As an executive agency within the Department of Social Security, the Blackpool-based War Pensions Agency is charged with assessing and paying pensions to disabled servicemen and their widows across the UK, as well as taking responsibility for their welfare. Its challenge is not only to deliver with the maximum efficiency but to carry out its duties with care and compassion - qualities not always evident in agencies of central government.
Payment of war pensions goes back to Elizabethan times - when a soldier received pounds 10 a year - but the WPA was launched as an executive agency just seven years ago. Progress has not always been smooth: it was one of the first agencies to win the Charter Mark but lost it and had to win it back again; it also suffered from a run of short-lived CEOs.
What impressed our judges was the way that, under current acting chief executive Alan Burnham, the agency has really focused on providing excellent service in its five-year business strategy formulated last year. This talks about modernisation, working with partners, valuing people and providing value for money. But it makes one thing clear: that 'the interests of war pensioners and war widows are at the forefront of everything we do'.
Customers are surveyed to gauge overall levels of satisfaction and to identify priorities for service delivery. This has helped to increase satisfaction to impressive levels: in its latest survey, 96% of customers said they were 'satisfied or very satisfied' with the professionalism of staff.
The WPA has also developed strong partnerships with other agencies, such as the RNIB and the RNID, as well as many smaller organisations helping ex-servicemen and women. For example, it is making facilities available at its network of offices to groups without their own premises.
It has sharpened up many processes and shown an ability to introduce new ones where necessary. For instance, a dedicated team was formed to deal with medical discharges, learning from psychiatrists how to deal with this group without making them relive their trauma.
One of the most impressive aspects of the agency was the way in which it encouraged its people to become closely involved with their customers. At lunchtime, a series of lectures and discussions enables staff to meet representatives of both active and ex-services personnel as well as partner organisations. On one occasion, staff went on a skiing trip with those who had lost limbs, an experience that some agency personnel described as life-changing.
The WPA has demonstrated a remarkable 'can do' philosophy. When Tony Blair announced last November that surviving former prisoners of war in the Far East were to receive a pounds 10,000 special payment from the Government, the agency faced the task of tracking down thousands of individuals now dispersed across the world. A project plan enabled 14,000 claims to be processed in less than three months.
In short, the WPA has achieved tangible results for its customers - in one case, the time to process a claim fell from 200 days to 110; it has revitalised once-demoralised staff and vastly reduced absenteeism; and it has won recognition for these efforts with Investors in People, the Crystalmark for clear communication, and the regaining of its Charter Mark. With its customer base shrinking as those from the world wars die, it will have to adapt to continual change. Meanwhile, the dedication of its management and people offers lessons for other government agencies.