Secondments to strange places

My name’s Tom and I’m about to start my third year on the Fast Stream. I’m currently based in Scotland, working for DWP, but before this I spent six months at Bristol Student’s Union on secondment. I want to make that the topic of this blog because it’s a good example of one of the strange places you can find yourself on the Fast Stream – and it also proved to be a lesson in not judging a book by its cover.

Everyone on my scheme, the Corporate Fast Stream, goes on secondment for six months to an external organisation. This takes place in either your third or fourth posting, in my case it was my third posting following time spent in the Home Office and the Department for Transport. You can specify a preference for the region you’ll be based in, as with all postings, and you can also specify a preference for the sector you’d like to spend time in from the private, wider public or charity sectors.

I wanted to see what it was like to work for a charity and I also fancied a break from London so I specified this sector and asked to relocate to the south-west. A couple of months later, I received an email notifying me that I’d been posted to Bristol to work for the Students Union... it turns out all Student Union’s are registered charities, but it’s safe to say that it wasn’t quite what I’d had in mind!

I found a room with friends I knew in the city, packed up and moved down at the start of September. I’d travelled to Bristol and met my new manager before starting so I knew that my role was going to be to lead a review of the organisation’s core systems and processes. I knew nothing about this area, so I was prepared for a period of intense learning as I figured out how to do my new job. What I wasn’t anticipating was that nobody really seemed to be sure exactly what my job should be!

Let me expand on that a little. There was a loose sense within the organisation that the core systems – the finance system, the website, the customer (read: student) databases – weren’t working together efficiently. The union wasn’t sure that it was buying the right products, or that it was getting good value for money from its suppliers. The systems structure was causing staff to work in silos, duplicate effort and waste time and money. More importantly, the structure was preventing the organisation from providing excellent service to its customers, Bristol students, and was having a real impact on the union’s key performance metric, student satisfaction.

Nobody really knew what to do about this, and that’s where I came in. I spent the first couple of months leading the organisation through a process of figuring out what actually needed to be done, before learning how to do it and then finally actually doing the job and conducting the review. This was a fantastic learning experience. Because I was in a small organisation I had direct access to the key decision makers and I was given a lot of autonomy to conduct the review as I saw fit, while remaining accountable to my project board. It proved to be an excellent opportunity to see a project through from start to finish, building on the project management skills I’d developed working on HS2 in the Department for Transport. When I finished my secondment I left Bristol SU with a clear set of recommendations and a plan for carrying out major changes over the summer. I’ve stayed in touch with my old manager so I know that the changes I proposed are in the process of being implemented at the moment – so if you’re reading this from the University of Bristol, watch this space, and let me know whether you think I’ve been successful when the academic year kicks off in September.

It was interesting to see how a small organisation runs and to compare that with my experiences in the Civil Service. I also had an opportunity to see government policy from the other end, as one of my first ad-hoc jobs was to research the recently published Home Office Prevent strategy and explain the implications for the union.

While the job wasn’t what I was initially hoping for when I submitted my preferences form, it proved to be a really valuable six months in which I learnt a great deal, and in hindsight I’m glad I was given this posting. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to lead a project with such significant implications for the way an organisation runs so early on in my career if it were not for the secondment element of the Fast Stream, and ultimately I retuned to the Civil Service feeling proud of what I’d achieved at Bristol SU.

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