We’ve improved the Commonwealth Secretariat to serve our members more effectively

Why reform?

Secretary-General Scotland began her new role in April 2016 with a mandate for reform. A key factor driving this programme was the constraints on finances at Comsec, which funds our corporate and headquarter services, and the Commonwealth Youth Programme (CYP). Also, there had been a significant retrenchment by member countries in their voluntary contributions to the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation (CFTC). In addition, we needed to improve our performance versus other international organisations.

Responding to this situation, our new Secretary-General initiated a significant review of the organisation. Its purpose was to accurately assess the nature and extent of the challenges we faced and the changes we needed to make. We sought to learn how to maximise our ability to meet the needs and expectations of our family of nations. Our aim was to create an efficient, cost-effective and dynamic Secretariat – an organisation that was better able to deliver our Strategic Plan (see below) in line with the Commonwealth Charter and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) mandates.

Key objectives were:

  • to ensure the Secretariat best meets the collective aims of our 53 member countries, and can demonstrate that it does so. We would focus on areas where the Secretariat can add value by virtue of its comparative advantage
  • to mould the organisation into an effective and efficient mechanism for delivering, measuring and reporting against the objectives set out in our Strategic Plan in line with the Commonwealth Charter, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting mandates and SDGs.

In July 2017, Secretary-General Scotland said to our staff: “Together we have an obligation to create a centre of excellence here at the Secretariat that can support the important work we are undertaking across the Commonwealth for the benefit of more than 2 billion citizens whom we serve.”

For almost two years now, the Secretariat has been undergoing major reforms. Following extensive consultations with staff and independent experts, we have made significant changes. Here is what we have achieved so far:

Progress by January 2018

To boost efficiency and cost-effectiveness, we have reduced staff numbers. On 30 June 2016 our headcount was 295. On 30 June 2017 it was 244. Over the 2017/18 financial year, we have budgeted the average headcount to be 223, which will save some £3.2m annually. Staff numbers are pretty much on target, at 222, which includes temporary staff filling roles while we recruit permanent staff.

Our new structure

We have reduced the number of Deputy Secretary General (DSG) roles from three to one. This will save us in the region of £500k annually. The change has also led to us consolidating twelve “front line” divisions that used to report through DSGs into just three main directorates. Each is under a Director who reports to the Secretary-General and DSG.

The three new directorates are Governance and Peace; Trade, Oceans and Natural Resources; and Economic, Youth and Sustainable Development. These have now been in existence for six months, and our Senior Management Committee (SMC) is monitoring and reviewing how the new structure is operating.

The SMC now comprises:

  • the Secretary-General
  • the Assistant Secretary-General
  • directors of our three directorates
  • the COO
  • the Chief of Staff

Streamlining our organisation

One of the first signs of our determination to become more efficient was the creation of a Commonwealth Hub in Quadrant House, across from Marlborough House. It streamlines the work of Commonwealth organisations and has brought the Commonwealth Games to the heart of the Commonwealth “village”, along with the Royal Commonwealth Society and the Commonwealth Local Government Forum. Read more about the Hub[LINK to Hub story].

Improved planning

The Secretariat is now working to a four-year Strategic Plan, covering the period June 2016 through to July 2021. The new plan references the 8-10 year priorities agreed in the previous plan. However, we have taken the 149 programme outcomes of the old plan and refined them to create a priority list of 21 programme areas. They include Small and Other Vulnerable States and Global Goal 16 issues. These priority areas will naturally benefit from our increased focus.

Our important new Delivery Plan

An absolutely fundamental building block of our reform has been the production for the first time of a very detailed Delivery Plan. We have prepared it in parallel with the production of the Budget for 2017/18. It details, for each area, a delivery strategy, potential for innovation and improvements to drive efficiency, the monitoring approach, and key risks, as well as a specific financial budget.

Watch: The first 100 days of Secretary-General Scotland in post.

The plan outlines selected performance indicators and targets for 2017/18 and 2018/19. It also shows how the Smart Portfolio Management will be embedded across the Secretariat, incorporating Results Based Management, Improved Project Management and Value for Money.

The Delivery Plan is now a core and fundamental component of the change programme across all programme areas going forward. It pulls together the core strands of improved focus, clear goals, measurable objectives, accountability and financial control.

Saving £0.8m through improved operational procedures

We have reviewed and improved a wide range of our operational procedures. This resulted in:

  • a new staff handbook
  • an updated procurement manual
  • a communications strategy
  • new travel guidelines
  • an enhanced payroll system
  • better budgeting procedures
  • ISO 5001 Energy Management certification
  • a review and testing of the IT and disaster recovery plans
  • the inclusion of risk management in the programme management information system.

The net result of savings achieved on general expenditure costs is expected to be in the region of £0.8m in 2016/17 against a budget of £14.4m, and with a proposed budget for 2017/18 of £13.2m

Saving £1m in travel costs

One of the biggest areas where we have made savings has been travel. This improvement follows implementation of our new travel policy early in November 2016. Overall expenditure on travel since then has dropped by more than £1m from the same period in the previous year. This achievement is the result of a combination of stricter rules on the use of business class and more focused assessment of the need for travel at all – for example, when staff can use Skype instead.

We have achieved other savings by significantly reducing temporary staff (£15k a month) and renegotiating other contracts.

In order to help reap the continued anticipated benefits from the above and other planned improvements, we are recruiting senior people with considerable commercial expertise. They include the appointment in April 2017 of a Chief Operating Officer and Change Manager.

Reform of HR and Finance

We have implemented changes recommended by our external consultant in our HR and Finance systems and processes. Continuing to re-organise the structure of both departments, we have:

  • hired an experienced HR Data Manager as well as a Records Management Specialist
  • completed a major HR data cleansing project
  • finalised a new People Management Strategy and shared it with the Senior Management Group
  • set up a new, online appraisal system for half-yearly reviews
  • started to introduce more structure and support to staff training across the Secretariat
  • engaged in detailed discussions with CODA (our financial software supplier) to see whether functionality could be used better to streamline processes, and find out the benefits of upgrading to the latest version. Initial indications are positive, and we are investigating newer versions of additional suites, covering both travel and budgeting
  • revised the format of our monthly management accounts, in which key, high-level figures are highlighted. We are publishing monthly on-line spending on items over £500, and went live towards the end of October on the International Aid Transparency Initiative reporting programme.

Celebrating our achievements

We have recently launched a new website for the Secretariat at thecommonwealth.org. It puts a greater emphasis on showcasing our achievements across the Commonwealth. We would like more people to appreciate our family of nations and how the Secretariat is working for their benefit.

As we embed all the above changes across our organisation, we can confidently say that the Secretariat is now better positioned to support the 53 nations and 2 billion citizens of our Commonwealth family.

Creating our Commonwealth Hub
Strengthening cooperation with the UN
Teaming up with Malta