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Civil Service

Leadership with humanity

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Leading and managing change, Our Civil Service

Amy Rees, now Principal Private Secretary (PPS) at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), won the 2010 Civil Service Award for Leadership as governor of Brixton Prison, a role for which she also received the coveted Cabinet Secretary’s Award. She talks about her time at Brixton and what the awards meant to her.

Amy Rees
Amy Rees

I won the Civil Service Award for the three years I spent governing Her Majesty’s Prison Brixton, which was then a large inner city London Category B local prison with a lot of problems.

A Category B is a medium prison, for those who don’t require maximum security, but for whom escape still needs to be very difficult.

When I arrived, the jail had experienced eight self-inflicted deaths in the space of seven months, the highest Mandatory Drug Testing rate, the highest staff sickness levels, and a staff level transfer moratorium, for fear of a mass exodus. While I was there, all of these things got better: there were no deaths in three years; we had one of the highest levels of staff engagement in the People Survey;  and the prison achieved a very decent inspection report.

We did, of course, experience difficulties, mostly in persuading people – prisoners and staff – that life could be better. There were also so many things to improve that it was easy to be distracted or disheartened. I made sure that we focused on three things at a time: we set a goal, explained why it was important and we celebrated success – particularly, each and every time we saved a life.

Another example of how we dealt with things a little differently was – rubbish. Prisoners tended to throw rubbish out of their windows, attracting rats and other vermin. We could have responded by keeping the windows closed, but with the prison already a very hot environment, we took a different approach. We planted flowers under the windows around the prison, and gave six of our most difficult prisoners the task of tending the garden. The rubbish and vermin problem quickly disappeared.

I am now the PPS for the MoJ, working with a pretty big ministerial team. I do think the awards were part of the reason I felt able to cross traditional boundaries from the operational frontline to a private office role. They are also important because:

  • they celebrate diversity in the widest sense of the word, and tough frontline roles in particular
  • leadership is recognised as a distinct skill, rather than something that is just woven into promotion
  • winning the award really mattered to the staff as well, who were incredibly proud the prison won

I want to end by giving one more reason why awards are so important. I am not sure that I prevented re-offending in Brixton as much as any of us would have wanted. I am equally unsure whether I changed penal policy, or pushed boundaries. But what we did do, every day, was bring some decency and humanity to the darkest moments of people’s lives. I believe that work matters. And I believe it mattered that the Civil Service Awards brought us recognition for that work.


Video transcript

"So it’s a really good question about why people should nominate for the Civil Service Awards. They’re a really fantastic opportunity to be recognised, not just the individual or the team, but the effect it has on others around them. There’s an amazing array of work that goes on across the Civil Service, some of it absolutely in the public spotlight and some of it not. It’s such an important opportunity to recognise all that amazing work and to thank people for their amazing contributions.

What impact did winning the award have on me? Well it had a really positive impact on the staff, and I had quite a big staff group at the time. They felt that their hard work had been recognised, which was really great, and it was beyond just me. It also helped to get me some exposure in the Civil Service, and I think helped me to cross some organisational boundaries and allowed me to do work in the wider Civil Service that perhaps I wouldn’t have been considered for before winning the award."

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  1. Comment by Mike Rees posted on

    How proud your dad would be Amy,even more so your grandfather and grandmother Les and Chris.well done and may your success continue.

  2. Comment by Billie Savage posted on

    As a Magistrate and an HO staff, I find Amy article inspiring and reassuring. I am female, Team Manager -SEO grade, my observation is, for most BME staff working in Operational Delivery our work is OFTEN never regarded as challenging or high profile enough. In most cases operational staff efforts or achievements is usually peck low, not good enough for deserving a recognition of an ward.

  3. Comment by Geoffrey Head posted on

    Would love to have read this article fully, but as with so much other content we are sent, the video presentation is blocked for viewing. Something really needs to be done about this.

    • Replies to Geoffrey Head>

      Comment by Blog team posted on

      We're really sorry you can't see the video. To be honest this is a problem we have with a few departments and we're working with them to try and get some sites unblocked.

      We know it's not much of a consolation but we've added the transcript of Amy's video to the bottom of the page so you can see what she said at the awards.

  4. Comment by Sarah Lewin posted on

    Gosh, this almost moved me to tears. A great, inspiring piece of writing. Well done to Amy & colleagues at Brixton Prison.

  5. Comment by Julie Sharrock posted on

    Very inspiring read, sometimes the "back to basics" works wonders and the small changes lead to bigger better things. Well done to Amy and the team.

  6. Comment by Morag Brown posted on

    Well done Amy! A great and inspiring read as I have the same thought processes. People need to feel valued in order to bring out the best in them.Congratulations on proving this!

  7. Comment by Denise Fall posted on

    Very inspiring to read about such a positive and well deserved award. Congratulations to you all!

  8. Comment by Janette Russell posted on

    Good to read an article with such positive results where the staffs' spirits were lifted and problematic prisoners were encouraged to take pride in the gardens. I'd like to read more of the initiatives used.

  9. Comment by Robyn Polisano posted on

    No wonder you always seem like life at MoJ is a walk in the park whilst the rest of us are running around like mad people. Well done Amy, great article. Robyn

  10. Comment by Reena Thankappan posted on

    Congratulations to Amy and Team. I am so happy to know that your achievements have been celebrated as we need encouragement to do a good job.

  11. Comment by Hayley Cotton posted on

    What an achievement, well done Amy!! I enjoyed reading this article and congratulations on your award.

  12. Comment by Cathy Johnson posted on

    A very inspiring article - congratulations on your award. What lessons have been learned from your successes, and are they being captured and spread to other prisons?

  13. Comment by Heather posted on

    I would love to see more details of the goals and changes too - i think all of us who deal with difficult situations across the board (from mental health patients to farmers struggling in a disease outbreak in my case!) could learn from them, what an amazing amount of work you did Amy; truly inspiring xx

  14. Comment by Paul Challenger posted on

    A very inspirational story which I was very pleased to read - one of the most positive people centred I've read for a long time. Well done. I work with a number of Prison Officers in my second job (well, you've got to get a pay rise from somewhere...) and have heard harrowing descriptions of the pressure their work entails.

  15. Comment by Christine Lomax posted on

    I am so glad you sent the correct link I was disappointed on Friday when it lead to a diffeent article. Well Done Amy! I enjoyed reading about your success.

  16. Comment by Samantha Tennakoon posted on

    Fantastic to hear about this and so pleased to hear that your achievements have been celebrated!
    Like Lynne I would also be interested in receiving any further information if this has been docuemented as a case study -

  17. Comment by Hannah Austyn-Prys posted on

    Excellent article what a wonderful achievement. Well done

  18. Comment by Lynne Glendinning posted on

    I'd be really interested in knowing more about the specific goals that were set and the practical changes that were made that contributed to saving a life and achieving better staff engagement. Is there a report that I could access?

  19. Comment by Pat Cummings posted on

    A very inspiring article - well done to Amy and all the staff at the prison.

  20. Comment by David Clements posted on

    This is my favourite article here. Well done Amy and team.