Focus: Policy and Politics - Get an insider's view of government

Nathalie Thomas, nathalie.thomas@haynet.com

Secondments can offer valuable insights into how ministers think.

Earlier this year Andrew Chidgey, head of policy and campaigns at the Alzheimer's Society, boldly went where few men from the voluntary sector had gone before: the Department of Health.

He went on a six-month secondment to work alongside the head of strategy in the department's care services directorate.

It may be common for umbrella groups such as Acevo and the NCVO to dispatch staff to government departments, but for individual charities such as the Alzheimer's Society, this was a rare opportunity. It is also one that Chidgey would urge other charities to copy.

"The most important thing I gained was a better understanding of how government and the civil service work," said Chidgey.

Chidgey added there was some truth in the commonly held view that the DoH is an impenetrable beast. But by infiltrating its ranks and coming to understand the agendas of ministers and civil servants, the voluntary sector could learn how to engage with the department more efficiently.

"It is about understanding who the right people are and what the opportunities are," he said. "You need to be aware that the DoH and ministers have to think about a far broader set of interests than, for example, the Alzheimer's Society does. It's crucial to think about how we can engage effectively in the context of that broader agenda."

One complaint some civil servants have of the sector, said Chidgey, is the constant influx of requests by individual charities to consider their specific causes.

Chidgey believes the sector as a whole would have much more success if organisations demonstrated to the department how their particular issues could be dealt with in the context of a wider policy initiative.

One way of doing this is to work with other colleagues in the sector.

"I think there are some really good coalitions across the voluntary sector that work really effectively," he said.

Chidgey's secondment was the result of an unusual DoH advertisement to voluntary organisations offering the six-month, full-time placement. But he advised other charities interested in seeing how things work from the 'other side' not to wait for Mohammed to go to the mountain.

He added: "There are lots of opportunities for charities to approach government departments and local authorities to set up shadowing or secondment arrangements that can be of mutual benefit. There is often a real enthusiasm to do that on the government departments' behalf - it's just that people haven't asked."

However, Chidgey also recommended that charities think about the consequences of losing a member of staff for six months, which can have a devastating effect, particularly on smaller teams. In this case, one-week shadowing arrangements might be a more appropriate solution, he suggested.

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