to launch in April. The chief exec can say little about it so far as it will require ministerial sign-off – though he says the focus will remain on the two key themes of safeguarding the public and being an excellently-run organisation, and that it will be “more ambitious”.
Ministerial oversight is one of the biggest contrasts Robinson draws between working in local and national government. “Local authorities have what’s called a ‘general power of competence’, which means that you have a lot more freedom locally to decide what you want to do and what your priorities are,” he says. Introduced by the Localism Act 2011, it gives councils the power to do anything an individual can do, as long as it is not prohibited by other legislation – enabling them to extend services and support into new areas, for example.
“There’s a sense that you’re very limited in terms of what you can change – but what you focus on therefore is the improvement of doing what you do”
“When I was in local government, we could make our own policy and priorities, [although] we still had a legislative framework within which we needed to work,” Robinson explains.
By contrast, central government has “a greater demarcation between policy and the implementation and execution of that policy”. After four years as a local authority chief executive, the change in focus from policy development to implementation and effective delivery of set policy took some adjusting to. “There’s a sense that you’re very limited in terms of what you can change, in terms of what you do – but what you focus on therefore is the improvement of doing what you do,” Robinson says. Even as chief exec, he cannot decide to change the products DBS offers, or how it should meet safeguarding requirements – those must be decided by ministers.
Something else that took him by surprise was the relatively small number of people he came across who had made the same jump he had from local to central government, or vice versa.
“It feels like the sectors are very separate,” he says, despite an abundance of transferable skills and relationships “that could be built up that would improve both sectors” but are “significantly underplayed” at the moment.
For one, he says, the civil service could learn a lot from the innovation and creative thinking that is bred out of necessity at the local level. “You have to think differently in local government – you’re almost on your own and you have to decide how to solve problems,” he notes.
Bringing in talent from local government – as well as the private sector – can only benefit organisations like DBS, he says. “It’s all linked to the benefits of diversity: those different views and perspectives and experiences which help enrich and improve organisations.”
One of the greatest challenges facing public services in the coming months will be dealing with the cost-of-living-crisis. Tensions over pay are coming to a head, with a growing number of unions staging strikes; while many public sector organisations are having to look hard at their services as spiralling inflation and energy costs erode their budgets.
DBS is one of 123 civil service organisations facing walkouts after members of the PCS union voted to strike over pay, along with other issues like job security and pensions. While it has not yet faced sustained industrial action, it will be hit by a one-day civil service-wide strike on 1 February, and could face further strikes if disputes are not resolved and the union continues to escalate its action.
“Pay is an issue that – before cost-of-living [increases] and the recent national issues around inflation – has been something that both me and the board has been very conscious of,” Robinson says.
But with pay rises constrained by cross-government pay remit guidance, he notes the ALB’s influence in this area is “extraordinarily limited”. “We can only tinker at the edges a bit rather than actually answer any of the fundamental things… but this isn’t just DBS or the civil service, it’s everywhere, the issues around inflation and therefore pay and remuneration are significant issues we’ll need to deal with over the coming year.”
“What we’ve done is to make sure that our staff have a good offer, not just in pay but in terms of the benefits of working at the DBS. We’ve done a lot over the past few years to enhance that.” He points again to hybrid working, as well as an academy launched at the end of last year to improve learning and development opportunities.
As for inflationary pressures, DBS has fared better than many other public bodies thanks to the operational improvements, Robinson says – but the organisation is not entirely insulated from external pressures. “The issue for us is that the world out there is much more volatile and therefore that affects the demand for our services, which in turn then affects our income,” Robinson explains. As employers are hit by rising energy costs and financial constraints, they are hiring fewer people who might need DBS certificates. DBS has been seeing a slight reduction in applications each month, Robinson says. “So the volatility of the market caused by cost of living, inflation and more general economic downturn is something that’s much more of a worry to us financially than internal aspects of the cost of living.”
Despite these challenges, DBS is managing to break even – and even run a surplus at times – even after lowering the fees for its checks by up to 31% in some cases. “With the cost-of-living issues and inflation, we’ve been able to subsume those into our operating costs at the moment without any significant pressure on us in terms of our overall finances,” Robinson says. He counts the double-digit reductions in fees as a “significant achievement”, especially amid those trying circumstances.
Asked about his other highlights in the job to date, the chief exec points to a few milestones – a new disclosure approach for youth offenders; a change in suppliers; projects that were completed ahead of schedule.
But more than anything, he says he is proud of the continual, incremental changes he has seen in the organisation. “It’s one thing to focus on something and then it improves for a while and then goes back to where it was,” he says. “But we have consistently and sustainably improved what we’ve done over the past three years and I’m very pleased and proud of that.”
This article first appeared in the CSW magazine January edition.