Focus: People Management - Charities queuing up to see how the other half lives

Workplace secondments are increasingly popular and can help organisations understand each other, writes Georgina Lock.

Workplace secondments are giving charities a chance to experience the mechanics of government departments at first hand.

An increasing number of charities are encouraging their employees to participate in secondments to government departments, and vice versa.

And both sides claim to be reaping the rewards from such secondments, which usually last from three to 18 months.

Help the Aged is a big fan of the concept. Three years ago it sent Lawrence Christensen, then the charity's public relations account manager, to the Home Office to work full-time for 18 months in the Fear of Crime Team's policy department.

More recently, it has sent two of its employees to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's Social Exclusion Unit to work for two days a week on research into socially excluded older people.

Mervyn Kohler, head of public affairs at the charity, said: "It is particularly valuable in the policy world because it helps each organisation to understand where the other is coming from.

We are hearing the message from government that it wants the voluntary sector to be more involved, so it seems natural to help design some of those public services."

Christensen, who has since moved on to become a senior press officer at the British Library, said the secondment was an unrivalled opportunity to provide a fresh outlook on his career.

He added: "I established clear, concrete links between the charity and the Home Office. Help the Aged also got a lot out of it, particularly a closeness to the relationship that it would never have achieved through lobbying."

Although Kohler has not heard of such secondments happening outside the policy world, he thought it was something that could be replicated in other departments. One example might be charity fundraisers spending time within commercial fundraising organisations to help share knowledge. For the past two years, the Home Office has also run a programme of three to four-month secondments to the voluntary sector, with employees working for organisations such as the Prince's Trust and Alone in London.

Child protection

The NSPCC is another charity extolling the virtues of workplace secondments.

Among its employees currently on secondment to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre are policy adviser Chris Atkinson and Colin Turner, head of the specialist investigation service.

In Northern Ireland, NSPCC director Ian Elliott has been seconded for six months to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in the six counties.

He works for three days a week at the department and two at the charity.

Elliott, who is providing professional advice and consultation, said the difficulties, such as the increased workload, were outweighed by the positives.

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