Public Services Management: Faith, hope and expertise: Paul Gosling on why lending managers to charities is growing in popularity

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The Independent Online
Lending charities some of the public and private sectors' best high-flying managers, free of charge, is becoming increasingly popular. The charities stand to gain expertise they could not afford to employ. The staff themselves face challenges that develop their management skills and promote flexibility in outlook, which can be utilised once they return to their usual working environment.

Charities are likely to use the skills of secondees for well-defined tasks, either short or long term, for example to establish more effective financial controls, to review decision-making procedures, to bring commercial marketing techniques to bear on the operations of voluntary groups, or to propose new ways of recruiting volunteers.

For the secondee's normal employer it offers more than simple altruism. It may provide a cost-effective means of supporting a good cause, but it may also provide clear positive outcomes for employers. They may use secondments as part of a staff development programme, providing the employee with more responsibility than in the normal working environment. Staff who have worked for many years for one employer will also gain an awareness of different workplace cultures, which may contrast with that in, say, Marks and Spencer or the Nationwide Anglia Building Society, two of the main supporters of secondments. A company may gain an improved reputation, and an enhanced knowledge of the community serviced by the charity.

It is not only the private sector that recognises the benefits of secondments. The Department of Health has lent the National Council for Voluntary Organisations three staff, including Clive Wilson, an under- secretary with 30 years' experience of the Civil Service. Mr Wilson is three months into a two-year secondment, helping NCVO support voluntary groups that are becoming paid service providers under the care in the community scheme. His previous work was on the other side of the door, involved within the DoH in forming its policy on care in the community.

'I am not a 'spy in the cab', and I don't have one foot in the department,' Mr Wilson stresses. 'I am here to develop health and community care policy in NCVO, a 'horse for the course'. My experience is directly relevant to my current work. NCVO has a strong interest in voluntary sector health and community care, and brought together a broadly based alliance of groups, the Community Care Alliance, to respond to the community care White Paper. The main thrust of my work is to help the voluntary sector in the implementation of community care and for them to play a bigger role in the health area. The voluntary sector needs ways of influencing policy to promote the extension of choice, the involvement of users, and a particular concern of NCVO is of moving voluntary bodies from a grants culture to a contract culture. The voluntary sector clearly has concerns about this, and ways have to be found of contracting for services without losing the essential qualities of independence of action and innovation which been the hallmarks of the voluntary sector.'

One of the great advantages to NCVO of the secondments is to improve its members' and its own understanding of how the DoH works, and how to influence it. Mr Wilson sees the benefit as outlasting his stay. 'When I return to the department I will bring with me certain insights. The voluntary sector is far larger than agriculture in terms of expenditure, it is big business, and it is of increasing importance to the Government to understand it. In a strategic sense it is time that the Government better understands how the voluntary sector ticks.'

Judy Weleminsky, director of NCVO, emphasises the benefit not only of the three secondees from the DoH, but also a further secondee, from BP, who is undertaking a 'development assignment'. Assignments are precisely defined and short term - this one is for 100 hours spread over several weeks. Ms Weleminsky says: 'The secondee from BP is looking at strategic team planning and management planning. He has run a management team 'awayday', a 'think-in' for trustees and senior staff, and run discussion groups. Our secondees bring in specific experiences, and perspectives - a very clear understanding of how the Department of Health works, and a very high level of industrial awareness.

'If you receive the appropriate placement the skills of a secondee can make a good impact, it widens their experience and builds two-way links. You do occasionally hear of problems, if someone goes from a more efficient organisation to a less efficient one. They may have to do lots more things in a small organisation, with fewer resources, be more responsive to individual concerns, with management hierarchies less defined. But it can be exceedingly useful.'

Carol Stewart, a personnel assistant with Marks and Spencer, spent a 100-hour development assignment with Wolverhampton's Sickle Cell and Thalassaemia Support Project where she undertook a survey of sufferers to establish whether their needs were being met. She proposed that more publicity was needed for the group's screening service, and that links were required with similar groups elsewhere. The group's co-ordinator, Joy Crooks, was positive about the assignment and says: 'Carol's work has helped to raise the organisation's profile, particularly among policy makers within local health services.'

The housing campaign group Shelter has also benefited from secondees, having been lent staff by the Halifax Building Society, Marks and Spencer and Southern Electricity, and received others on short-term placements. Shelter's personnel manager, Henny Baxter, is positive about the results, but stresses that it requires forethought. 'The key is about planning, training and information sharing with the usual employer. It is very important to set down expectations on all sides. We are committed to giving the secondees training, and some insight into housing issues. We have a very structured induction for all staff, which they attend if staying for any length of time. People have had difficulties, but that is part of the learning experience. There may be fewer resources than they are used to, and they may not be able to get a member of support staff when wanted.

'We will meet the individual in advance, meet with the other organisation, check what they want out of it, plan the first couple of months' work, agree objectives and ensure proper supervision. It is a very good way of training and developing people. Our organisation can benefit tremendously by getting someone in with different perspectives, and so does the organisation they go back to.'

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