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A Day in the Life: Chief Executive, Veterans Agency

Alan Burnham is chief executive of the Veterans Agency. The agency is part of the Ministry of Defence and employs about 1,000 people delivering a variety of benefits and services to veterans of the British Armed Forces. Over recent years the agency has won a number of national and regional awards for the quality of its customer care.

0900 What gets me out of bed is the need to pay the bills and feed the family. What sends me into the office with a spring in my step -- despite an approximately 75 mile drive from Liverpool to Blackpool -- is the chance to improve services to thousands of people who have made significant sacrifices for their country. .

1030 I always think I've got it a bit easier than other CEO's. Every organisation wants its staff to deliver quality customer care and there are 1,001 strategies designed to motivate the workforce. Generally all I need to do is make sure that everyone working in the organisation gets the chance to meet our veterans face-to-face; give someone 10 minutes chatting to an 85-year-old who spent three years imprisoned by the Japanese during World War Two, and it's unlikely that you'll need to push them about providing a caring service again. .

The best part of the job is spending time with these veterans -- so often inspirational characters -- and learning to understand their needs and views about the services we provide. Unfortunately the wheels of bureaucracy grind away, eating into the day and far too much time is spent pushing paper and juggling budgets. .

1230 A daily task is clearing Parliamentary correspondence. Letters from veterans to the Veterans Minister or their Member of Parliament are frequently referred to me. There can be a dozen or so each day, all requiring a reply. As any errors can be brought up in Parliament these require close checking and consideration. This may seem a painstaking chore but it is an important aspect of the individual citizen's rights to bring state bureaucracies to account.

1400 Meetings steal a large proportion of each day, mostly with colleagues but sometimes with representatives of veterans. Where staff meetings are concerned I am intolerant of waffle and ill-focused chatter. I refuse to start a meeting unless there is a clearly defined list of the required outcomes. Even then they have an uncanny knack of wandering beyond the allotted time-span. A typical day will see groups of staff coming and going from my office delivering a wide range of information and advice. How are the budgets going? Are we fully prepared for a future appearance before a Parliamentary Select Committee? How are relations with our trade unions progressing? What is the state of play on our technology refurbishment programme? .

1600 Surprisingly little of my time is spent in contact with my boss, who is a serving Air Marshal and one of the Deputy Chiefs of the Defense Staff. I meet with him and his other senior managers about once each month; in between there will usually be a couple of telephone calls. I appreciate being left to my own initiative and very rarely feel the need to seek reassurance on issues within my remit.

1700 Handling enquiries from the media is a frequent and often frustrating aspect of the job. There are currently a number of hot issues on the Veterans agenda, such as Gulf War Syndrome and treatment of psychiatric illness. There is particular interest where cases involve troops who have served recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, much of my experience of the media, most especially the tabloids, is that the need for a headline comes before issues of objectivity, balance and accuracy. "Government neglects war hero" will always grab more attention than "Government does all it can to help within existing legislation." Some journalists choose to ignore aspects of a story that don't add to its drama. Some don't even bother to try to find out any facts beforehand. Naturally, ministers are not best pleased with negative publicity and it is my job to try and get an element of truth and fairness into what is published. Consequently I often handle sensitive cases personally.

If asked to summarise what my job is about I have often said it is to ensure that the Veterans Agency has a clear and positive strategic direction and to engender an organisational culture that allows staff to deliver it. Thus one of the most important tasks I try to fit into everyday is getting out from behind the desk and talking with front-line staff. The objective is simple: confirming that they know where we are heading and finding out what is hindering them in efforts to get there. There is huge value in this activity but inevitably it can be the first part of the agenda to be pushed aside when other things arise. I book visits to different teams in advance and try to avoid cancellations, leaving it to my support staff to effectively manage my time and counsel me against giving in when the demands of bureaucracy invade the real purpose of the job. .