Secondments are well established in local authorities, and have long been used to fill temporary vacancies, staff specific projects and enrich the careers of managers. Working for another department, or even a partner organisation, is clearly a useful and creative way of getting a fresh perspective on your role, or enabling you to develop new skills. And both organisations and individuals benefit.
Since 2006, the Improvement & Development Agency has been running a secondment scheme that takes this a step further. With the aim of making sure that all best practice guidance disseminated by the agency directly reflects the experience of local government professionals, the IDeA has set out to become a ‘permeable’ organisation, with staff coming in on secondment from central government and councils, and permanent IDeA employees working on external central and local government projects.
Each posting lasts from six months to two years. The aim is to enrich staff by feeding into their professional development, but also enhance the performance of councils, central government departments and the IDeA itself.
With this in mind, one challenge is to ensure all secondments have clear objectives, and everyone involved communicates consistently throughout the placement, according to Cheryl King-McDowell, who has a lead role on internal organisational development and performance at the IDeA.
She says: “In some ways this is an open-ended process, but there has to be an end goal and willingness on the part of those involved to share their learning.”
Rachel Thompson, head of partnerships at Suffolk CC, is six months into an 18-month secondment to the agency. She has experience of collaborating with partner organisations across the east of England, working on the negotiation and delivery of local area agreements and local strategic partnerships. For the duration of her secondment, Ms Thompson will have a similar remit, but her work will have a national focus.
“The scale of the work is mind-boggling, compared to what I am used to,” she says. “My background is from Kent and Suffolk, both two-tier authorities in rural areas. Now I have to look at the whole range of authorities across the country, including unitaries, and those in urban areas.”
Ms Thompson sees feeding back what she learns as an ongoing process, not just something that will happen at the end of the secondment. “Being a permeable organisation
is very important. I try and bring back my learning to Suffolk whenever I have the chance, spending time back in Suffolk and also inviting colleagues to work on various projects at the agency. I do a lot of moving back and forth,” Ms Thompson says.
Meanwhile, Jacky Tiotto, senior national adviser for children and adults at the IDeA, found her recent secondment to a central government role extremely stimulating. “In order to influence, you have to understand how central government departments are structured and how the machine works,” she stresses.
“The civil service is very hierarchical and my approach is to talk to anyone who has something useful to say, irrespective of their grade. But I also learned that a hierarchy of that sort is effective,” she says.
“The civil service has to meet a huge range of ministerial expectations and the way it functions enables it to cover an enormous amount of ground.”
Equally important, the professional demands of the post meant operating in a different way. “I learned to write submissions for cabinet ministers which I had
previously done for elected members. You are also expected to be able to brief ministers
on any aspect of your work at any time.”
Even so, central government is still just one piece of the jigsaw puzzle, and a ‘hands-on’ role in local government has its own rewards.
“What central government can’t do is see the implementation of policy at first hand,” says Ms Tiotto. “It did open my eyes to the way we work. I find that I am thinking more about the global picture it’s not top-down or bottom-up, but about how local and central government should work together to deliver change.”
Anyone who has the chance to be involved in a secondment should leap at the chance, Ms Tiotto believes. However, there is one proviso.
“Don’t ever assume you are an expert in your field. What you have is a perspective which others will value. But there will be different perspectives. If you are open to this, then people will feel empowered to learn from you.”
Think carefully about what sort of secondment you need and what you want to achieve.
Have effective systems in place to record and quantify the knowledge that people are bringing in.
Develop a learning culture in which senior staff are open to new ideas and fresh perspectives
Wait until a secondment is finished to share ideas and good practice.
Expect new ideas to permeate the organisation informally, or just by word of mouth.
Allow senior staff to be complacent about their skills a permeable organisation requires staff to open to learning.