By Suzannah Brecknell

23 May 2016

Since CSW last spoke to the Department for Transport’s permanent secretary Philip Rutnam he has taken on the role of disability champion for the civil service. Here, he talks to Suzannah Brecknell about the importance of skilling up his department and his aspirations for helping all staff reach their potential

Last Autumn, on a very wet day in Prestatyn, Philip Rutnam achieved something he had been working on for years. With his teenage daughter in tow, he walked the final miles along Offa’s Dyke, a 177-mile route stretching along the Welsh-English borders.

Rutnam and his daughter had been wending their way along the trail in stages since 2011 – spending a total of 10 days crossing countryside that, whatever the maps say, Rutnam describes as “neither England nor Wales but a strange, respectful amalgam of the two”.

The dyke itself is believed to have been built in the eighth century at the bidding of King Offa, either to defend his kingdom or demonstrate its power. “At its best, it strides up and down the steepest hills, eight feet high, with an almost Hadrianic sense of purpose,” Rutnam says.

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Offa’s major project was all about defence, and it’s hard to imagine that he took much notice of the skills of the workforce that built his dyke. By contrast, Rutnam’s day job is concerned with connecting people: as permanent secretary at the Department for Transport, Rutnam oversees the policies, regulations and organisations that keep Britons moving by road, rail, air and sea. To do that, he has been spending a great deal of time considering how to get the right mix of skills and experience into both his own organisation and the sector it works with.

Alongside this, he has since May last year been disability champion for the civil service. The role is, he tells CSW, “one of the best things I’ve done in the civil service” (no small claim, given he’s been an official since 1987, with a career spanning three departments, two regulators and a secondment to Morgan Stanley).

Speaking up for the 8.8% of civil servants who have a declared disability isn’t always an easy task. Numerous studies and government reports have shown that these officials are less engaged than their non-disabled colleagues, are persistently under-represented at senior levels and are more likely to experience discrimination, bullying or harassment at work. Indeed, government-commissioned research published in March 2015 found that 56% of disabled survey respondents said they had experienced “discrimination, bullying and harassment” at work in the last year.

“There’s an awful lot we’re doing to make ourselves one of the employers of choice in the civil service and transport sector” – DfT perm sec Philip Rutnam

When he took on the role, Rutnam said he was “delighted, but also somewhat daunted”. “That is partly because of the scale of the task, but it’s also because I claim no special expertise in this area. I have much to learn,” he wrote in a government blog. Now, speaking to CSW from his top floor DfT office after a year in the post, Rutnam describes being disability champion as “fantastic, eye-opening, and challenging”.

What has he learnt about the issues facing disabled civil servants?

“Sometimes the agenda can feel like it’s about dealing with a series of negatives, but actually it’s a tremendously positive agenda,” he says. “It’s about helping people to realise their potential, making sure we take away barriers that can get in the way of them being as productive and successful as they can be.”

And there are many examples of good practice that Rutnam wants to spread. “Again and again, you come across fantastic things that are going on. If only we can find ways of scaling them up and communicating them, we will really make a difference in the lives of thousands and thousands of civil servants.”

He cites the work of the Employers Stammering Network, of which the civil service is a founding member. Stammering affects around 1% of the adult population, Rutnam says, and he has met civil servants with stammers doing “hugely impressive” work – even in seemingly difficult contexts like communications or call centre roles.

“It can be done,” he says. “But we need to find ways of building on these things, and learning from what we’re doing, so that the question of ‘how can somebody with a stammer succeed as a civil servant?’ is answered without difficulty in the future.”

Rutnam recently wrote to cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood and civil service chief executive John Manzoni setting out his five priorities as disability champion. The highest priority, he says, is to improve the standard and consistency of workplace adjustments made to help disabled staff. These adjustments – required by law and delivered after a review assessing the individual’s specific needs – are key to helping employees realise their potential, he says.

Alongside this, he wants to improve talent management at all levels, make sure leaders are fully engaged with the disability agenda, ensure that mental health conditions are given just as much support as physical disabilities, and halve the 10% engagement gap between disabled and non-disabled staff by 2020.

Rutnam’s blog explaining these priorities says: “So, you can hold me to account for whether I deliver!” Yet only the priority to improve engagement has a measure attached to it, so how are we to properly hold him to account on the others? Rutnam accepts the point, but says he believes the engagement scores can be taken as an overall outcome: a reduction in the engagement gap would indicate success in his other priorities.

He adds that he is also hoping to develop measures for some of his other priorities. He wants, for example, to build evidence on user satisfaction, awareness, and take-up of workplace adjustments, and for the Civil Service Workplace Adjustment Service – which provides assessments for a number of departments – to set benchmarks on quality and timeliness. “I want to get good management information, and good evidence about the quality not just of that central service but of the adjustment services provided by departments’ in-house teams.”

There is one issue that Rutnam’s priorities don’t directly address: disability-related bullying and harassment. Tackling this, he says, will be largely about changing culture. “A lot of that comes down to behaviours, attitudes, and above all to creating a culture in which it is much more normal, much more accepted to talk about these things,” he says.

“We need to get to a place where these things are talked about, where it is accepted that mental health conditions are common; they are nothing to be ashamed of" – Philip Rutnam

“Take something like mental health. In many ways, mental health conditions have been a taboo subject. That is changing in society at large, and it’s changing a bit in the civil service – though in truth I see more evidence of it in some places than others.

“We need to get to a place where these things are talked about, where it is accepted that mental health conditions are common; they are nothing to be ashamed of. I think if we achieve that sort of thing then we will remove some of the sources of bullying, harassment and discrimination.”

Yet some organisational processes can also contribute to discrimination, or at least the perception of discrimination. Recent Cabinet Office data passed to CSW by the Prospect union shows that staff with disabilities are more likely to get a low performance rating, and less likely to get a top rating.

Rutnam says he recognises the challenge that these figures present, adding: “There are lots of things that are happening already about this, such as unconscious bias training.”

A practical way to address concerns about performance management, he says, is to ensure all managers and those involved in moderating performance reviews have received unconscious bias training shortly before the reviews take place.

It is also important to look carefully at the evidence around the performance management data, he says. “There can be other things going on beyond disability. What’s the role of sickness absence, for example? There is other evidence suggesting that colleagues who take more sickness absence get lower performance ratings, so is that one of the causal factors? I have no doubts at all that it’s an important, challenging, but also complex area.”

No less challenging and complex is the programme of infrastructure projects that Rutnam oversees. Much of this £61bn sum is spent not directly by his department but by agencies and what the department calls “client organisations” like Crossrail or HS2. Among the department’s major projects are some big successes. In 2014, the Public Accounts Committee described Crossrail as “a textbook example of how to get things right”, and HS2, while controversial in many ways, has been praised by National Infrastructure Commission chair Lord Andrew Adonis for the speed with which it is moving from planning to delivery.

There have also been some high profile failures. In 2012, the department had to stop the West Coast Mainline franchise process because of procurement errors – though many of the issues identified in the reviews that followed have now been addressed. Last summer, the spotlight was on Network Rail, the organisation which owns and operates the UK’s rail infrastructure. In June, transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin was forced to announce that plans to electrify key routes were being delayed indefinitely because of time and budget over-runs.

“If you go back a few years, Network Rail was regarded as having a very strong record on project delivery,” Rutnam says, “and yet by summer of 2015 it was clear that a whole series of key programmes were a long way off track.” After McLoughlin told MPs that Network Rail’s performance had “not been good enough”, three reviews were carried out into the problems. The chairman was replaced, and a number of structural and operational changes recommended. Among the reviews’ many findings, what conclusions did Rutnam draw about the relationships between departments and their arms-length bodies?

“The biggest learning point from the Network Rail episode was that the structure of relationships had been too complex" – Rutnam

“The biggest learning point from the Network Rail episode was that the structure of relationships had been too complex,” he says. He goes on to explain that, up until two years ago, the government had been the principal funder – and also the main client – of Network Rail, while the Office for Rail and Roads (ORR) had been a regulator assuring value for money and delivery. This worked while National Rail was a private sector body, but was not appropriate after 2014 when National Rail was reclassified into the public sector as a result of changes to EU accounting rules.

The reclassification exposed the organisation’s reliance on borrowing to fund budget over-runs (something it could no longer do, under public finance guidelines) and also meant that the three-way relationship of customer-supplier-regulator became too unwieldy. So while the ORR had provided assurance on Network Rail’s business plans, that could now be more appropriately provided through Treasury assurance processes.

“We’re moving towards a situation where the government is much more clearly the customer and Network Rail is the supplier,” says Rutnam, adding that the ORR will still have a limited role, but the overall model is similar to the largely two-way relationship between DfT and Crossrail or HS2.

What, then, are the main considerations when setting up relationships between departments and their delivery partners? “Fundamentally, it always boils down to the same sorts of questions,” Rutnam says. “Firstly: is the task clear? Are we clear enough about our objectives? Second: are we clear enough about who is responsible for doing what? Have we got clarity about the respective roles and responsibilities of the department and the other party? Third question: have we got the right skills and resources in place? Finally: have we got the right culture to make this place a good, effective and efficient place to work, and to build continuous improvement?”

The last point is key, Rutnam suggests, because “if you aren’t improving you are probably moving backwards”. Skills are important because without the right skills, the agreed objectives will not be met, no matter how good one’s governance arrangements are, he says. “We want to know what skills partner bodies think they need; what skills they think they have; and, if there are gaps, what they will do to fill them.”

Government has recently made this focus on skills explicit, through the Transport and Infrastructure Skills Strategy. This document covers both the skills needed to build infrastructure like Crossrail or HS2, and those that are needed to operate a modern transport system – whether that’s driving trains or managing ports. It outlines a number of challenges including an aging workforce, a lack of diversity and a shortage of people with the right experience. Its recommendations range from a year-long campaign to promote engineering careers in 2018 to the inclusion of targets on apprenticeships in major transport infrastructure contracts.

“We’re taking a very active approach on skills,” Rutnam concludes. He’s also keen to discuss the work which the department itself is doing to improve development opportunities for its own staff. Leadership courses for senior civil servants delivered by the Cass Business School; a management development course for Grades 6/7s; a commercial fast track scheme which brings in around a dozen graduates a year, and apprentices in both the department and its main agencies. “There’s an awful lot we’re doing to make ourselves one of the employers of choice in the civil service and transport sector,” he says.

As Rutnam urges colleagues to become more open about their emotional and mental health, how does he try to maintain his own emotional resilience when the pressure mounts in his job? “I try to keep a balance between work and the rest of life, and not allow work to dominate every area,” he says.

This means prioritising time with his family, and making sure he has plenty of exercise and fresh air. “I cycle to and from work, that’s a great half hour break at the start. I run, go for walks.”

This year, there will be no ambitious British walks for Rutnam. Instead, he and his family are opting for a cycling trip around the Netherlands. “But next year I hope to do the Pennine Way,” he says. Rutnam later confirms to CSW that he will be taking a phased approach to the project, walking the 277-mile route from Derbyshire to the Scottish border in stages.

The lengthy ramble will take him along hills known as the “backbone of the country”, with views down over the system of roads and railways which occupy so much of his daily life. In more ways than one, it should help him to follow the final piece of advice he offers about coping when the pressure is on: “Fundamentally, at the end of the day, you have to keep work in perspective.”

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