I was delighted (and indeed pleasantly surprised) to be asked to assume the role of Chief Executive in December last year; since arriving my first 4 months have vanished!
I’m extremely grateful for the kind messages of congratulations and support I received from many of you and for the manner in which the team in Vauxhall have helped me gain a better understanding of the complexities and challenges associated with the Society’s business and particularly the astonishing intricacies of the Armed Forces Pension Schemes. Despite being a member of the Society myself for several years now (and thinking I knew a bit about the pensions environment), every day since December has been a learning day for me – and then some!
But first, I must pay tribute to my predecessor, John Pitt-Brooke. Between 2015 and 2018, John oversaw a period of remarkable growth in the Society’s membership and, more importantly, a sustained rise in our reputation, not just concerning our provision of pension advice and campaigning, but in every other aspect of the Society’s business as well – including Pennant. I’m sure you will join me in thanking John for his outstanding contribution and to wish him all the best in the future.
I join the team on the back of a 33-year Army career which came to an end in 2017 after my tour as Senior British Military Advisor to United States Central Command; I then spent the next 2 years or so as an independent defence, leadership development and training support consultant. This offered all sorts of challenges and opportunities but, to be frank, lacked the spirit of comradeship and sense of contributing to the ‘greater good’ that so inspired me during my service. But it is already clear to me that such rewards are to be found again in all aspects of the Society’s work. What we do matters and to fulfil our role we must be well connected and up to date with a raft of complex and potentially controversial issues.
One of my early decisions was to ask Hugo Fletcher, our Chief of Staff to add Editor Pennant to his portfolio while I dedicated my first 100 days to conducting a ’strategic stocktake’ of the Society’s business. I did this to both to ensure that I understand every aspect of the ship I am now captaining, but also because to plan for the future one must understand the present, and the future of any organisation must be of prime concern to any Chief Executive. I have therefore spent time visiting as many stakeholders as possible including all FPS Council Members, MoD Personnel Policy staff, Veterans UK in Glasgow and of course our own members. I have accompanied Society Roadshow presentations to serving personnel – notably to HQ British Forces Germany, HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH and the Defence Academy Shrivenham. I’m also developing exploring the wider Public Sector Pension environment through engaging with the Public Services Pensioners’ Council, an organisation whose Executive Committee I hope we will be formally re-elected to in mid-May.
So, what are my initial thoughts? Well my first observation is the sheer uncertainty that surrounds the long-term future of public sector pension schemes when set in the context of overall Governmental spending priorities and how the UK’s public finances could look in the post Brexit environment. Nothing alarmist, but we must stay very close to work in this area, holding those to account who make strategic decisions that affect us all and ensuring our voice is heard. We all know that the first duty of Government is to keep its citizens safe and the country secure – and that includes the appropriate provision of pension benefits for those who have served and are serving their nation in the pursuit of those ends.
Next is the Society’s raison d’être– our reason for being. Founded in the aftermath of the Second World War as a campaigning organisation at a time when service personnel were getting a very raw deal indeed, it remains essential that we retain our campaigning ‘DNA’. But campaigning is only part of what we do, the Society has always given advice and we are spending more and more time and resources providing advice to its members and in helping educate and inform serving personnel on the benefits, complexities and choices of their pension, enabling them to make informed decisions about their future.
Since 2015, most serving personnel have had pension entitlements in two separate Armed Forces pension schemes, adding a degree of complexity that simply used not to exist. The result is a relentless thirst for pension knowledge which drives people to our door in record numbers – 850 new joiners in January 2019 alone – the highest ever single month in our history, taking our membership to over 55,000. This is a success story but not without risks – our challenge is to manage the increasing demand without compromising the high standards of service that our members deserve across all our activities. And of course this feeds into my strategic stock-take and whether we need to adapt our structures and operating model accordingly, something that will require careful thought.
My third observation is about the diversity of our membership– the youngest are in their 20s and the oldest is 103, a remarkable spread of age, experience and expectations, who join for a wide variety of reasons. Many see us as a force for good, some want specific advice they cannot find elsewhere, some to take advantage of our membership benefits and others value our excellent publications – Pennant and the bi-monthly newsletters, with their eclectic mix of information. And of course many of you do so for all these reasons – what matters to me is that you value the Society enough to remain a member for years to come. We must continue to meet your disparate expectations, well-illustrated by the question of how we communicate with you. Again, it is a question of striking the right balance; we must be modern, yet our members must also be comfortable with what they receive. We must enhance our digital capability and on-line presence, but without discarding the more traditional mediums!
So, that is my ‘starter for 10’. It remains very early days for me and I’m always open to offers of wisdom from any source!