A crack team of civil service apprentices is set to double in size in 2017, after Whitehall’s operational delivery chief Ruth Owen said departmental leaders had been “won over” by the new model.
The Surge and Rapid Response Team (SRRT) was set up in 2014 after the Passport Office and HM Revenue and Customs, which have both reduced frontline staff numbers in recent years, drew flak for customer service failures.
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Problems at the two agencies prompted ministers to order the creation of a flexible team of civil servants able to quickly support frontline or back office staff anywhere in government, either in response to an immediate crisis or to help with anticipated surges in demand, such as the annual deadline for renewing tax credits.
The team started life with around 200 newly-recruited apprentices, whose contracts require them to be available at 24 hours’ notice following a deployment agreement drawn up between departments and HMRC. So far the team has already worked to support organisations including the Foreign Office, UK Visas and Immigration and the Rural Payments Agency.
Speaking as part of an in-depth feature on the unit to be published in TJ‘s sister title Civil Service World later this month, senior officials behind the surge team said the SRRT is aiming to expand significantly in 2017, with numbers set to increase to around 450 in the early part of the year.
Owen, the HMRC director general for customer service who also heads up the civil service-wide Operational Delivery Profession, acknowledged that the SRRT – which will continue to be entirely staffed by apprentices as it grows – had been met with “mixed views” when it was initially pitched to departmental chiefs in 2014.
“Some people said: ‘You’ll never be able to create a workforce that can flex across departments because our workforce, quite rightly, are knowledgeable. They’re not just shallow skills – they can actually help customers with in-depth queries.’”
But Owen said senior officials were now “totally embracing” the surge team, which scooped the 2016 Dame Lesley Strathie Operational Excellence Award at November’s Civil Service Awards.
“I would say, generally, across the whole senior civil service, that the director general and permanent secretary cadre have definitely all been won over,” she said.
“They see the benefits. They see the need for us to do work and planning together, and have been really supportive in terms of saying, ‘Let’s go to the next level in expansion and just see how far we can take this model now’.”
Owen said she wanted the SRRT to “keep testing and learning” in 2017, and stressed the need for departments to continue to draw up robust workforce plans and “look internally first” before calling on the surge team.
Departments cannot give surge apprentices any work that would require more than five days of training, and deployments should, Owen stressed, be “deliberately designed around operational, customer-facing work” rather than policy support.
“We do want to be quite strict on the criteria for the type of work that they do, because we’re overwhelmed with demand and we’re part of the operations profession – so I would prioritise operations first.”
She added: “The clearer departments can be on what it is that they want to achieve, and the clearer they can be on what success looks like and how that will be measured, then the better the assignment will be.”
But Owen said the model was already challenging the idea that civil servants could not work across different departments, with operational delivery staff possessing skills that are “much more transferable than they probably realise”.
“This is what I’ve really been trying to create in the Surge and Rapid Response Team,” Owen added. “Although they are, if you like, hosted by HMRC, I want them to feel like they are Operational Delivery professionals first, civil service-first, and therefore don’t feel that kind of tribalism or allegiance to one particular department.”