Secondment Diaries: Joining a new organisation in the midst of a pandemic

This is the first 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.  

Going on secondment amid an international health crisis is weird and different. But let me tell you why it can also be good. 

It was a rainy November day in Manchester when I was asked to choose the type of post I wished to do next with the Civil Service Fast Stream. I chose a secondment in the third sector hoping it would introduce me to a different culture and dynamics. I had been in three government departments by that point and had worked in big technology teams, in a range of policy, strategy or project focused roles. They were all great. What I hadn’t done though was be in a small team where my skills are scarce or where I could work on a specific problem area not defined by national priorities, where everyone works across all areas more or less and where all in the team have a strong passion for the issues the organisation works on. Little did I know how ‘different’ that would turn out to be. 

In mid-February, the team running Charity Next, a secondment scheme part of The Whitehall & Industry Group (WIG) got in touch with me for a meeting. I was to join the Child Rights International Network (CRIN) in April and on a Monday in mid-March I was to travel to London and meet my new colleagues.  

And then came COVID.  

So, on that Monday I didn’t get on the train, rather we had (what was to be the first of many) online chats. We couldn’t plan much, which should come as no surprise, and the next few weeks were chaotic. Secondments were suddenly far from certain and we were told we may stay with government departments to support their COVID response or get moved to new roles the COVID crisis created. That was followed by two weeks of mixed messages about what happens next. So was I still moving to London (since I was moving house for my posting too...)? Was I still doing my secondment? If so was I missing out on an opportunity to support the UK Government in a crisis? Where would I be most beneficial? Even I wasn’t sure what decision was right or what I would prefer. 

On the 30th March my secondment was confirmed. I moved to London that weekend and started my new role on Monday 6th April. It wasn’t as smooth as that though, obviously - I spent two weeks on mobile internet only, since internet providers wouldn’t come to set up my WiFi. And you may think your deliveries are delayed, but my housemate has been waiting on a desk for over two months now... However, I had started an exciting new job, had a place to stay and was healthy, so the rest are just details. 

Starting the new job was certainly weird. For one, I did not know if I was more help at CRIN than in a COVID response role in government. And then I was to only meet the CRIN team online. Weird wasn’t bad though. I had a chat with everyone individually to understand their roles and backgrounds, get to know people and become part of the team. I knew they worked on children’s rights as I’d seen their website beforehand but I really appreciated the personal conversations I had. For example, one of my colleagues explained why she finds working to reduce toxic chemicals and improve environmental sustainability so important for children’s rights; another described the conversations he had with victims of religious sexual abuse in Latin America and the struggles to give them a platform to talk about their experiences; there was a third talk about the problems with enlisting young people in the military and a fourth talk about the journey CRIN’s had from a children’s rights documents database which still holds unique copies of some policy submissions, to a charity fighting for those children’s rights that have been underrepresented in the third sector. I also had quiet time in between to make sense of everything, which you don’t necessarily get in an office environment. So that was one positive. 

CRIN managed to adapt quickly to working from home and still keep the team spirit. We had daily check-ins and engaging weekly meetings focused on ‘deep talk’ about CRIN’s future, the team’s development and children’s rights issues. In the ‘new normal’ everyone has kept trying to improve how we work as a team. This was great for me as a new starter and for our team members abroad. 

I got some data and technology changes implemented and felt like I was making an impact straight away. In my Civil Service experience I’ve learnt about security, interoperability of software, data structuring, flexible working; all of which are especially important when a team is in a big department with hundreds if not thousands of colleagues. But the new working environment during COVID made these crucial for everyone including very small organisations, so I got to use what I had learnt and improve how CRIN use data and technology just when it was most needed.  

I was also encouraged to take some time from work and volunteer to support the COVID response. So I was in a position where I could help directly with the COVID response and have an exciting new role outside government which meant having the greatest impact, variety and development opportunities. 

COVID did add even more uncertainty and confusion to an already challenging time moving homes and starting a new job. Yet I had support and understanding, good health and different opportunities coming up from the new situation. So if you end up in either end of a similar situation, first, take a deep breath. Reflect on how this challenging time affects all of us and focus on supporting each other. Take it one step at a time. In reality it isn’t necessarily bad, just different. You might even be surprised by the opportunities that arise in such a fast-changing environment! 

Learn more about Charity Next here.