When Tony Cooper took over the helm of the Rural Payments Agency he entered an organisation battered by criticism and condemnation. A year on, he tells Ian Ashbridge how the mistakes of the past are being put right.
Next month, Mr Cooper can chalk up his first year in what had to be one of the least popular Civil Service jobs – chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency. He took over from Johnston McNeil, on whom the fall of the axe had been swift and sudden, but who is now widely seen as a scapegoat for ministerial incompetence.
But Mr Cooper was under no illusions as to what he was taking on. “The service we’ve provided to farmers has been far too hit-and-miss,” he says.
“The external view is: Why is it all taking so long? Well, our people know I’m in a big hurry – and I am – to sort things out and make improvements.”
Nevertheless, he avoids commenting on the comparatively complicated, hybrid payment system former DEFRA minister Margaret Beckett – now Foreign Secretary – adopted for England, except to say: “I’ve inherited what I’ve inherited. I’m working with the [payment system] I’ve got and that’s what I’ve got to do.”
Similarly, he is reluctant to be drawn on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee’s recent censure of Mrs Beckett and senior civil servants. But it’s hard not to imagine RPA staff can’t have found some solace in the MPs’ findings.
“There have been various scrutinies – they’re all historical. What I’m concerned with is how this organisation moves forward.
“David Hunter’s report [The Hunter Review into the future of the RPA] is now complete. It gives us some certainty – we know the RPA will continue. It has taken away a cloud hanging over the future of this organisation and set out what our core business is – delivering payments to farmers.”
Keeping up morale in an atmosphere of bitter criticism from farmers and the wider media has been a priority, say Mr Cooper. “Our staff see the negative press coverage and they do take a knock. It’s very frustrating for them because they are doing many good things.”
Organisations of the size and profile of the RPA are not suited to sudden, radical change. It’s like the old adage of the giant supertanker at sea – because of its size, it takes so long to turn around that it can seem as though nothing’s happening. So where did Mr Cooper start?
“At first it was a case of settling in, and getting as much of the 2005 payments out as possible. I took immediate action to change the structure of the organisation, introduced greater individual accountability and narrowed some manager’s responsibilities.”
Inevitably, there was a period of taking stock. It was never going to be a quick fix. And Mr Cooper is keen to point out that, while the Single Payments Scheme is the major problem he must solve, it is not the only one the RPA must deliver.
“The RPA is overshadowed by the SPS, but it does lots of other work as well and this all has to be maintained and must deliver. But key focus has been on the SPS.
“When I arrived, the 2006 claim forms had already gone out. Some of the information we held was pretty poor. From the legacy of 2005 we identified a level of incorrect information. Hence the need to re-process some claims and considerably re-working some cases. But for the individual farmer, it’s no consolation to know that x-number of cases have to be re-done.”
One of the most important decisions Mr Cooper made was to change the working culture from a “routine, factory-like, processing” of claims to “case-working”, where individual claims are adopted by a case officer and seen through to delivery.
“This is a large organisation that does complex work. It requires a higher level of knowledge and expertise, so we have invested in training and development of our people.”
One frequent criticism of the RPA has been that staff lacked specialist agricultural knowledge and this frustrated farmers trying to find out what was happening to their claims.
“Some more complicated cases require a team effort rather than one individual. So we have some experts – “floorwalkers” – who can be called on by caseworkers for assistance. And our contact centre can put enquiries through to individual caseworkers.”
Work in progress
But while this will all be welcome news to farmers, Mr Cooper stresses that it is a work-in-progress. The RPA’s computer system was not designed for this way of working, and so has to be significantly adapted to cope. This is just one of the many reasons, he says, why 2008 will be the year for “normal service”.
“2007 is still going to be a difficult year. But by the 2008 scheme year I would expect the SPS to be working in a much more stable state.”
It needs to be, if Mr Cooper is to meet David Miliband’s target of 96% of payments delivered by 30 June. “It’s a challenging target. But our case workers are completely set on this, wholly committed.
“Last year we put in place the means of getting out 80% partial payments. This year we set to make 50% partial payments and they have gone out. So we’re in better shape.
“I can’t say if partial payments will be required needed to the 2007 claims. We need to progress with our work to validate claims. But there’s no reason to assume we can’t make full payments in 2008 but we have to take stock nearer the time.”
In the meantime, Mr Cooper is determined that the RPA keeps up the momentum it now has. “I’ve been honest with our staff, I’ve opened up access to me, I visit all our sites regularly – at least one a week – and talk to people.” One of the key changes Mr Cooper made was to improve accountability, appointing people to be responsible for the RPA’s various offices at Carlisle, Northallerton, Newcastle and elsewhere.
But as well as clearing the backlog and validating claims for this year’s payments, the RPA must doggedly continue to check and counter-check claim details.
“Some cases do become more complex than others. There are going to be weeks when more payments are made than in other weeks. The level of work is different for every case, cross-checking can reveal overlapping claims.
“It takes time because the case worker wants to make sure the claim is right. They need to check it thoroughly because they don’t want to have to spend more time revisiting it later.
“We are now focussed on our customers – farmers. There are a number of cases that have been dealt with badly. I feel embarrassed by that sort of service. To the individual farmers affected I can only apologise. Going forward, there will be improvements. This year has been better than last and by 2008 there will be a normal service.”
At least that gives farmers something to look forward to. But what of the future for Mr Cooper, whose trouble-shooting appointment was never supposed to be permanent. “I’m definitely here until June 2008. But it could be longer – anything’s possible.”
Yet he certainly doesn’t give the impression he is keen to move on. “I like fixing things. I like to get stuck in. There’s a lot more to be done, and I’m determined to see this through.”