Geoff Russell is chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency

The serious season of return to work and learning is underway and it finds Geoff Russell, chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency, considering the importance of good communication

"In the course of my life, I have often had to eat my words..." said Winston Churchill, infamously going on to say that he always found it a wholesome diet.

It's not that I have no appetite for words, as you will know from reading these columns. Words, it's often said, are the most powerful drug used by mankind. But the proverbial saying 'deliver your words not by number but by weight' is perhaps closer to it for me.

The benefits of well-used words and good communication in learning environments, the workplace and in business and society at large are immeasurable. Without doubt, good communication is something we must get right if together we are to achieve the sector's important mission to deliver excellent standards in learning for our customers. So it was with keen interest that I read the recent feedback from our own Skills Funding Agency College and Training Organisation Survey. After all, so much of good communication is about listening.

Perhaps one of the most important mistakes in communication is the illusion that it's taken place. So rather than assume all is well, it's important for me that we test the water to see how we're doing and that we are transparent about our strengths and weaknesses. And it does seem a good time to share the results with you, as we begin to emerge from our restructure to become the more streamlined organisation we've been promising you. I know it's been nothing if not a challenging year for the FE sector too, so what better time to take stock, to gauge and digest your feedback on how it's been for you, so that we can look ahead to new ways of working together.

The survey set out to get the views of the training organisations we contract with so we can understand their perceptions of the way we work with them. We're publishing the results for you to read on our website but let me give you an insight.

It was the first time that the Agency, or the LSC before it, had done any such survey so I have no baseline for comparison. There has also been a great deal of change and challenge within both the Agency and the sector. In that context, I find the result encouraging for a relatively new organisation.

So even though there are, inevitably, some important criticisms, I am grateful for the feedback you have given us; it's provided much useful information that we are taking time to consider carefully. You have my assurance that we will also be making changes where they are needed and that we will repeat the survey next year to see what progress we have made on the key issues which I touch on below.

The survey found our communications to be largely positive although we know from you that the timing of our information and announcements could be improved and we will look at that. But you told us that you would welcome more direct contact, rather than us talking to you through documents and other general communication. So the Agency's new structure will include a network of Relationship Teams who will engage directly with colleges and training organisations as well as with local partners and stakeholders. Whilst we have necessarily centralised our budgetary and procurement processes, our local relationship managers will be able to make the case for really important local issues.

You said too that you felt that the personal approach is being lost and that you don't always understand the flexibilities that are available to you. Of course, in a new light touch relationship we don't want to be prescriptive and we do want the sector to be more autonomous. But we're keen to encourage a dialogue with providers and our local teams will do that with each provider to understand their unique issues. Around technical questions about contracts and funding guidance that affect all providers, we will have a dedicated helpline as a central point of contact and expertise. This will allow us to provide timely, consistent and accurate information.

Of course there will still be times when we have to rely on the written word. I can promise you that there will be more rigorous quality and "necessity" control checks before we publish information and that wherever possible we will avoid jargon and complexity. We'll be looking afresh at our systems and website to make them more user-friendly – have you seen our website front page recently? We're keen to make this a 'shop window' to showcase successes, so if you have any positive news to tell us please do send it to our press office on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

You might also like to follow the Skills Funding Agency on Twitter where you can keep up to date with us on a day by day basis and there will be new channels of communications to come.

By all means read our summary of the survey results and the actions planned to address them http://skillsfundingagency.bis.gov.uk/providers/allthelatest/providerupdate/

And taking the advice of that valuable proverb to heart, rest assured that looking ahead we will deliver our words not by number but by weight.

Geoff Russell is chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency, a partner organisation of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills


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