UK: IM SOUNDING BOARD - CHARITY WITH A MILITARY MODEL. - On a Friday in late 1991 I was sitting in my office in Brecon barracks, awaiting the arrival of the camp commandant. I anticipated that he wished to bid me farewell on my last day in the army, and

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

On a Friday in late 1991 I was sitting in my office in Brecon barracks, awaiting the arrival of the camp commandant. I anticipated that he wished to bid me farewell on my last day in the army, and see me off the premises as GOC Wales. I imagined his reminiscences about activities in which we had both been engaged, his cheerful remarks about the dinner I had been given the previous night. Instead, he marched smartly into my office, saluted and asked for my identity card. I had been carrying my identity card for over 33 years and it had become a true friend and opener of doors. I queried the demand, reminding him that (although retired) I would be continuing military duties as Colonel of The King's Regiment and a colonel commandant of the Royal Corps of Signals, but to no avail. It was to be handed over and that was an order. With great reluctance I complied and he departed.

After a weekend at home I reported to my new office at Horsham where I became, simultaneously, director general of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Mr Davies. I looked forward to mastering the responsibilities of the former but the bathos of returning from major general to mister was a little hard to accept, though I had willingly agreed to this at my final interview. It was clear that I was now well and truly into my second career, that my military experience belonged to the past. But did it?

On taking up my appointment I did what I had always done in such circumstances in the army: I toured the offices,talked to staff, had myself briefed on immediate problems, then planned a tour of the RSPCA locations in England and Wales. The tour brought home the realities of civilian life. Now I had no helicopter to take me to the furthest outposts, no driver to work out my routes. I had to make my own journey plans, and read my briefings the night before rather than seated in the back of a staff car.

Several weeks later I had visited all the society's 10 regional headquarters, its three major hospitals, both wildlife hospitals and a range of animal centres and homes. First impressions were extremely favourable: a fine, dedicated, salaried staff of around 1,000, 300 of them uniformed inspectors, backed by a corps of voluntary workers spread across some 200 branches. But these visits also convinced me that one of the major problems of the society lay in its communications.

Each region had a number of nodal points where the public could gain access to RSPCA support. These ran on a shoestring, with obsolescent equipment, and for part of the day only. Inspectors were allocated their tasks on band 3 radio, on a bewildering array of frequencies, and large areas were left uncovered. To my Royal Signals trained eye, it seemed obvious that the system was in urgent need of updating, and I set out to produce a plan for my council to consider.

After one year, and expenditure of some £4 million, the plan was in operation. Each region had a single communication centre, open 24 hours a day every day of the year. New and faster computer equipment was in use and the inspectors all had personal telephones - improving both efficiency and personal security. A single, easily memorable, national number (0990 555 999) automatically puts members of the public in touch with the nearest regional communication centre - from wherever they may be. The results have been staggering: more prosecutions in cruelty cases, more proactive work by inspectors to prevent cruelty. I am now looking to streamline the system further, using methods made possible by advances over the last three years. But progress has been made, and military experience has certainly played its part.

I then turned to a problem that is well understood in military circles. In the military, officers rotate between headquarters and appointments in the field. There is little cribbing about 'them up there' because recent experience of being 'up there' brings appreciation of the problems faced at headquarters. In a charitable organisation people at the grassroots rarely move upwards unless elected to the central council of the society.

A typical RSPCA region contains 20 or so branches, and it was here that the problem lay. The individual branches - each under its own committee of volunteers - appeared to function almost in isolation from the rest of the society and, while quick to complain of faults at headquarters level, seldom wished to communicate with neighbouring branches or with the hierarchy generally. The New Management Strategy that had been imposed on the army during my last years seemed to have the makings of a solution. The first step was to create a small fund for use within each region, over and above the regional budget. Branches, which had been extremely suspicious of meeting regionally, found that if they did not attend the new regional boards which were set up, they had no say in how the delegated money should be spent. They very quickly learned the benefits of being represented.

Several months later the regional boards are flourishing and there is a maturing sense of collective responsibility. Both regions and branches are more self-confident, more co-operative and less likely to be critical of the hierarchy since they are now working within it. I hope to see further delegation of authority, so that local matters can be settled locally. But my earlier wrestling with the New Management Strategy has already brought unexpected civilian benefits.

In the three-and-a-half years since I left the army I have never felt less than fulfilled in my work. Of course there have been vexations. There is sufficient paperwork to keep me pinned to my desk every day. All my training rebelled against this, and I quickly made one of my directors a true deputy in the military chief-of-staff mould. Leaving him to co-ordinate action at headquarters, I am now able to make regular visits to regions, branches and animal centres around the country, as well as liaising with government ministers, parliamentarians, and other organisations concerned with animal welfare.

This style of working permits all routine functions to operate efficiently without neglecting external initiatives, which can be seen through at the highest level. In retrospect, it's clear that loss of my military identity card has not affected my reliance on skills learnt in the army.

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