By Jess Bowie

06 Jul 2023

Jess Bowie meets FSA chief executive Emily Miles to discuss the safety of what we eat, idealism versus pragmatism, and why a bit of self-doubt is crucial to good leadership

During a long career in which Emily Miles has watched the infinite ways that government touches all our lives, she has always returned in her mind to one particular case – that of her twin brother. 

As Miles rose through the ranks of departments including the Home Office and Defra on the way to her current role at the top of the Food Standards Agency, her brother’s journey has involved a struggle with mental health and time in prison.

“There are all sorts of diagnoses that may or may not apply to my brother, but he has needed to be in hospital quite a lot over the years,” Miles says. 

There were times when the hospital care her brother needed wasn’t available – or the support he received didn’t help – and he ended up offending. What followed, in her view, was a poorly managed transition from prison into the mental-health system.

“His version of the story, though, is that it was his fault; that, after 20 years of being in and out of hospital,  he just was angry. He was going to end up in prison the second time, whatever happened,” Miles says. “So he’d say that my story about poor transitions is wrong. But my story, overall, is he’s a very vulnerable person. And the mental-health system is a very important safety net for him.”

Miles has shared this story as a way of illustrating her belief that government, when it’s working properly, is about care. Not about taking people’s agency away, but about making things safe for them. But the very act of sharing it (she checked with her brother before doing so, and prefers not to share the details of his offending) is also indicative of how Miles does leadership: open, accessible and deeply human. 

There are few more vital protections than those governing what we eat. And Miles’s department, which she has led since 2019, has a straightforward mission: food you can trust. Food safety is certainly not as politically charged as some of her previous briefs like immigration, and the FSA is normally less prone to media storms than other parts of government. 

However, when CSW sits down with Miles in April, it has been a torrid few weeks for the non-ministerial department. A firm that supplied leading supermarkets for years has allegedly been mixing rotten pork with fresh pork and washing ham that was visibly off – and the FSA is in the firing line. So before we delve into her leadership philosophy, or the implications of Brexit on UK food, we begin with mouldy meat. 

“I reject the idea that we’ve somehow been ‘hoodwinked’ or that we didn’t act,” she says, after being reminded of some of the negative coverage (including quotes from the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers, which has called the FSA “utterly reprehensible” for apparently not alerting suppliers about “the risk to public health”).

The FSA did alert suppliers, via two separate methods, Miles adds. She also points out that there is a lot of misunderstanding about who’s responsible for what in the system. In the case of the business accused of selling rotten meat, the local authority, not the FSA, was responsible for checking its products.

“I do think that we can only act where we get intelligence. And so there needs to be a concerted effort from the food industry to share information with us or with the local authority if they have concerns about suspected criminality. And people who work in those businesses also need to feel confident to alert us about concerns. So what I’m interested in now is how we can make that easier.” 

“I reject the idea that we’ve somehow been ‘hoodwinked’ or that we didn’t act"

The current system, Miles says, is designed for the food industry to take primary responsibility itself. “If we, or local authorities, were meant to be in much more regularly checking, and doing additional audits and so on, we would need to be funded in a different way and we’d need different powers.”

Why blame the FSA then? 

“I think it’s a bit lazy. It’s people not really understanding how the system has been set up and looking for a scapegoat. What gives me heart, though, is that people really care about food that can be trusted.”

At one point during its recent mensis horribilis, environment secretary Thérèse Coffey said she was thinking about bringing the FSA under Defra’s control – as if it were a wayward child. When asked whether that would be welcome, Miles says her advice for anyone making decisions about the organisation’s location would be to remember the FSA’s birth story.  

She recounts how, in the 1990s, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food faced a conflict between the interests of the farming industry and those of the consumer – not least during BSE. The FSA was therefore set up – in 2000 – as a body that would have consumer interests and public health at its heart. Miles is quick to add, however, that the FSA already works very closely with Defra, particularly in relation to the meat industry.

Miles on... her most Thick of It moment

“When I was 28 and working in Downing Street, I was pregnant with my first child and had really bad morning sickness. It was a reshuffle day – that reshuffle where they’d abolished the Lord Chancellor’s Department and then had to re-establish it about five hours later because you couldn’t do that in law. I’d got the bus to work, which made me feel really ill. I walked up Downing Street and there were all these journalists lined up and I was standing knocking on the door of No.10 thinking: ‘If I don’t get inside in the next few seconds, I’m going to be sick on the steps and then my mum’s going to know I’m pregnant’ – I hadn’t told her yet – ‘and the entire nation is going to take this as a commentary on the reshuffle.’”Emily Miles, a white woman with curly hair, sits with her elbows on a desk in an office. She is wearing a bright red dress, a rainbow lanyard and a gold pendant and is smiling. There is a window with plants on the windowsill behind her.

Miles was raised, and remains, a Quaker – a faith with a strong emphasis on equality and direct action. She grew up attending marches and vigils and spent a year working for the Quakers at the UN office in Geneva. By her mid-20s, though, she no longer wanted to hold a placard.

“It’s very necessary that some people do that, but I realised I wanted to go into the middle of it and understand the difficulties, the trade-offs and the complexity of the situation and try to make incremental improvements. I think idealism is needed. But it’s not me. I’m a pragmatist. So I joined government, because I still wanted to make a difference but I was always interested in the humans and the politics and the realities of how you bring those things together and make shifts.”

While trade-offs, complexity and incremental change characterise many civil service jobs, they feel particularly apposite for Brexit work. One of Miles’s senior roles at Defra was coordinating that department’s response to leaving the EU, and Brexit is still very much in Miles’s in-tray at the FSA. 

“Rather than holding a placard, I wanted to go into the middle of things and understand the trade-offs and the complexity of the situation”

The UK’s food and animal feed rules came almost entirely from the EU and, since the referendum, the FSA has grown by roughly 50% – to about 1,500 staff. In the early days of Covid it was FSA scientists (instead of EU ones) trying to work out if the virus could be transferred on food packaging, and FSA staff are now the ones advising ministers about novel foods, including methane-reducing animal feed, edible insects and the proliferation of CBD products. 

In February this year, a House of Lords committee complained the FSA was “taking forever” to establish British food-safety laws to replace the EU rules. Does Miles think that’s fair?

“I think that’s wrong,” she says. “We would love to be reforming some of the rules – particularly ones where we think there’s going to be a lot of innovation happening in the food industry, so we can be ahead of that innovation and protect consumers. 

“At the moment, though, the effort that we are doing on policymaking in that space has to go on to the retained EU law bill. A key area of reform for us is the food and feed regulatory system. The bill may offer opportunities to improve the approvals process for regulated products but any meaningful reform must include consultation with the food industry, consumers and stakeholders from across the four countries of the UK.”

Even before Covid, the FSA had a very strong home-working culture. This will sound ghastly if you’re Jacob Rees-Mogg, but it’s something the FSA staff CSW spoke to appear to really value. The regulator is, in fact, “location agnostic” in its hiring for desk-based roles, and over 1,000 members of staff are on remote-working contracts. This has led to a geographically diverse workforce, with employees from all over the country (Miles checks off Cornwall, Pembrokeshire and Norfolk, among others) and high scores on the People Survey from parents and carers. Nor has the organisation seen any dip in productivity as a result of this policy, Miles is keen to add.

One well-publicised downside of remote work is the potential for staff to feel isolated. As a leader, how does she foster a sense of camaraderie? And is there a cultural divide between the FSA’s frontline workers, including its 360 meat inspectors, and their desk-based colleagues? It’s presumably quite hard to join a virtual coffee if you’re in an abattoir checking offal…

“We do have two quite different cultures,” Miles says. “Our field operations also have slightly different demographics: it’s much more male, and a lot of staff are in their 50s or 60s. Often they’ve been working for us, or for one of our predecessor organisations, for a long time.

“So yes, it does feel different. But maintaining a sense of cohesion among field staff themselves is also challenging because they all work shifts. Getting people together off site, meeting people from beyond the abattoir where they work, takes a lot of planning. So we do lots of regional engagement days where we take them off the line for a day. Also, for our field ops, all-staff calls tend to happen in the evenings so they can tune in if they want to.”

For the FSA’s desk-based staff, Miles says there are lots of virtual coffees – particularly people wanting to introduce themselves to new starters – and most teams also have a regular drumbeat of getting together in person. 

“We learned a lot through the pandemic about how to create connection in those informal ways, not just through formal meetings. So for example, with my team of senior directors, who are based all over the country, I do a weekly, virtual check-in: we spend half an hour just saying how we’re feeling and what’s going on at home and so on. We’ve had to teach ourselves ways of staying in touch and getting to know each other virtually.”

There is also an all-staff Teams call each month which Miles tries to make as engaging as possible. Recent examples include inviting someone to share their memories of working on the horsemeat scandal, 10 years on, and a session where staff tried to understand what life is like for their hearing-impaired colleagues by muting the sound and attempting to follow the call solely with closed captions and the instant-message panel. “That was really hard,” Miles says. “We all did it, about 700 of us, for three minutes. And we were like, ‘How do you do this?’ And our hearing-impaired colleagues were like, ‘Yeah, now you know what we’ve been handling’.”  

Miles also wants these all-staff calls to be as free and frank as possible. 

“We do not filter the chat. And people will sometimes say things they’re frustrated about and complain about things. But it’s always in a respectful, constructive way. They own what they’re saying and I will respond. I want to create that culture where people feel that they can say things and get heard, rather than trying to shut down the conversation.”  

Miles on... her most stressful day

A shot taken from below of Emily Miles's head and shoulders. She wears a moss-green coat over a bright red dress and looks upwards at an angle. There are trees in the background“I was a deputy director in the Home Office and we were trying to get the announcement out about setting up the College of Policing, which I was responsible for. A minor adjustment was needed in the advice I had provided, but it meant that the home secretary had to re-sign roughly 15 letters. The private office responded by emailing about 120 people saying something like: ‘This hasn’t been this policy unit at their best, it’s not normally this hard and we’ve got some lessons to learn.’ 

“I just crumbled into a pit of shame. I went home and told myself, ‘I can’t be a senior civil servant in the Home Office. I’m not good enough, and I’m too insecure.’ And it was a big moment because after that I actually decided I did want to stay – and I went on to get the director of policing job. But I realised I needed to get some support for dealing with my own insecurity. So I did some therapy and so on and I’ve been on a big journey since then. I actually think I wouldn’t be in this job now if I hadn’t had that awful day. I still do lots of practices like journaling, just to make sure I don’t melt into a pool of self-doubt.”

The FSA chief exec has clearly thought long and hard about the kind of leader she wants to be, as a glance at some of her past GOV.UK blogs testifies. One, from 2016, reveals her reasons for declaring her diversity on departmental HR systems. “I imagine most people assume I’m heterosexual,” she writes. “I’m very happily married to my husband, Paul, and we have two children. My bisexuality is, I used to think, nothing to do with the people I work with. But I had a painful experience which now makes me wish others before me had been more open.” 

Being bisexual was something she only started owning up to – even to herself – after she’d been a civil servant for some time, Miles writes, before recalling a security clearance interview in the early 2000s where she was asked about “lesbian or other deviant tendencies”. It was just one of many factors behind her decision to start ticking the bisexual box. “The reason why we all need to know the numbers on diversity characteristics – on sexuality, on disability, on ethnicity – is that sometimes it’s only the hard facts that can help create the case for change,” she says. “The facts also reassure people that they are not alone.” 

“When you’re in public policymaking you’ve got to doubt and be curious so that you can really hear, adjust and improve what you’re doing”

In another blog, Miles shares her experiences with self-doubt – which she calls her “fatal flaw” – admitting that even when applying for her current job, she almost withdrew her application due to feelings of inadequacy. She also reflects on situations where she questioned her place at the table, such as being one of the few women in male-dominated meetings during her time as director of policing at the Home Office. 

However, that blog goes on to argue that self-doubt can also be a superpower. Asked to elaborate on this, Miles says: “It’s such a precious thing to doubt your certainty. When you’re in public policymaking, you’ve got to doubt and be curious so that you can really hear and adjust and improve what you’re doing.” She also has a phrase which she uses more than once in our interview to describe incurious leaders who think they’ve got all the answers: “Top-level dumb.” 

Top-level dumb couldn’t be further from her own style. Emily Miles is not just leading the Food Standards Agency, but leading by example – giving her staff and others a blueprint of what a modern public sector boss looks like. 

This article first appeared in CSW's summer 2023 issue. Read the digital magazine here.

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