The Danish Veterinary & Food Administration

Professionalising the exercise of authority

In 2012, 25 managers and 350 inspectors from the Food Control division in The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration (DVFA) joined the competence development programme, “Professionalising the exercise of public authority”, designed in close collaboration with DVFA’s HR division. Two years later, impact surveys document stronger relational competences among inspectors, greater job satisfaction and better client relations.

A new mindset

The exercise of public authority is under development. Among state as well as municipal authorities, we are seeing a move away from the directive approach – focused primarily on control – to a more collaborative approach, where authorities work closely with ”clients” – citizens, business owners and employees – to help them comply with rules and regulations.

While the authorities want clients to experience them as partners that provide guidance and support, they still have to fulfil their role as guardians of correct procedure. For staff in the front line – civil servants, supervisors and inspectors in various functions – this calls for a new mindset and a different set of skills.

Foedevarestyrelsen

Challenges in Food Control

When the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration (DVFA) – the state authority responsible for monitoring food safety, health and quality from farm to fork – called on Implement’s expertise back in 2012, they not only wanted input on how to address the new role for public authorities. They also needed help to address a series of important issues that loomed large for the organisation.

The latest political settlement on food safety (fødevareforlig 2.0) had identified the need to improve communication during inspections by building stronger ‘relational competences’ among the inspectors. Confirming the appeal from the settlement, input from clients reflected that they were also calling for a more collaborative dialogue with the food inspectors.

Like their clients, food inspectors are proud professionals, most of them highly specialised and experienced. Their primary concern is to help companies comply with regulations – with the ultimate aim of ensuring the highest possible standard of food quality and safety. But this involves more than ticking boxes and issuing ‘happy smileys’ or not so happy ones, as the case may be.

Food inspectors are navigating a space steeped in economic, political and emotional dynamics, all of which influence the outcome of the inspection but are beyond the control of the individual inspector. In addition, there is the actual exercise of authority involved in the inspection itself. Balancing empathy and authority when dealing with business owners in difficulties; identifying malpractice while being careful not to tar other clients in the industry with the same brush; remaining calm and professional when an injunction provokes bad will, frustration or, in worst cases, aggression.

Now I use some time during the inspection to reflect. If I need to, I will start again to turn a bad start into a better one"

A food inspector

DVFA asked Implement to design a competence development programme that would address these different challenges. As the items in the brief suggest, DVFA wanted to build stronger relational competences among their inspectors that would ultimately achieve better client relations, better compliance with food hygiene legislation in the industry and a greater degree of confidence and job satisfaction among their food inspectors.

A change of perspective

Before designing the programme, our team of consultants joined the inspectors in the field, observing them closely and noting the response their behaviour and communication generated among clients. They interviewed inspectors and clients to get a clear understanding of the issues at work on both sides.

”Following the interviews and fieldwork, the problem became clear to us”, explains Lotte Elleberg Møller, Senior Consultant at Implement and head of the project team. “The food inspectors knew what they were doing. But as for the way they were exercising their authority, we found there was room for improvement.

For example, when an inspector enters a butcher’s shop via the back door, he does not do this to intimidate the owner. He is simply using the entry that happens to be closest to the parking lot. But the butcher does not experience it this way. He is caught off guard in his own shop, which makes him nervous and defensive. Not because he has any malpractice to hide, but because he feels that the inspector’s action is disrespectful. As a result, the inspection gets off to a bad start.

Lotte continues. “This example suggests some room for improvement when it comes to the inspectors’ level of reflection – their awareness of the effect a given action, gesture or a particular way of phrasing things might have on the client. Lack of reflection is quite natural, though. It’s symptomatic of what’s known as “intuitive knowledge”. After a number of years in a profession, we develop certain routines. We stop reflecting on certain practices and procedures. They become second nature. To effect a change of behaviour among the food inspectors, we had to get them to reflect on the way they were working and how they were exercising their authority”.

Building awareness and relational skills

The competence development programme for DVFA was designed with two key deliverables in mind. To effect real change, the programme had to:

  • Build awareness about the exercise of authority – among the inspectors and their managers through knowledge sharing and reflection. The inspectors needed to develop a language in which to discuss their role and a culture for sharing experience and providing feedback. This would create the foundation for skills building.
  • Build relational skills – providing the insight and skills necessary to effect a change of behaviour and ultimately build better client relations. Relational expertise is the ability to exercise authority in a professional way so that an inspection can be performed effectively and respectfully to the satisfaction of both parties. The programme had to demonstrate to the inspectors that their relational skills – i.e. the ability to tackle conflicts, convey difficult messages, stay in control when feelings run high and use the right body language – were as important to have in their professional toolbox as their specialised knowledge.

The training of relational skills responded to five key characteristics that DVFA’s leaders and managers had developed, which defined the kind of ‘professional exercise of authority’ the organisation should strive for. Each of the five characteristics translated into specific skills and focus points that the participants would discuss and practice in ‘training labs’ and on-site during inspections.

The platform

The competence development platform designed for DVFA combined facilitated training with ”action learning” and adopted an inductive and case-based approach to stimulate the type reflection and learning required.

A three-day training workshop introduced reflection points, practical tools and skills training – all of which were put to the test in ‘training labs’ and subsequently in real-life inspections, under the supervision of colleagues. Feedback meetings and follow-up sessions – with managers as well as colleagues – were established to discuss progress and ensure that new skills were properly integrated at individual and team level.

The programme was designed to be participant- rather than consultantdriven – with the managers as the local drivers. “To build new competences and create real change, the participants have to do the work themselves”, says Lotte. “We design the platform – identifying the topics that will stimulate the right discussion, the skills that need to be trained and the ideal process. But it’s the organisation – DVFA’s managers and inspectors – who fill in the template and make it happen”.

At DVFA, this approach was much appreciated. Looking back on the process, Vibeke Øst Grunnell, HR Partner at DVFA and the person responsible for the programme on the client side, found Implement’s holistic approach to competence development particularly valuable.

“Implement doesn’t design stand-alone courses”, she explains. “They design a cohesive learning process that involves the entire organisation, from senior management to inspectors. The consultants’ ability to engage the entire organisation, and the fact that they were just as committed to making change happen as we were, are the reasons why this project delivered such great results”.

Impressive results

During the spring of 2014 – respectively 6 and 15 months after the last day of training – DVFA conducted qualitative and quantitative surveys to measure the effect of the programme. The results were impressive.

60 – 69 per cent of the respondents said that the programme had given them a greater awareness of their role and provided relevant tools to develop their relational skills. 80 per cent had put these new tools to use within the first month! The combination of greater awareness and better relational skills had given the inspectors greater confidence and a sense of being in control of the inspection, even under difficult circumstances. Statements from food inspectors – such as: “I’ve become far more aware of how I conduct the inspection; that means that I can control the situation better using the tools I’ve learnt” and “Following an inspection, I take time to reflect on how the owner of the company experienced my inspection, and what I could have done differently” – document that real change had really taken place.

“As a result of this programme, our inspectors now have a clear sense of their role and how DVFA wishes to exercise its authority” says Vibeke. “Knowing what is expected of them and having the skills to fulfil their role has boosted their confidence, given greater job satisfaction and greatly improved client relations”.

Creating change with impact

According to Lotte, the success of any change project depends on the extent to which it manages to mobilise the individual and engage him/her in the change that has to take place. Secondly, the programme must provide simple solutions to complex problems – solutions that are easy for the individual to put into practice.

“In DVFA’s project, mobilisation and motivation occurred as a result of local ownership and the fact that we took training into the real world where it was to have an effect. Simplicity lay in the design of the programme. We focused exclusively on the two key “pain points” that our fieldwork had uncovered – awareness and relational skills – and made sure that the programme designed to cure them was plug-and-play”.

Building expert knowledge

Although so many people work with inspection and control in the public and private sector, very few authorities or organisations have issued a formal definition of what the exercise of authority means in their particular sector. So there are few guidelines and limited shared knowledge on how to perform the role of authority, let alone how to develop it.

“That’s exactly what we’re trying to build at Implement”, explains Lotte. “Projects such as the one undertaken for DVFA and other public authorities have given us valuable experience and knowledge about the challenges involved in exercising of authority in an effective way. We’ve used this to create a platform that helps clients develop a shared understanding of what the exercise of authority is all about – in their organisation”.

Impact

  • Personal development and greater awareness of the role as an inspector. New knowledge and tools have allowed the inspectors to control the inspections better. They have learnt that the role of inspector is not just about monitoring standards; it is also about building positive client relations through guidance and collaboration.
  • Greater awareness of ”intuitive knowledge”. By turning off the autopilot, the inspectors have learnt to reflect on their role and the way they exercise it. They have developed a language in which to formulate and share their experiences, which has given them greater professional confidence and control.
  • Greater awareness of requirements and expectations. With the key characteristics for professional exercise of authority, the inspectors felt they had been given a clear framework for their job. One that had not been defined or communicated so clearly before.
  • Collegial supervision and feedback. The inspectors felt that the feedback they got from colleagues – through discussions and on-the-job supervision – was extremely helpful and conducive to skills building and effective learning.
Lotte Elleberg Møller
Lotte Elleberg Møller
+45 4138 0014
Cecilie Van Loon
Cecilie Van Loon
+45 4138 0086