By Winnie.Agbonlahor

03 Jun 2013

The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) spent years engulfed in painful criticism. Mark Grimshaw, who came in as chief executive two years ago determined to turn things around, tells Winnie Agbonlahor how he’s smartened up its act

The first thing most people associate with the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) is the story of a long drawn-out IT disaster and legions of frustrated farmers. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)’s executive agency is responsible for administering and distributing the Single Payment Scheme (SPS): an EU subsidy for farmers in England. The SPS is part of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), under which the RPA pays more than £1.63 billion to around 105,000 claimants every year.

The agency experienced major difficulties in implementing the SPS, which was introduced in 2005 and meant that farmers were no longer paid different amounts according to the crop they produce, but a set amount per hectare of agricultural land. As a result the RPA was repeatedly criticised – both in internal audits and in select committee reports – for carrying out payments late or inaccurately, with failures broadly blamed on IT problems. The public perception has been that the agency urgently needs tidying up.

Mark Grimshaw, who took over as chief executive in January 2011 after a series of senior management changes, acknowledges that the agency has long been “the black sheep of the Defra family”. It needed a tidy-up, he says, and he kicked things off by taking that literally: he introduced a unified dress code. “The first time I ever came here, I was met by someone in ripped jeans and a logoed T-shirt,” he says. “Because staff didn’t believe they had a customer-facing role, they felt that was an acceptable dress standard.”

This informality, Grimshaw adds, created a “scruffy atmosphere” and was not in line with what he expects from a well-run organisation. “Now, we insist on trousers for men, rather than shorts; we don’t allow flip-flops; we don’t allow logoed T-Shirts that could be considered offensive; and we don’t allow bare midriffs. So we’ve tidied the place up – procedurally, mentally and physically. It was part of regaining control, bringing the control back to the centre.”

Alongside such cosmetic changes, Grimshaw took radical steps to change the way the agency is run. He put in place an eight-strong group of senior managers, produced with them a list of goals and objectives for the following five years, and gave each a clear message: “We described it as a T-junction in people’s careers,” he recalls. “We told people they are at a point where you either go left and everything is seen as successful, and we deliver what we set out to deliver; or we go right and it is chaos, we don’t do what we’re supposed to do, the agency remains the black sheep of the Defra family, and essentially we will get sacked. So you’re either going to be really successful or it’s going to be a disaster. And as it turns out, so far it has been really successful.”

With a new management team in place, Grimshaw tackled the agency’s structural problems. Visiting its six main locations in Carlisle, Exeter, Newcastle, Northallerton, Workington and Reading, he learned that each centre was working in isolation – with its own site director, budget and targets, and little commitment to help or work with any of the other sites. “They essentially created what I would refer to as ‘mini fiefdoms’, where they only took account of what was going on in their particular area, competed against each other and didn’t support each other,” he says. “That means you’ve got six versions of best practice. But in the process world that I come from, you can only have one set of best practice.” To create one national, rather than a number of regional approaches, Grimshaw gave ‘adopted site responsibility’ to his senior directors, who have replaced the site directors to act as “the voice of that location around the executive team table”.

Under this concentration of power, all work is now distributed by the central planning and performance team, which receives all incoming claims and hands them out to the various offices. Previously, Grimshaw says, if a site ran out of cases it would simply stop working – but now his HQ can ensure that the workload follows the capacity. It’s only human nature, he says, that centres that had finished all their work “wouldn’t go and seek more. Now we don’t give them a choice. We don’t target a site on a number of cases; they just do what we give them.”

While poor organisation may have led to some of the agency’s problems, the delays and inaccuracies have widely been blamed on the IT system. In 2009 the National Audit Office urged the RPA to replace its system, which it branded “cumbersome” and over-complex. However, Grimshaw says that at the time he joined doing so would not have been a “cost-effective option”, and adds: “Since the IT system went live in 2005, the agency’s pretty much always been on the back foot. But the system itself was not fundamentally broken; the way we were using it was not good at all.”

Rather than buying a new IT system, Grimshaw improved the agency’s case management by streamlining its processes and allocating staff more intelligently. He introduced different categories of claims, which are now ascribed to different sets of case workers. Claims range in value from £32 to over £3.5m, with some more complicated than others – but, he says, “when I first joined, a case worker was expected to deal with whatever landed on his or her desk. That isn’t a sensible way of operating a process.”

Grimshaw “stripped out all of the simple, or ‘vanilla’ cases”, and created a complex case worker team – experienced people who could efficiently handle the most difficult jobs. Around a third of claims are also submitted to the RPA by land agents, who work with farmers on pulling together the SPS forms; and now, instead of treating each of these as a separate case, the agency passes each agent’s submissions to a single RPA worker to streamline their management.

Process improvements like these, Grimshaw says, have enabled the organisation to deliver the “nirvana of doing more with less”. Since he started, the RPA’s workforce has shrunk by more than 600 to around 2,300 – but Grimshaw points out the importance of carefully managing redundancy schemes. He halted the redundancy scheme underway when he joined, he explains, because it could have led to the loss of valuable capabilities. “They were seeking to release somewhere in the region of 400 people, but the controls weren’t in place to determine which people were going to go,” he says. “So it would have just been the first 400 people to volunteer or the least expensive ones to let go. I stopped it because I couldn’t afford to have all of my experienced case processors leave; they were among the group of people wanting to go. This would have just compounded the agency’s performance problems.”

When the scheme was halted, around 200 people in supporting roles had already left. But Grimshaw waited two years before beginning a new redundancy programme, introducing a revised scheme just two months ago which ensured he kept the skills he needed. Under this programme, around 175 people were released; but by then, as Grimshaw says, “all of the process improvements that we’d put in place meant that we didn’t have enough work for all these people”.

Fundamental improvements have been achieved, and in a recent customer survey overall farmer satisfaction reached its highest ever level. Now the RPA’s progress has been praised by environment secretary Owen Paterson, who said in a speech to the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this year that it has achieved “its best ever performance in December 2012, paying out more than £1.4 billion to 97,000 farmers.” The agency has previously been accused of being unable to trace its claims or calculate the amount of money it is owed by farmers; but now, Grimshaw says, “we know where all claims are; we know whether claimants owe us money or we owe them money; and by the end of June this year, we will have paid everybody that we owe money to and collected the vast majority of the debt. Things are much better now than they’ve ever been.”

Grimshaw is determined to achieve further improvements at the RPA, which he says “delivers a tsunami of wealth” and should be seen as “the engine of rural growth”. He also believes that agriculture is an area of the economy “that just hasn’t had the level of attention it should”. The RPA has certainly had its share of attention; but in the past, it was largely negative. Hopefully this perception – like RPA employees’ office dress – will also soon be tidied up.

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