UK: FOR QUEEN AND COUNTRY. - The pluses and minuses of executive secondment to the DTI.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The pluses and minuses of executive secondment to the DTI.

For many years past the Government, usually in the shape of the Department of Trade and Industry, has been recruiting private sector managers on temporary secondment, to carry out assignments for which their commercial experience makes them particularly well suited. Very sensible, too. The biggest of these programmes, the Export Promoter (EP) initiative, now in its fifth year, has assembled a force of 80 businessmen, all with first-hand knowledge of specific markets. Their expertise and nose for opportunities are likely to be far more use to potential exporters than the best intentions of any career civil servant.

Under the terms of the agreement with the DTI, the EP's employer continues to pay his salary during his two years of absence (the usual term of secondment, sometimes extended to a third). But isn't that making excessive demands on patriotism, to deprive a company of the services of a well-paid executive, yet expect it to go on sending his monthly cheque while his (or, in some cases, her) efforts are devoted to advancing the interests of others?

And from the individual's point of view, might it not be unwise to be away from the company for an extended period at what could be a critical stage in one's career?

As to the first question, Ian Godwin, head of corporate communications at Johnson Matthey, says that, 'We felt under an obligation to support the national effort. It's good for the company's reputation to be perceived as active in this area.' Alan Fullarton, former director of Johnson Matthey's Japanese operation, who spent over two years arranging trade missions and giving presentations and generally advising UK businesses on how to break into Japan, agrees that the group was 'pleased to have a high profile' as an exporter.

But it may also be that Johnson Matthey chairman David Davies felt he could hardly refuse, having personally been approached by Michael Heseltine, then president of the Board of Trade. 'Even large companies are not awfully keen to give people to the DTI,' observes another EP; and it was of course the big boys, with the resources and overseas experience, that Heseltine targeted. 'It's difficult to say No when faced with a ministerial request,' observes Andrew Bacon, currently on secondment from IMI and manning one of the Scandinavian desks. As Bacon points out, the Department has power, and is to a degree 'feared by industry'.

Nevertheless IMI was 'quite pleased to be asked'. Joining the DTI would give its man an insight into the workings of government, and a network of contacts - plus a broader picture of British industry. It would be, in short, 'a personal development exercise'. Other EPs, past and present, share this view of secondment, which is one of the grounds on which the DTI tries to sell the idea.

'The president would like to see EPs returning to their organisations at the end of their secondments, so that their experience with the initiative benefits their companies,' says a DTI recruitment document. There's the rub, however. 'There's always the risk that the appropriate level is not available back at the ranch,' says Fullarton, so that the EP's new skills are lost to the business. Bacon is looking forward to taking up a new job at IMI a little more than a year from now, but Fullarton has parted from his company - and that seems to have happened to a lot of former EPs.

John Dumbrell was a regional director of British Gas, 'but then the regions disappeared and there was no job to go back to'. Peter Jennings, once a divisional managing director at Siebe, has started a manufacturing business of his own. The Whitehall experience was, he says, 'useful to the individual, and should be to the group if a career pattern emerges'. In his case, it didn't. 'It didn't do me any good,' says Tim Allpress, formerly of Rolls-Royce.

On the other hand, 'It didn't do my career any harm,' says Paul Brankin of Oxford Instruments, who like Fullarton specialised in Japan. 'Absence was not detrimental to me - I was very careful that it was not. I kept a desk at the company. It is very important to be able to slot back in.'.

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