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Monday 20 June 2022

Dave Penman reflects on 10 years as General Secretary

John Wellings

Having just passed the milestone of 10 years since I was first elected as General Secretary of the FDA, I wanted to briefly reflect on that time and where the union now stands as we face an increasingly uncertain future.

Since then we have seen three general elections and three Prime Ministers, Brexit, a once in a century pandemic, and now, as war rages on the European mainland, a new Cold War and refugee crisis.

I shall skirt over the ravages of time on my appearance and hairline, but it has been an extraordinary 10 years for the country, the government and the civil service. When I was elected in 2012, those were challenging times as the civil service shrank dramatically, and our membership fell.

We worked hard to ensure that our membership did not fall at the same rate as the civil service reduced in size, but our union faced significant long term challenges. My immediate priorities were to secure the financial future of the union and look strategically at our membership base and sphere of influence.

We purchased the first property in our 100-year history and after an inevitably tortuous refurbishment process, we now have a union headquarters – Centenary House – that members can not only be proud of, but also allows us to deliver more and better services.

A union HQ is not just an office, it’s where members come together to collaborate, take decisions and, increasingly, learn. Our suite of meeting rooms has been upgraded to allow for hybrid working and we have a state-of-the-art events space for up to 70 people.

As we work out the best way to organise in this hybrid era, getting together has never been more important, and Centenary House is a facility that all branches and sections of the union can use to enhance our ability to represent our members. It has increased our capacity to offer a broad range of learning opportunities, which we continue to invest in and have proved so valuable to members, particularly during lockdown.

In 2015, we launched Keystone, the first major expansion in our core membership for a century. This year, our conference took the decision to fully integrate our Keystone membership into the sections and branches of the union, a vital step in our strategy for broadening our membership. Keystone continues to grow at over 20% a year, and is now one of our biggest sections.

10 years on and we are now stronger and have more members than at any time in our history. Our stock, so to speak, has never been higher. At conference we celebrated passing the 20,000 member milestone. We are the fastest growing union in the country, having grown by over 30% in the last three years. That shows no signs of abating as we face the challenges ahead.

It’s no accident though, it’s not luck. It’s because we are focused on the issues that are important to members and, crucially, we engage and communicate with them effectively. Relevance and visibility should be our watchwords and if we stay close to this philosophy, we can weather the storms that are building on our horizon.

We’ve seen record recruitment over the last month as we challenged the government’s ideological approach to home working and the 91,000 job cuts. Those potential members faced with the uncertainty of the draconian job cuts had any number of choices, but they chose to join the FDA in record numbers because they have seen us as a powerful advocate for the civil service and civil service values.

Expansion in membership is not an end in itself, it allows us to deliver more for our members. This summer we will embark on a project that will seek to challenge the dogmatic approach of government on home and flexible working. We’ll be conducting polling, including in those red wall seats, to show that flexible working is a vote winner, not loser. Collaborating with an external partner, we’ll be conducting research amongst members about the efficiency and effectiveness of flexible working, using the talents of the FDA summer intern, a fantastic initiative that we started last year.

We have recruited an additional member to our remarkably small Communications team, to enhance the support and expertise that we provide to sections and branches, helping us hard wire effective communication into everything we do.

We are a trade union and we only exist because of the incredible people who give up their time to support their colleagues as FDA representatives. We are successful because members recognise that the FDA is not only a powerful advocate on their behalf, but represents their values and addresses the issues that are important to them.

It has been a privilege to lead the FDA for the last decade and represent the dedicated public servants who make up our membership. This may be the most challenging time in my ten years as General Secretary, but we can be confident that the union has never been in a stronger position to face up to those challenges on your behalf.

Dave Penman is General Secretary of the FDA
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