Reflections on leaving the FSA

This week is my last week working at the Food Standards Agency (FSA). I’ve had a fantastic 3+ years at the department. I’ve met lots of fabulous, committed people who care passionately about protecting consumers, who work tirelessly to ensure that food is safe and what it says it is. I’ve been privileged to be a member of the department’s executive management team, and I’ve learnt a lot. This post is an attempt to capture some of that learning.

So, what have I learnt?

Parliament set up the FSA to protect public health from risks relating to food and to protect the interests of consumers in relation to food. This gives the department a unique role within government, and to make sure we do what Parliament wanted, the FSA pledges to put consumers first in everything we do.

Putting ‘consumers first’ gives an incredible focus to the FSA’s work. I have found that, like GDS’s focus on user needs, having this sort of focus gives you a simple yardstick to assess the value of what you’re doing — and to question and challenge things:

Does this piece of work help consumers? If it doesn’t, why are we doing it?

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Credit to Liam Maxwell

Looking at things through the eyes of consumers to guide what to do and how to do it also helps develop empathy, which as Kit has said is a key civil service skill.

Building on that simple pledge, the FSA’s mission is to deliver ‘food we can trust’. Having such a clear purpose is a massive motivator. Along with mastery and autonomy, Dan Pink reckons that purpose is one of the three key things that motivate us — see his TED talk and RSA animate video. At the FSA, I’ve seen that theory come to life. It’s a key reason why I joined the department.

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And of course it’s not just me. We all eat. We all want food we can trust. Wherever I am in the FSA, I see people who care, and that’s very special.

Over 90% of food regulation in this country is founded on EU law. This makes the FSA one of the government departments most impacted by the decision to leave the EU. It has created a huge amount of unforeseen, unplanned work for the FSA, Consequently, following the result of the referendum, I led a large re-prioritisation exercise in the department. We went from having 11 priorities to 3.

This decision to do less has been massively powerful. Not only has it helped in prioritising where we put our efforts, it has also helped more people in the FSA to connect to our priorities and understand what we’re trying to do.

Before joining the FSA, I’d not worked in an organisation that placed such a premium on wanting its people to feel valued, committed to its goals and values, and motivated to contribute to its success.

The FSA is a small organisation that punches above its weight. I came to understand that it does this be leveraging great impact from its people and small resources. The FSA can only deliver the best outcomes for consumers if the people working in the organisation are well-motivated and engaged, and so achieving this underpins delivering the department’s priorities. We set up a programme to attract and retain the best people who are engaged, motivated to deliver, collaborative and well led. Our objective is to improve staff engagement results as measured in the civil service people survey so that the FSA is on a par with the ‘high performing units’ in the civil service (the top 25%).

One of the things I’m proudest of from my time in the FSA is that the engagement score for the teams I was managing went up from 58% to 76%.

At the FSA, I felt more able to be myself than at anywhere else that I’ve worked. This was much deeper than sometimes turning up for work in green trainers.

We had a fab diversity strategy, which I remember Michelle presenting to the FSA Board. That made me proud. But in a way, lots of organisations write documents that look good on paper. However, in the FSA, it went further. I could invite Meri in to talk to people, people would continue the conversation afterwards on Yammer, and Catherine, our Chief Executive at the time, led by example — she not only came along to listen to the talk, she also joined in conversations and followed up by writing a blog post about wanting to create an environment where “everyone can be awesome”.

Give capable people support and autonomy and they can do amazing things. I learnt that sometimes my role as a leader was simply to get out of the way. Sometimes the most value I could add was to protect a team’s space, defending them and being a bullshit umbrella.

I’ve come to appreciate how the principles behind the agile manifesto can be applied to work beyond software development. Start with thinking about how you can deliver value to your users/customers, deliver in small steps, iterate, reflect on how you’re working and how you can be effective together. In the FSA, we had success applying this mentality/approach to work as varied (and as far away from software engineering) as business planning and designing a new performance report.

Similarly, service design ain’t just for designers or for online/digital services. I remember when I introduced the concept of service design in Parliament for a project delivering an online service in 2013. People looked at me completely bemused, with expressions that made me feel like I was a talking a foreign language. It’s amazing how more and more people in government are now seeing the value of this approach. I’ve even come to see governance as a service.

I led teams with people based in FSA offices in London and York and with other people based at home (from Devon to the North West). For the past couple of years, I’ve been home-based myself. We talk about being location agnostic. We use technology: teleconferences, video conferences, Skype, Google Hangouts, online tools like Trello. This is quite different from how I operated when I worked in Parliament, which is understandably centred around the Palace of Westminster and the parliamentary estate. When I told my old colleague from there Dan how we worked together across these different locations, he said it sounded like science fiction! However, as well as virtual get togethers with a virtual board, we put a premium on everyone having 1:1 time with their line manager and also made time to get together as a team and to social together.

When I worked in Parliament, I managed people from across the digital, data and technology profession and the project delivery profession, as well as policy specialists. In the FSA, I took this further, working way outside my specialty and managing team leaders who were experts in areas I knew nothing about — security, estates, continuous improvement. I enjoy working with people where my role is to try to bring out the best in them.

I’ve seen huge benefits from making work visual. Pictures, infographics, videos, sketch notes, kanban, Trello, team visual boards — they’ve all added value to work I’ve been involved.

I even managed to get our business plan produced in pictures, and I’ve never seen so many people engage with a business plan before!

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Making things open goes further than using visual tools, of course. More generally, I’ve come to appreciate the value of working out loud — sharing stories and learning out in the open, whether by Yammer, Twitter, blogging, or writing week notes.

Some people seem to want to increase the scope of what they’re doing, to build empires, to reach out and grab extra things. I’ve found that if you focus on what you’re doing and do it well and produce results, people will come to you and ask you to do other things.

Some other people seem disproportionately happy at having written a document. But, as an old boss told me, “the paper is not the outcome — always focus on the outcome”. You’ve got to do the hard work to turn a strategy document into reality.

In other words, the focus is always first and foremost on delivery — on achieving outcomes, on delivering value for your users. It’s not a new idea of course, and it’s not mine, but it was the central part our team business plan:

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HT @jukesie and his post on 3Cs

During my time at the FSA, and thanks to encouragement and support from Catherine and Chris, I studied management accountancy and passed my professional CIMA exams.

As well as learning a lot personally, the FSA has delivered a massive amount over the past 3 years. 100,000 fewer people a year are getting ill from Campylobacter, food businesses are improving their food hygiene ratings (and we know there’s a link between higher scores and fewer people getting ill from foodborne disease), and an increasing % of meat businesses are demonstrating compliance with hygiene regulations. More people are aware of the FSA than ever before, more people trust the FSA than ever before, and the FSA public reputation is better than ever before.

Plus, behind the scenes, we’ve improved our project delivery capability and how we do business planning and prioritisation, we’ve changed the contracts for people working at the FSA (giving them greater choice and flexibility in how, when and where they work), we’ve changed where we work (modernising our York office, moving office in London, and saving £££), we’ve designed and started iterating a new operating model for the future of food regulation, and we’re getting positive feedback from other departments (Treasury, DExEU, and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority in the Cabinet Office) about our preparations for exiting the EU.

But I don’t want to stand still. I want to continue learning, and it’s time for me to move on.

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After 16 years working in the public sector, in Westminster, Brussels and Whitehall, I’m leaving the civil service. I don’t know whether, as DavidBuck and Mike questioned recently, you can never leave government. I guess I’ll find out. When thinking about my career, something Tom Steinberg said a few months ago, has stuck with me:

Money and business aren’t dirty or boring, they’re a big piece of what makes change come, and then stick. Dismissing a career in business because you want to change the world for the better is tremendously short-sighted, and ahistorical.”

I’m going to be joining Elsevier. They started as a publishing company in 1880, publishing academic journals — particularly science and health journals, but now they are increasingly a digital and data business, as people access information differently. They’re multi-national, with 8000 people working across 46 countries.

80% of their revenue now comes from digital, and they’re changing to develop new ways to provide information and analytics. I’m going to be director of strategy & performance in their technology division — essentially a chief of staff role for their CTO.

I’m looking forward to it. For example, I’m looking forward to working with people with different work cultures in different countries, I’m looking forward to learning about machine learning, and I’m looking forward to working in an organisation that operates a scaled agile model that is similar to Spotify’s framework.

Written by

Senior Director @ElsevierConnect doing product strategy implementation & performance. Mainly writing about getting from A to B, & digital stuff. Personal acc’t.

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