A continuing European role for the College

While we are told on an almost daily basis that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ (whatever that may mean!), there is still a very strong case in the veterinary sphere for close cooperation and partnership with our European neighbours.

It is in this capacity that, twice per year, key members of RCVS Council and me attend meetings of the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FVE), an organisation that strives to promote animal health, welfare and public health across Europe through spreading knowledge and best practice amongst colleagues across the continent.

One concrete example of how best practice is shared and diffused amongst FVE’s 38 members is the fact that the Vet Futures project, started here in the UK in 2014 as a joint venture between the College and the British Veterinary Association to help the profession determine and prepare for its long-term future, has inspired a ‘Vet Futures Europe’ project.

fve-group-shot

Key members of RCVS Council and CEO Nick Stace attending a meeting of the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FVE) in Brussels, June 2016.

The project aims to develop themes and actions which will help the European veterinary profession plan for its future, and inform a strategic plan for the FVE, as well as providing a framework for other member states to develop national Vet Futures reports. The fact that the project has been so well received by our European colleagues and taken on board by them is very gratifying and demonstrates that Britain is often at the forefront of innovation in the veterinary sphere.

One of the countries that has shown the most enthusiasm for Vet Futures is Switzerland which, while not a member of the EU, is certainly a key player in FVE. It is important to note that FVE is not an EU institution and that many non-EU members are active within FVE, including Norway and Turkey. When the United Kingdom leaves the EU we will continue to have a vital role in FVE as one of the biggest economies in Europe employing many thousands of vets from across the continent.

Leaving the EU may create certain complications – decisions made by the European Parliament regarding animal health and welfare in its member states may continue to have an impact on the UK, yet we will lack the ability to directly influence them. Nevertheless, through FVE, we will still play a big role in lobbying not only the EU but also national governments, institutions, NGOs and other stakeholders in promoting the views of the profession as well as animal health and welfare and public health.

And on the subject of what Brexit might mean for the veterinary profession, we recently had the second meeting of the RCVS Presidential Taskforce on Brexit, where we looked at issues ranging from the labour market to mutual recognition of qualifications and much more. The next meeting will be on 9 November and we will be reporting back to RCVS Council in March 2017 with recommendations.

May we live in interesting times

While the past few weeks have been very interesting for observers of politics (and great for political journalists!) I imagine that for many veterinary surgeons, veterinary nurses and veterinary practices the excitement may be mixed with a fair bit of uncertainty.

Some 27 per cent of those on the Register of Veterinary Surgeons are registrants from elsewhere in the European Union and they make up around half of all new registrants every year. Meat hygiene and public health are heavily dependent on veterinary surgeons from the EU and I am sure that most veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses will have colleagues from one of the other 27 states. The input of these vets has been invaluable and I would like to both recognise and applaud the positive impact they have had on the veterinary industry and animal welfare.

The Brexit negotiations have yet to begin and while we may want to give absolute certainties to our EU colleagues that they will continue to be able to live and work here unimpeded – it is very much dependent on the agreements the Government makes regarding freedom of movement and the single market. What we can guarantee, however, is two things. First, that their status as Member of the RCVS is sacrosanct and that, as long as the annual fees are paid, any current registrant will be able to remain on the Register of Veterinary Surgeons.

Second that along with the British Veterinary Association, we will be lobbying and working with Whitehall’s Brexit team and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs to ensure the transition is as smooth as possible and to take into account the best interests of the veterinary professions and the public. I would personally like to congratulate Andrea Leadsom on her appointment as Secretary of State and look forward to working with her and her team in the coming months and years.

To this end we have set up a Presidential Taskforce to consider the impact of Brexit and which aims to report its conclusions to Council by March 2017. The Taskforce will have several objectives including:

  • Considering the EU regulations that currently impact on our regulatory responsibilities and make recommendations as to which should be maintained.
  • Looking at the issue of the mutual recognition of veterinary graduates in Europe and make recommendations for how we might deal with applications to join the Register from EU countries post-Brexit.
  • Considering manpower requirements and the implications for new systems of immigration.
  • Understanding how Brexit might impact our current priorities such as governance and the review of Schedule 3.
  • Considering our role as an accreditation organisation and how we can contribute to and influence international affairs outside the EU.
  • Studying the financial impact of Brexit on the College.
Nick Stace's speech at RCVS Day

‘change might not always be comfortable or easy, but we cannot resist it and we need to embrace it..’ (RCVS Day 2016)

Brexit is very much a fact of life now and while some may be disappointed with the outcome of the Referendum, the Taskforce will very much be concerned with scoping out new opportunities and engaging with the way the world is changing. As I said at my recent speech at RCVS Day 2016 in respect of digital disruption – change might not always be comfortable or easy, but we cannot resist it and we need to embrace it, work out what it means and take advantage and control of the situation.

There will be many interesting and tough discussions over the coming months and years – and that will just be in our Presidential Taskforce – but we will continue to keep the profession updated on our progress and how the negotiations may affect EU-qualified veterinary surgeons.

It’s nice when a plan comes together…

The front page of Veterinary Times on 1 June bore the headline ‘Staff back RCVS as great workplace’. This reflected our coming 30th in the top 100 Best Workplace Awards (medium-sized category), run by the Great Place to Work Institute , beating the likes of Coca Cola, Office Angels and General Mills. [See my previous blog for details.]

This was pleasing news in itself, but it was also particularly great to see that headline in print, because one of the exercises carried out back in 2013, as we put together our 2014-16 Strategic Plan, was imagining the headlines we would like to see on the front page of the vet press in three years’ time: the RCVS being a great place to work was one of them.

Clarity of vision

The moral of this story is that when you have a specific goal in mind, and especially when you can articulate and visualise how it might look in print, it has a much greater chance of being met.

This is why our Strategic Plan is full of very specific goals, which were developed out of a process that involved staff, Council and, through the First Rate Regulator Project, the profession and public at large. Some organisations shy away from specific objectives – it’s too easy to be called on them if they are not met. But plans without bite are inevitably left on the shelf to gather dust.

And so I would like to reassure you that, 18 months into our current three-year plan, we have either met, or are on target to meet, the majority of our objectives. The list of actions yet to be tackled is manageable, and one which we may yet add to before 2016 is out.

Complaints progress

But don’t just take my word for it. In addition to the excellent headline in the Veterinary Times, a further testimonial to our hard work could be seen in the Veterinary Record recently (30 May 2015).

Here, veterinary surgeon John Dinsdale was kind enough to praise our Professional Conduct team, specifically highlighting the positive changes that have been made in our concerns-handling process and improvements in communications. This work has been part of our Strategic Plan objective to ‘reduce the time it takes for a complaint to be concluded in a fair and transparent manner’. Mr Dinsdale also commented positively on our trial of an alternative dispute resolution process (ADR), another of our Strategic Plan objectives.

A third piece of recent external validation came in the form of the independent Chair of our Audit and Risk Committee, Liz Butler, giving our current IT projects, which include an upgrade of our database, a new online Practice Standards system and a new IT system for our Professional Conduct work, a clean bill of health.

You can find a full update on our Strategic Plan progress in my CEO Update to Council, available online as part of the June Council paper bundle.

We will soon be starting the process of developing our 2017-19 Strategic Plan, and I will continue to push for sharp, meaningful objectives of the kind that you can sum up in a positive headline. Of course, by being specific you could set yourself up to fail, but it is better to fail to reach a stretching goal than meet a feeble one. Of course, to set yourself stretching goals and meet them is even better!

Finally, following our very successful journey to Edinburgh the other day to hold the first RCVS Council meeting outside London in living memory, here’s a quick video update outlining the main discussions and decisions from the day…

A quick update about Council…

Trying to condense into four minutes a full day’s RCVS Council meeting involving over 40 people who have considered around 1,000 pages of documentation is quite a challenge, to say the least, but I’ve given it my best shot in this brief video update.

If you would like to read more detail about any of the topics I’ve mentioned, please use the links that appear at the bottom of the screen (or you can click on the ones below).

Receiving you loud and clear

When I joined the RCVS back in September 2012, I was at pains to point out the enormous value to an organisation of listening first and acting second. Indeed, the opening line of my first CEO update in RCVS News (November 2012) read:

‘When you arrive in an organisation, particularly when you are CEO, it is important to listen to your customers, to your staff and to your instincts. It is also important to amass evidence of what is good and what needs to change.’ (Page 9)

Naturally, I still stand by this. The first-rate regulator (FRR) initiative that I launched at Council that November was, above all, a comprehensive exercise in listening: listening to veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses, listening to animal owners, listening to RCVS Council members and staff, and listening to our stakeholders. We wanted to build on the good things we were doing and, where we fell short, challenge ourselves to be better.

I was delighted with the reaction to this initiative, especially the 5,000 or so responses we received from vets and VNs. Since then, we have invested a considerable amount of time and effort in evaluating and analysing the feedback we received, culminating in the publication of our ambitious strategic plan 12 months later.

I also said from the outset that we would be open and transparent about our plans and activities and that, where we made mistakes (which I predicted we would), we would be open and honest about them. And so we have been.

“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.” Bernard M. Baruch

The profession’s reaction to aspects of the Disciplinary Committee’s decision in the Chikosi case was significant, and it was clear to me that we needed to tackle these concerns head on. Whilst fully supporting the DC’s overall decision, the Operational Board subsequently issued a clarification about a particularly contentious issue, and our Standards Committee has since undertaken a full and extensive consultation exercise on the provision of 24-hour emergency veterinary cover, the recommendations from which will be submitted to Council in June.

More recently, we have come under pretty intense scrutiny for our decision to remove members’ postgraduate postnominals from the Register in order to make things easier for the public to understand. Seeing as Council approved this decision back in 2012, after a full consultation on specialisation during 2011, I have to admit that the sudden intensity of feeling that erupted just a couple of weeks ago rather caught us by surprise! Nevertheless, rather than burying our head in the sand, we listened to the concerns voiced by the profession and decided that there may be alternative solutions that are more acceptable to all involved. The Operational Board has therefore asked Council to review its 2012 decision at its June meeting.

Man burying head in sand
Rather than burying our head in the sand, we listened to the concerns voiced by the profession and decided that there may be alternative solutions more acceptable to all involved

Now, these specific topics have attracted acute interest amongst the profession, culminating in a rapid mobilisation of numerous individuals expressing their opinion via social media and online petitions, as well as more traditional methods such as email, letters to the College and the press, and face-to-face conversations. (I’m all for this, incidentally, although I wouldn’t want there to be a referendum every time the College makes a decision!) So why is it, that when the same people are also asked to take a little time out to decide who should be in charge of making these decisions in the first place, the metaphorical tumbleweed blows into town?

Just 4,137 veterinary surgeons and 1,157 veterinary nurses voted in this year’s Councils elections, representing a mere 16.1% and 10% of the two professions, respectively (and a fall in both turnouts compared to last year). Obviously, my thanks to those who took the trouble to vote, but to the 31,974 veterinary professionals who didn’t, I would like to ask, why not?

We have been repeatedly reminded of late that our communications need to be a two-way process, that we need to engage more closely with the professions and to listen, not just speak. I wholeheartedly endorse this approach, but, equally, I would maintain that vets and nurses have a professional responsibility to keep in touch, to respond, to get involved and, of course, to vote! You lose the moral authority to complain about the College if you essentially do your utmost to ignore everything it does and says.

So, why not start straight away? We have just launched another consultation on the future direction of our highest award – the RCVS Fellowship – and would welcome your input. Alternatively, and as I have said from my first day in Belgravia House, you can raise any issues with me directly via nick@rcvs.org.uk.

I can’t promise that I will agree with you, but I will always listen to what you have to say.

Avoiding tunnel vision

Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium might seem a strange choice of venue for a recent staff ‘away day’ to discuss how to build a winning team, considering the club itself hasn’t troubled the local silversmiths since 2005, but at least there was plenty of space for everyone to congregate in the trophy room.

Cheap digs at the Gunners aside, I had wanted to take the staff away from their normal working environment for a day of brainstorming and fresh thinking about how we can improve as an organisation. I’m keen to sharpen our organisational focus, without narrowing it, and I couldn’t have been more pleased with how the day turned out.

From the outset, the external facilitator, Matt White, invited us all to ‘lean in’ both literally and metaphorically, as he took us through a whole serious of exercises, debates, and presentations to look at our vision, values and purpose. Focusing very much on our service agenda and strategic direction, I was delighted with the range and quality of ideas emanating from my colleagues, regardless of whether they were a new recruit, or had been working for the RCVS for many years. These are now being fed into a draft strategic plan, for further consideration by our Senior Team, followed by the Operational Board in July and, of course, Council at a special meeting in September.

Topping off all the hard work with a fascinating tour of the stadium itself, it was, all in all, a very interesting, successful and productive day. Worth a quick tunnel celebration, wouldn’t you say…?

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In other news…

I had a meeting with the Chief Veterinary Officer for Scotland, Sheila Voas, to talk about the implications of Scottish independence on the work of the RCVS.  If next year’s referendum does result in Scotland leaving the UK, then we have agreed to work closely with the Scottish Government on a transition towards a new and independent body in Scotland.

I was also pleased to catch up with Duncan Rudkin, my counterpart at the General Pharmaceutical Council, which is the regulator that has now separated from its Royal College. This meeting was timely, as it preceded a recent round table session of our Legislation Working Party (including representatives of the BVA, its divisions and the BVNA) to look at RCVS activities that are synonymous with the work of Royal Colleges, as opposed to those more readily associated with regulation. 

I was really pleased by the quality and constructive nature of the discussions, especially as we were tackling some complex and thorny issues relating to the future of the organisation. There was a strong consensus that the RCVS should not seek to split its Royal College and regulatory functions and that our regulatory role would be complemented by pursuing ‘Royal College’-type activities that focus on raising standards.

The working party will meet again in September to develop a draft strategy for expanding our Royal College role, and this will likely be the topic of an afternoon debate in RCVS Council later this year.

Finally, if you haven’t already, I would urge you to take a look at our recently published annual report, which presents a comprehensive overview of our activities over the past 12 months. To increase the appeal of a traditionally turgid publication, we have this year, for the first time, produced a video version of RCVS Review to complement the usual printed publication.

I was interviewed from the top of Belgravia House for my bit. From tunneller to roofer in the space of a fortnight!

(You wait weeks for a blog update, then two come along all at once. Watch out for ‘A month of celebration!’ – coming soon…)