By Joshua Chambers

28 Apr 2014

Operational Delivery is the biggest of the professions, but also one of those with the lowest status. Its chief Ruth Owen tells Joshua Chambers how she’s giving it new skills, kudos and coherence – and ditching the ‘delivery’ bit

The shorthand terms for operational delivery can be strikingly masculine: from the phrase ‘at the coalface’, which brings pick-wielding miners to mind, to the term ‘frontline’, which conjures up images of red-bereted parachute regiments.

The head of the operational delivery profession, Ruth Owen, is determinedly not macho – but this wasn’t always the case. “Early on in my career, when I didn’t have female role models, I thought the way to get on would be to model myself on a man, because all the stereotypical leadership models in the civil service were of men,” she says. “It took me quite a while to understand that I didn’t have to try not to be myself to get on, and that’s been a real breakthrough.”

Building her own style certainly hasn’t stopped her from climbing from the bottom to the top of the civil service. Owen began her career working in a social security office, and says that “having done roles like that makes me really proud to be the head of profession, and determined to make sure that people recognise the importance of roles which people like that do.”

The people performing these roles have had a tough time over the past few years, she admits, bearing the brunt of spending cuts, but Owen is keen to improve their lot. Speaking rapidly, and pausing only to sip from a mug of tea, she explains her plans to build an operational delivery profession fit for the future.

Owen became head of profession in the middle of last year, and her first problem was defining what exactly she’s in charge of. “It wasn’t very clear – one of the things about being in a profession is that you need to know you’re in it.” She decided to define the profession as “anybody that serves users, be that citizens or business, or anybody in a role that is supporting people to do that.” This definition gives her responsibility for around 280,000 civil servants – 70% of the total – split predominantly between the Department for Work and Pensions, HMRC, the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office.


Deliberating delivery

This new definition has helped, but “I don’t think everyone yet recognises us as a profession, and that’s part of my ambition as head: to demonstrate that we are a profession with equal status to HR or lawyers or the policy profession.” There’s been a great deal of snobbery in the civil service directed towards people in operations jobs, Owen believes, and she wants to change that. “People haven’t felt equal status to some of the more traditional professions. I think sometimes the operational teams feel that they’ve been left behind a bit compared to the other professions, so that’s part of what we’ve got to do: demonstrate the importance we have for the civil service.”

Owen has rebranded the profession as ‘Operations’, not operational delivery, and is particularly keen to move away from the old civil service term of ‘generalists’. “It’s not a word I’m comfortable with, because I think we should be looking at which professions we have in the civil service. If you work in operations and you meet professional standards then you are an operational delivery professional, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend your whole career in operations. Take working in HMRC, as I do: I’d expect some people to move between operations, the tax or project management profession and back again. That doesn’t mean you’re a generalist; it means you have a career pathway”.

Owen’s determined, then, that the profession improves its status and that the people within it have “an understanding of what their career options are. That means a lot more lateral moves between departments, as well as the opportunity to move in and out of the civil service.”

Equally, there’s a very strong value to people in other professions having operational experience, Owen thinks. During her career, she’s also worked in policy and project management, and found that “if you can root everything you do back to how it is going to make a difference to frontline colleagues or to customers, citizens and businesses, it gives you a stronger focus on what needs to be done.”

She’s glad that fast streamers now have to spend some time in the operations profession, and that it’s encouraged for all future permanent secretaries too. To make good policy, “you can’t sit in an ivory tower and not think about the consequences of the decisions that you make,” she says – arguing that experience at the frontline stimulates those thought processes.

Silky skills

Owen published a capability plan last April, setting out the profession’s weaknesses and explaining how she plans to tackle them. The plan is stronger at setting out a direction of travel than in detailing specific changes, but there are some clear priorities in helping the profession to develop and to support civil servants. In particular, her plan has identified the key skills needed by civil servants in tricky roles to help them develop their futures.

One crucial skill for those in operations is customer service, Owen thinks. “That is at the heart of what we do: understanding customers and adapting our service to deliver. Mostly it’s about people skills, serving and handling a variety of customers – from the judicial process to jobseekers, taxpayers and immigrants. Those interpersonal skills [are vital], as is the ability to take personal circumstances into account when making decisions based on the rules.”

Many of those skills are dependent on basic manners and empathy, she says, but there are training courses to help improve even these. Since the capability plan identified the importance of training, a curriculum has been launched for operations training; and while “it’s early days, demand is strong,” she says.

Some of the training is delivered via e-learning – disliked by many civil servants. What benefit is e-learning in helping people interact with service users? “I believe in a blended learning approach. People are cynical about e-learning if that’s all that you do, and you tick through a programme to get to the end,” she says. “To me, it’s about [using e-learning] as a foundation and then spending time with people to reflect on what you learnt from it.” In future, it may also be possible for people to role-play over the internet, she says.

The plan also prioritises commercial skills. Owen explains that “I wouldn’t expect a lot of operational people to be negotiating big contracts, but they do quite often come across suppliers.” It’s vital too that staff learn to act as though they are in a business – by using data inform decision-making, for example.

The third focus for the plan is on digital skills. This is not about coding websites, she says: “We expect most of our operational delivery professionals to change the way they engage with their customers over the next couple of years; so a lot of them are doing face-to-face interventions or by phone, but increasingly they’ll support multi-channel operations.” This includes using social media and digital devices, she explains.

There must be a little bit of trepidation in the profession about going digital, I say, because people will be learning to use something that could potentially put them out of a job. Owen disagrees: “I don’t see it as putting people out of a job. It’s bringing them into the 21st century. Most people expect a customer service organisation to be able to deal with them through whichever channel they choose. I think the trepidation in our people – which isn’t universal – is whether the profession is going to give them the skills to move into the 21st century.” In short, Owen thinks that “you’ll never remove the need for human beings to serve other human beings; it’s just the types of skills they’ll need to do so.”


Professional development

Currently, though the profession knows which skills it will need in the future, it hasn’t yet worked out what capabilities it has – so all departments are currently assessing their existing operations skills. Within operational delivery, “the biggest area for improvement was leadership through change. That’s the one that everybody identified as a top priority”, Owen says.

Major improvements won’t be quick, “given the size and scale of what we are doing,” but Owen hopes to make progress in the next year. She’s decided not to mandate training, but instead to make it optional. It sounds like she didn’t want to force skilled people onto a course simply in order to get a certificate: “I decided to be a bit more inclusive, because I think there are a lot of people out there with these skills that just haven’t been recognised,” she says.

Nonetheless, she believes that the opportunity to gain a new qualification will attract many staff into the courses. A new set of training schemes have been developed with, and are accredited by, City & Guilds and the Chartered Management Institute. “We’ve had qualifications in the past, but the cost has just been so prohibitive that we’ve only had a few hundred people take them up, so the really big step for this year is not just getting universal coverage of any level that you want to start studying at, but that they’re exceptionally good value for money – so no department can say you can’t have the money to take those qualifications.”

The qualifications should also boost the standing of the profession in the civil service, she thinks. “That’s part of our motivation; to keep re-stressing, not only to our own members but to people in other professions, that this is a profession; that you can have a high level of qualifications in delivery.”


Secondment chances

As well as qualifications, Owen would like to see the profession’s skills improved through a greater number of secondments and career opportunities. Owen says the civil service has “not been strong on lateral moves, or managed moves across departments. Secondments is one way to get people familiar with that, without necessarily feeling like they’ve been let go from their previous departments.” Such short-term placements can demonstrate that people’s skills are relevant in a new field, and thus build interest in longer-term transfers.

The Civil Service Reform Plan ‘One Year On’ report noted that progress on improving secondment opportunities across departments had been poor; Owen thinks the problem is a “cultural thing across the whole civil service, about whether you take risks in moving to different departments. So that doesn’t change overnight: I wouldn’t say we’ve made huge strides forward, but I think we’ve made a lot of connections between departments that will make it easier”.

Moves between the civil service and the private sector should also be encouraged, she thinks: “I’ve done two secondments into the private sector in my career, and found them very useful. I don’t expect that to be the pathway for everybody, but I expect it to be part of the offer of the [profession’s] curriculum.” Indeed, people should be encouraged to take career breaks in the private sector if they wish, coming back with new skill sets, Owen says.

Owen doesn’t think the blockages to more secondments are at the permanent secretary level, but instead among line managers. “We need those people to see the benefits they would get by letting important members of the team go into another department and grow as a result – either getting them back, or bringing someone else in. It’s about getting that tier of management to encourage people,” she says. To help tackle this recalcitrance, the profession has appointed champions to “make sure not only line managers, but individuals, get to hear about what we are doing in the profession, so you get the demand from bottom up.”

Owen plans to maintain momentum by using networks of different tiers of operations professionals. She’ll bring together all of the senior civil servants in operational delivery every six months, plus the heads of profession in each department and the heads of regional networks, she says. Owen also plans to build sub-communities in the different types of operational delivery jobs, creating networks that can share information about career opportunities.


The personal touch

Aside from her role as head of the profession, Owen is director-general of personal tax at HMRC. Here, of course, she oversees one of the government’s largest workforces of operations staff – and HMRC’s new, personalised homepage for businesses, My Tax Account, may signal how service delivery will develop in future. Interestingly, while much of government’s digital delivery has been about creating quick, cheap, standardised digital services, My Tax Account is a pricier, personalised service. It draws together all the information that HMRC knows about a business onto a single homepage, so that they can check their VAT information, corporation tax, PAYE – indeed, “the totality of your dealings with HMRC.”

While much effort is going into creating standardised services, Owen thinks that personalisation is the next step forwards. “I think it’s the way of digitisation: it gives us the ability to personalise for the mass market,” she says. “The idea of, where you recognise you’re in the government zone online [and] everything looks the same so you know how to navigate it – that’s got to be right” – but once you’re on individual services, she believes, each function should act like and recall your previous behaviour.

Amazon “recognises who you are, reminds you what you’ve bought, suggests things that you might want to buy based on its understanding of you – that has got to be the future of what digital looks like, once you’ve been through the generic front end.” Inevitably, it’s much slower and costlier to build these systems because “you’ve got to draw information from a range of back-end systems,” she admits; but once those data systems are modernised, this approach should be much easier for government.

Before the interview ends, CSW asks Owen for her views on how to help other women reach the top of the civil service. Flexible working practices and role models are both important, she replies: “A lot of women are looking at how to juggle work-life balance. Some of those big jobs are tough, so how do you do that and be a good mum, a good wife, a good carer, or whatever other roles we have outside work? Seeing examples of people doing jobshare at senior levels is a good example of how we can do that.”

Owen adds that “I would encourage anybody always to have a mentor – and that’s particularly in the early stages, when you join the civil service to help you think what your career path is going to be. It doesn’t have to be a woman, but if you’re a woman it’s good to have a mentor who can show you the different ways that you can use the flexibilities that are part of the civil service offer.”

After a quick-fire interview, Owen’s finished her tea; and the interview ends with her putting down her mug, saying goodbye, and steaming out of the door to get back to operational delivery. There’s a great deal to do to build her profession’s status in the civil service, but Owen has a plan, new qualifications, and a determination to ensure that opportunities are communicated to everyone. Perhaps most importantly, Owen is proving that you don’t have to be a stereotypical macho and male leader in order to press through plans for reform.

See also: Training launch for frontline staff

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