Eyes on the Horizon: Interview with Graham Farrant

We spoke to Graham Farrant as he approached a crossroads in his career: leaving HM Land Registry to take on a new role heading up the newly combined Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) Council.  He reflected on the successes of his exceptionally varied career to date and laid out his hopes for the future.

As you come to the end of your time as Chief Executive of HM Land Registry, what would you describe as your greatest achievements?

To put my role into context, when I arrived I was the fifth chief executive at Land Registry in five years. We’d also had about four Directors of Finance, four Directors of HR, and three or four Directors of Customer Service, so I suppose there had been a lot of churn at the top.

There was a bit of a separation between the workforce, who knew what they were there to do, and the board. At the time, we were also consulting on potential privatisation. I had to bring all that together, and make sure that the workforce felt confident in knowing that the board understood what they did.

The biggest thing we did collectively when I came in as Chief Executive was to conduct a strategic review of the organisation and produce a new strategy, which was published in November 2017. This let us set out a really clear five-year strategy that says we have the ambition to be the world’s leading land registry for speed, simplicity and an open approach to data.

What I really wanted to do was to build these into the strategy to give everybody confidence about why we existed, what we were here to do, what the core job was but also to give them something to aspire to. We wanted people to think about how we could achieve our goal of being the world’s leading registry: how do we move towards automation and new technology, how do we develop skills in people?

For me, it really was all about giving confidence, both to the organisation and to other government partners and external stakeholders.

You have driven forward the organisation’s integration of technology into the way it works. What has been the impact of this, and did you come up against any particular challenges along the way?
When I joined Land Registry, the average length of service amongst the organisation’s caseworkers was 23 years. I reintroduced long-service awards, and in the last year alone I’ve signed 160 40-year certificates and three 50-year certificates. Out of 5,000 staff, over 150 of them have done more than 40 years’ service. That workforce absolutely understands land registry and its importance.
Our strategy had to show that government is fully subscribed to our vision of the organisation’s future and that the way in which we planned to modernise and integrate technology into the way we work would be something everyone could sign up to.

Conveyancing, on the whole, is not the most modern process. Over the last three or four years, we’ve dedicated a lot of time to working with stakeholders such as solicitors and conveyancers to collectively improve the way that conveyancing, and particularly land registration, works. We’ve introduced the digital mortgage, for example.

At the moment you have to spend a lot of time printing off forms, signing them in the presence of a witness, sending them back and so on. A digital mortgage lets you prove your identity online using the Government’s ‘Verify’ service. This is only currently available to people looking to remortgage properties, but our target is to automate 95 per cent of what we do in the next five years. I really feel that we’ve broken the back of this and that is a huge step forward.

At the moment, we’re prototyping a new casework system which allows a conveyancer to enter details online, rather than the current system where they must fill in a form which we then type in. There’s a real opportunity here because at the heart of what our caseworkers believe in is always enhancing the integrity of the register. It’s been embraced really quickly because we can demonstrate the benefits it has for the register. Land Registry has been operating since 1862, and every step we have taken since then has been to improve the integrity of the register. In a time of cyber fraud and digital crime, this has never been more important.

In what is quite an old-fashioned industry, which is desperately trying to modernise across the board, we’re really trying to encourage innovative thinking.

Can you tell us about the cultural changes you witnessed at Land Registry during this period of transformation? What steps have you taken to ensure that lines of communication across the organisation were maintained during this time?

The biggest thing that people have commented on since I announced that I’m leaving is the fact that we have a very open communications culture now internally. I write a weekly blog about what’s been happening in my world, and everybody is encouraged to comment on that blog. Interestingly, we get quite a lot of technical discussions coming out of that blog, but we also get to hear about the things the workforce doesn’t like! It’s been a real eye-opener internally I think. We’re constantly reviewing what’s coming through and either I or a senior manager will reply to each comment directly. We also have an in-house newsletter that includes snippets of news as well as technical updates.

I think the other difference that I have made, which people have commented on, is that I actually go out and visit the offices. We run out of 14 locations across England and Wales and I try to get to every office at least every quarter or so, and I also monitor how often the offices are visited by a director. When I first arrived, a Chief Executive office visit was accompanied by a heavy agenda, and the staff were told what they could and couldn’t say. What I do now is to invite 20-25 people to an open meeting, I have a sit-down meeting with the senior staff, and then I sit in the open plan office for the remainder of the day. It’s taken away the mystique and really cemented the lines of communication. It’s really just about being visible and has massively changed the way the board is perceived I think.

In HM Land Registry’s Business Strategy 2017-2022, you set out a proposal for a ‘Model Office’ initiative to support the implementation of technology across the organisation. Do you think this is a model that could be beneficial to other organisations?

I think the application of a model like this really depends on where you’re coming from as an organisation. We’ve got 14 offices that all do roughly the same thing and one of the things we’ve found is that local practice often takes precedent. What we’re trying to do through the ‘Model Office’ is to take the best of the local practice and establish that this is the best way to perform this function. It’s then rolled out with some consistency across all the offices.

I think what a retailer would do is set up a model store and it would learn from that store: we’ve tried to learn a lot from retail techniques. For example, looking at an administrative process, we would ask what the best way of processing a discharge mortgage is and ensure that everyone is doing it in the best and most efficient way.

The other side of this is that people are always developing new ways of doing things, and this gives us a comprehensive way to capture that. It’s been a really effective way of countering the fact that our workforce is spread across the country and isn’t necessarily able to learn directly from one another in their day-to-day roles.

Against the backdrop of a fragile political environment, how have you ensured that you continue to provide a stable service to your stakeholders?

It’s been a really interesting challenge. The primary way in which we’ve tried to ensure we’re delivering a stable service is by getting cross-government support for our strategy.
You do have to be incredibly resilient and determined. The political noises most often don’t actually change the fundamentals. I think my job as Chief Executive has partly been to protect the organisation from the ‘icy blasts’ that you get, and make sure that the organisation maintains clarity over what you have to do.

We are a non-ministerial department because you obviously can’t have ministers getting involved in individual land registration decisions, so actually that gives us that bit of stability. Regardless of the political climate, there will be conveyancing going on, which we will have to register. The property market is still one of the fundamentals in the UK’s economy, and we have to do our job to support that economy.

It is a complex political environment, but I think part of the job of the chief executive is to create that simplicity and to establish messages everyone can understand.

There’s rarely ever a perfect time to move on. With that in mind, is there any unfinished business for you at Land Registry?

Tonnes! There are always new things you can be doing in a role. For me, it’s particularly about achieving that target of 95 per cent automation.

As part of my move, I’m also moving house which is always an interesting experience! Ironically, my solicitor has just passed on the form TR1 from Land Registry, and while I’m going with an online conveyancer and filling in all those forms online, the person I’m buying from is giving me a hand-written form. The whole process is capable of being done online, we’re just not quite there yet.

During my time at Land Registry, I’ve created the environment, we’ve taken the first steps, the strategy is set and we’ve worked out how we’re going to deliver that. Next time I buy and sell a house I’d like to be able to do it completely online and I think we’ve created the opportunity to be able to do that.

Drawing on what you’ve learned in a career spanning both public and private sectors, what do you hope to achieve in the first 100 days in your new role as CEO of a brand new local authority?

In my first 100 days, I won’t actually be running the new council, because the four existing authorities will still be in place until March. In the next 100 days after that, I will take on all the functions of the four councils and the councillors will then face elections on the 2nd of May. From there, the brand new council will be elected: there will be 76 councillors’ seats up for election to run the new organisation, replacing the current figure of 125.

So the first 100 days will be all about making sure that the delivery of the new council is in place, that the programme is done, all the transfer arrangements are set up, and get as far down the recruitment process as I can. It’s all about giving people confidence that this new organisation will work, and I really do have to give credit to the work they’ve been doing over the past 18 months or so: it’s all well planned and well programmed. The political leadership is clear and strong, and the officers that are there currently are working hard to deliver the change.

From the 1st April, my role is going to be much more about ensuring continuity of council-led services. You wouldn’t tolerate a week where they didn’t collect the waste, for example. I’ve got to make sure that children in care still have a care plan, that adults receiving social support still get the care they need. The key thing for those first few weeks will be maintaining continuity from the old systems to the new. Then the priority will be to work with the new councillors once they have been elected, to establish how we’re going to manage these services and continue to achieve excellence.

It’s an interesting challenge. It’s a fabulous place to live, in a great environment with a strong understandably popular visitor economy. But there are real issues too: we’re looking after people who have care needs or who are suffering from deprivation or receiving benefits, and the council has to ensure their needs are met.

Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole has a convention centre, it has an international airport, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, two universities, Europe’s largest natural harbour in Poole – all of which have been previously been under separate management. The creation of this local authority gives us an opportunity to paint a new picture for the 410,000 people who live locally: we want to create a vision for a regional capital.

Moving into local government from a non-ministerial department, what do you think you will miss about leading in this environment?

The thing that I have at the moment is the national expertise amongst the team that I lead. The people that really understand the way that land is registered in this country are the staff of Land Registry. I’ll also miss the ability to operate at a national level with government: that brings with it a scale and an opportunity that isn’t necessarily present in local government.

One of the frustrations about being in local government is that you can do what you can within your local area, but people’s lives aren’t necessarily bounded by a local government patch. They live or work in other areas. One of my priorities is trying to get a faster train service into central London from Poole, Bournemouth and Christchurch, and while I can lobby for that, it would be much more effective joining together with authorities in the other half of Dorset and those in Hampshire and Southampton. Those regional and sub-regional networks are one of the things I’m particularly keen to create.

As you look to the future, what advice would you give to those current and future leaders coming into or rising through the public sector?

You need to develop resilience and determination. It’s all about developing that ability to translate complex political and strategic messages into something simpler that can be communicated across the organisation.

I worry that people get used to being buffeted by changing politics, both local and national: if you’re doing a job like this, there is a fundamental reason why an organisation like Land Registry exists. That would be one of my biggest pieces of advice: you should look back to why you’re there, why that organisation exists, what is it there to do?

I like to see people pushing their roles. I think there’s real value to people taking on additional tasks outside of their role, potentially in a voluntary capacity. Often people don’t realise how transferrable their skills are. They’ll believe that 80 per cent of what they do is specialist and 20 per cent transferrable, but I’d argue that it’s almost certainly the other way around. I think it’s really important to push your boundaries. Some people prefer to do this within their home life – they run societies or do amateur dramatics or whatever it is that interests them outside of the workplace – but I would challenge people on where they are creating space for this within their work life. Nobody ever stops learning and I think we should all be open to new experiences.

I’ve really enjoyed my time at Land Registry. It’s probably the hardest job I’ve ever had to leave, and that is because of the determination, the knowledge and the way in which the caseworkers work. But I do go on to a new challenge, which I’m really looking forward to!


Graham Farrant Biography

Graham was Chief Executive of HM Land Registry from June 2015-December 2018 during which time he developed a new Business Strategy for the organisation, increased staff engagement significantly and set out to achieve 95% automation of the services.

He was previously Chief Executive of Thurrock Council, the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham (twice) and private sector leisure operator Leisure Connection.
He is an experienced manager of transformational change and has had a long career working in and serving the public sector.

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