Secondment Diaries: How do values and culture compare between the charity sector and the Civil Service?

This is the third in our series of secondment diaries, following the experience of Antonia Panayotova, a civil servant currently (remotely) seconded for six months to a small international NGO, Child Rights International Network (CRIN), through WIG’s Charity Next scheme. Antonia joined CRIN in April from the government’s digital, data and technology profession to be their Data & Technology Manager. In this post Antonia reflects on organisational (and team) culture and values and where common themes can be found between the public and not-for-profit sector. 


This month’s theme for WIG’s newsletter Intersections focuses on culture, values and philosophies. It made me question how my charity secondment and previous Civil Service experiences compare. What are the themes that have defined each job and could they turn out to be more similar than different? I’ve shared some thoughts and reflections below.

The Civil Service

I have been in two UK Government departments and a devolved government as part of my leadership development journey on the Fast Stream. I have therefore seen many differences in culture, not just between government departments but also in teams within teams. Some of these have worked well, others, not so much.

One of the teams, for example, had a frustrating amount of meetings. But I don’t know if these meetings actually helped or harmed! In any case, the team felt like a closely-knit group of what was in fact as many as 200 people. They were especially welcoming to all newcomers and successfully made us feel like part of the collective. It was easy for each employee to see how our work made an impact and to feel motivated.

In another posting, there was a very big focus on everyone in the team of 20 being constantly in the same place together. The premise was that we would work better and more effectively together if we worked in the same space. Yet it felt like we still lost sight of the bigger picture and our goals for a big part of my time there, despite the proximity. On the other hand, this team impressed me by how much they valued and sought expertise and experience-based knowledge. Their engagement with citizens, academics, technology experts and public bodies shaped all their projects and ensured they addressed problems, not just assumptions and wishes. It was inspiring!

At one point I also worked in a truly flexible team spread around the whole of the UK. Flexibility was embedded in their values and people felt supported to work from wherever they felt most comfortable and wherever they were able to get the best work-life balance. Nobody thought this might make them less effective. And it did not! As far as I could see, it only made them more satisfied with their work. When it came to feeling like one unified team, however, they did have their issues. It was a team of over 1000 people who had only recently started working together and struggled to define their common purpose and goals.

Of course, all these teams were a lot more complex and I am simplifying to emphasise their differences. But still, there was a common overarching goal in all these teams: helping citizens and making their lives better. In each place, when I talked to colleagues their focus was not on the tasks they completed, but on how what they did would improve citizens’ experiences with public services. Many saw that as the purpose of their work. After all, the services they work on are often not really optional, people need to use them, so it is critical they are as easy to use and effective as possible.

The Not-for-Profit sector

My experience of the NfP sector is more limited. I have only really worked in the one charity - Child Rights International Network (CRIN) - where I am currently seconded.

At CRIN I work with people dispersed even further across the world. The team questions on a daily basis how what they do – be it access to justice, bodily integrity, safe environment, digital rights or any of the many issues they cover – actually improves the lives of children around the world and promotes and upholds their rights. Each team member does that differently and they all have external networks they work with to maximise their impact. This model of constant interaction with people in the field and continuous internal questioning and improvement has helped them change with the times to stay relevant and best fulfil their purpose. I have learnt a lot from this approach. But they have also had their own issues. For example, technology choices have been neglected in prioritising other work, which has meant that some of their knowledge base has been lost over time or users of the old legal and children’s rights documentation library have felt disillusioned. 

I have also volunteered with charities since I was a teenager and while the position of a volunteer is very different, it has given me the chance to see how other organisations in the sector operate. For example, there are those that focus on volunteers and on building volunteers’ skills so they can better support their local community. Others focus more on working with decision making and political bodies, taking the view that a change there can create the biggest impact. Yet others focus on fundraising and investing where problems appear to be the greatest.

I am sure there are many more types of structure, priorities and ways of working within third sector organisations, bringing with them differences in values, philosophies and culture. But yet again from what I have seen, they are all grounded in a passionate belief that their work will positively impact the lives of a certain group of people, and this is what they build their values and cultural practices on.

As it turns out, from where I am standing, the civil service and not-for-profit sector organisations are actually very similar, if we look at the bigger picture. My experience so far has shown me that the overall purpose, shaping the philosophy and culture of both an NfP organisation and the civil service is very much the same: to improve lives. The groups of people this is directed at can be different - CRIN is focused on children around the world, for example, while the civil service is focused on citizens of the UK - and teams within are focused further on specific groups of these citizens. The approaches can be different and each team has their own issues since nobody can get everything right. But the end goal is the same.

I am very thankful for being in the position of seeing first hand and learning from the differences and similarities in a charity and across multiple civil service departments. If there was one thing I will remember from my secondment it will be this: we are more similar than one would think. Hopefully others who share similar experiences and I can now spread the word further to help us all work even better together in the future.