Geoff Russell, CEO, Skills Funding Agency
Geoff Russell, CEO, Skills Funding Agency

One crisp Monday morning, back in 2009, Geoff Russell found himself sitting in the government’s Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, with a shiny new Blackberry in his hand.

The previous Friday, he’d had a call about “a finance job somewhere in Whitehall”, but he wasn’t exactly sure what the job involved. “I was looking at the BBC website when I spotted that I had been appointed the chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), which is actually how I found out about it, because no one had actually got round to telling me,” he recalls.

Russell, who is far more candid and witty than his reputation suggests, admits he turned to Google for help. “I hadn’t the faintest idea what the LSC was, let alone what further education was,” he says, laughing.

He may make light of it now, but he couldn’t have taken on the role at a more difficult time. His predecessor, Mark Haysom, had just resigned after the college capital funding fiasco and the quango was due to be disbanded to make way for two new organisations – the Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA) and the Skills Funding Agency (SFA).

A self- confessed workaholic, Russell went into overdrive working “every single day, every single hour that I wasn’t sleeping.” He even started taking taxis to and from the office so to fit in more Blackberry time (funded out of his own pocket, he adds quickly, when his press manager starts eyeballing him). “I have never done anything so difficult in my life,” he says. “It was the biggest quango in the country, had five million customers, pushed out £50m a day doing all the education of 16-year-olds and it had also been abolished. So it needed to be fixed, run and then shut down… so it was about making sure all those people had a home and that the LSC came to a smooth landing while at the same time, the YPLA and the SFA had a safe take-off.”

In the public sector, they rarely measure what they deliver and they haven’t the faintest idea what it costs – so it is quite hard to measure performance.”

But with over 30 years experience in financial management in both the public and private sectors, Russell seemed well-equipped for the challenge. Raised in Canada, he relocated to the UK in 1988, when he was working with the accountancy giant KPMG. While he discovered early on in his career that he was a “pretty crappy accountant,” fortunately he was a good people manager, something he attributes to his subsequent career success.

Two years after arriving in the UK, Russell was offered a job in the Treasury looking after financial management policy in Whitehall, which proved to be a big culture shock. “I really wondered what sort of fantasy land I was in,” he says. “In the public sector, they rarely measure what they deliver and they haven’t the faintest idea what it costs – so it is quite hard to measure performance.”

He went back to KMPG after a couple of years, as a partner. But with new blood rising up the ranks, he sensed changes were afoot and decided to leave – which is when the LSC role came up.

Russell says he only planned to do a year in the job, but after being sat on by various government officials, agreed to stay on. “I was going round the country saying ‘Don’t worry it’s going to be alright’ to everyone and people started saying to me ‘It’s alright for you, you’re buggering off in April, aren’t you?’ So I felt a bit guilty about that…”

Behind Russell’s self-effacing, easy manner, there is a sense that he would like to say more or even, perhaps, that he has a mischievous side. The UK has the most complicated education system in the world, he says, at one point. “They try and simplify it and I have decided that actually what they do is this thing called ‘complification…’ he breaks off, with a mock-complaint that his press manager is giving him “significant looks.”

And while “things have got progressively more sane” since the LSC closed (he no longer works 18-hour days for one), there are still challenges. Government officials, for starters. “The culture change for someone like me from the private sector, who is used to making decisions rapidly based on, generally, an urgent need, always on imperfect information, without having to ask 16 people… I’m not saying that’s wrong, because that’s the way government works, but it’s hugely frustrating for me, who is not used to working that way,” he says.

But he is positive about moving from the “crisis management” involved in shutting down the LSC to a new “lighter, simpler, less bureaucractic” remit at the SFA. While there is currently a price list of some 10,000 courses, by 2013/14 this will have been reduced to just 30, he says. And a single adult skills funding pot should also make life easier for everyone in the sector, he says.

He bats off accusations that the implementation of this long-awaited simplified funding system has been delayed, saying he is not aware of “any specific commitment as to when we would bring in the new system.”
The SFA is actually running a kind of dress rehearsal at the moment (which he calls “shadow running”), he says, whereby providers will be told how much funding they would have got under the new system, so they can make plans for next year. “If you think about it, if you have a price list of 10,000 and you suddenly compress it down to 30, there are going to be some winners and losers. I’m a relatively impatient person, and I would like to put this system in tomorrow, but you can’t blow up the system even with good intentions. One of the comments we consistently got from the consultation was ‘you need to give us time to adjust, you need to communicate very clearly,’ so we have published quite clearly what we intend to do quite a long time in advance.”

Communication is clearly something Russell prides himself on, and he is well known in the sector for his weekly ‘what I’ve been up to’ emails to staff. But, he says, not everyone is so keen to hear about his weekend away or what his dogs have been up to. “I’ve had emails from quite junior people saying, “That is just drivel. How could you say that?’ And I always write them back and say, ‘Well, I’m sorry you think it was drivel, but actually that’s my life.’ Sometimes I might have to say that 200 people are leaving the organisation or bad things are happening. Some people say, ‘How can you sit there and talk about your dogs and then go on to talk about horrible things in the organisation?’ but the point is… if anyone in this organisation feels that they can write me an email and tell me what they think about the business or themselves or my dogs, that’s the kind of culture I want. I want an open culture where we say what we think.”

 it’s a cliché, to say that you transform people’s lives – but you really do.”

Also unpopular with some staff is his ambition to introduce performance related pay, he says. Some of them have told him, straight out, that they think it is divisive. “And I say, ‘yes it is. It is dividing people who are good and people who need to improve’… because we are an operational organisation it is easier to measure what our people deliver, so to my mind, it is not very healthy to have to pay two people the same amount, one working really hard and the other not doing very much. I think that’s divisive, and I’d rather annoy the people who aren’t doing very much than annoy the people who are contributing.”

While he has no firm plans to move on just yet, if the right opportunity came along, he would consider it, he says coyly, before adding that, earlier this year, he was asked to apply for a job running a university. I tell him I could see him running a new, privately-funded university. “No comment,” barks his press officer, rather too jovially and I wonder if I’ve struck gold.

The biggest reward of working in FE, says Russell, is going out to speak to learners. “I live pretty close to my emotions and some of the stories… I can barely tell this one,” he says, and for a horrible moment, it looks as if he might cry. He goes on to tell a story about a Polish student he met in Leicester who arrived in the UK three years ago with no English and has just been accepted into Oxford. “I have heard stories like that over and over and over again and yes, it’s a cliché, to say that you transform people’s lives – but you really do.”