Interview day today!
One of the most impressive organizations that I have worked with in genealogy has been the Commonwealth War
The CWGC is guided by these fundamental principles:
- “That each of the dead should be commemorated individually by name either on the headstone on the grave or by an inscription on a memorial,
- That the headstones and memorials should be permanent,
- That the headstones should be permanent,
- That the headstones should be uniform, and
- That there should be no distinction made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed.”
Recently I was granted the opportunity to interview the Director-General of the CWGC. This was quite an honor for me and an interview that I really enjoyed being able to have as a part of Onward To Our Past®.
This was especially true as I have had a very satisfying set of interactions with the staff of the CWGC concerning the grave of my great Uncle, William Morrish Phillips, who fought for the
Here are my questions that I discussed with the Director-General:
Scott: Your name, organization, title, and location, please. (Also the most preferred mode of contact for the CWGC)
Guest: Mr. Alan Pateman-Jones, Director General, based at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Head Office in Maidenhead,
. Berkshire, UK
For Casualty & Cemetery enquiries telephone + 44 (0) 1628 507200 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting + 44 (0) 1628 507200 end_of_the_skype_highlighting begin_of_the_skype_highlighting + 44 (0) 1628 507200 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting + 44 (0) 1628 507200 end_of_the_skype_highlighting end_of_the_skype_highlighting or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
All other enquiries telephone + 44 (0) 1628 634221
Scott: What is your background and what drew you to the CWGC?
Alan: Having family that had served with the British Army, I always knew a service career beckoned. After school I joined the army, went to the
Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and spent many years in the Royal Engineers.
Looking for new challenges, I left the army and went into banking, where I’ve held various senior positions in both the banking and consultancy sectors – lastly with Ernst & Young.
About two or three years ago I came to the conclusion that I wanted to do something that motivated me in a completely different way. I wanted something that met emotional and intellectual desires.
When the opportunity to become Director General of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission presented itself, I didn’t hesitate. I already knew and valued the organisation because of my time in the army.
Twelve months into the job and I still think I made the right decision. The job is fantastic, absolutely wonderful. My wife says it’s the first time in years that I go home at night and I want to talk about work!
Scott: How large is the CWGC and many staff and volunteers do you have?
Alan: The Commission is a truly global operation – maintaining war graves and memorials at 23,000 locations, in 153 countries, commemorating the 1.7 million Commonwealth servicemen and women who died during the two world wars.
Worldwide we employ 1,200 staff – the vast majority of whom are gardeners and stone masons. In fact, we are probably the largest horticultural operation in the world.
Scott: Can you use more volunteers or are you set in that arena?
Alan: Although the majority of our day to day work is handled by our dedicated staff, there are occasions when we use volunteers or encourage the public to get more involved in our work.
UK for example, where the vast majority of war graves are located in burial grounds owned by a number of authorities, churches or even private individuals, and of varying standard across the country, we often rely on the help and support of individuals who may “adopt” a war grave for us.
The responsibility for maintenance of the grave still rests with the Commission but we have real examples were “friends” groups have been able to turn around a failing cemetery or simply kept an eye on graves for us in an area perhaps troubled with vandalism.
We also listen to our public and act on their advice and views. Our new website, for example, will feature many new services as a result of that feedback – including a more advanced search and a GPS mapping facility.
The vast majority of the GPS data has been collated and checked by just three members of the public. Given the scale of that task it is quite remarkable what they have achieved and we are very grateful to them.
I am sure we can do more and we will be looking at this as we approach the 100th anniversary of the Great War in 2014.
Scott: The guiding principles of the CWGC are remarkable (I’ll insert them here in this question), especially considering you are a not-for-profit organization. Does this mission infuse those who work for you?
Alan: It is very clear to all of us who work for the Commission, that our forbears established a set of guiding principles that have stood the test of time. They got it right first time and it is our duty to live up to that commitment in a changing world.
Without exception, every member of staff I have met has said how proud they are to work for the Commission.
One only has to look at the dedication of our staff in some of the more challenging environments in which we work – like
Gaza, where our dedicated team maintains the cemetery to an excellent standard despite the challenges they face on a daily basis – to see a practical manifestation of that pride and commitment to duty.
Elsewhere, during the recent unrest in
Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt many of our colleagues, where they were able to do so, stayed at their posts, maintaining the cemeteries. Thankfully they, and the cemeteries in their care, escaped unscathed.
Any organisation is only as good as the people it employs and one of my aims is to ensure we continue to recruit the best people and support them.
Scott: How do you manage such a far-flung, geographic assignment area?
Alan: With good planning, good communication and good people is the simple answer but inevitably, we break that challenging commitment down into more manageable numbers – or “Areas” as we call them in the Commission.
Where there are large concentrations of graves, for example in
France and Belgium, we have “Area” offices, responsible for the day to day care of the graves within those countries and even further afield. They in turn break down their commitment into smaller groups of cemeteries and memorials, each of which will have a dedicated maintenance team responsible for the upkeep of the sites within their geographical area.
In more isolated parts of the world, we might employ a single gardener who will stay at a particular cemetery for his or her entire career – supported with regular visits and inspections from officials in what we call “Outer Area” (based here in Maidenhead and in outstations around the globe but responsible for our commitment in more far-flung parts of the world, like the Far East).
No matter where in the world our staff are, or where in the world our commitment is, our job at the centre is about empowering and supporting our colleagues and giving them the necessary strategic direction and resources to do their job in the most efficient way and to an approved and well established standard of excellence. We also have to ensure that our member governments and the taxpayers that fund our work are reassured we are using the resources they have entrusted us with in the most efficient way. That is what I and my senior team concentrate on.
Finally, you also have to remember that the Commission has been caring for the graves of our fallen for nearly a hundred years. Very few organisations have that longevity or the thousands of years worth of shared experience our staff have and are able to apply to their daily jobs and that is invaluable.
Scott: How are you funded and how has your fundraising been going in this challenging economy
Alan: The Commission’s work is funded by our six Commonwealth member governments of Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom – each of whom pays a sum in proportion to the number of graves that nation has. The budget currently stands at about £60 million.
The Commission is not exempt from the pressures faced by all organisations in the current economic climate, and although the governments that fund our work remain incredibly supportive, it is more important than ever that we operate efficiently and can demonstrate that we are achieving as much as possible with the resources with which we have been entrusted.
Since becoming Director General I have instigated a series of reviews of our processes and organisational structures to ensure that we have the capability to deliver good value for the taxpayers of our member governments. My job is to make sure that we continue to get the best value for money that we can, and I will continually look at that.
Scott: How can a person help support you? (I already do, but I want to direct others there.)
Alan: The Commission is not a registered charity and we don’t actively raise funds from the public – although it is possible to donate to our work and many people do.
Our member governments strongly believe they have a duty to fund the Commission’s work to pay something of that “debt of honour” we all owe to those who died during the two world wars and we are grateful for their continued support.
The best way the public can support us is by continuing to use our services, sign up for our newsletters, take part in our surveys, join our social media channels, visit our cemeteries and memorials, tell us what you think of our services and sites, and, perhaps most importantly, help us engage future generations in the importance of ongoing remembrance of the fallen.
Only by engaging the next generation, will the Commission’s work remain valued and relevant and that’s why we are putting more resources into this area as we approach the centenary of the First World War.
Scott: With the rise in the popularity of genealogy, have you seen an up-tick in the use of your website, inquiries, etc?
Alan: Without doubt!
We used to be very proud of the fact that we answered approximately 50,000 postal and telephone enquiries a year, but since launching our records on line, and with the growth of interest in our work, that figure has been dwarfed by the traffic our website receives – an average of 300,000 unique visits a month, rising into the million mark at Remembrance time.
Much of that online traffic also translates into growth of physical visitor numbers to our cemeteries and memorials. Large and iconic sites, like Tyne Cot in Belgium or Thiepval in France, receive over 300,000 visitors a year and our colleagues in both countries estimate that figure will grow by at least 30% in the next few years.
With the 100th anniversary of the First World War in 2014 just around the corner, we anticipate that interest will grow and we need to be ready to meet that.
To do so, we are finalising the redevelopment of our website and introducing some exciting new functionality which we believe will be of even greater interest and use to our online audience, whilst at the same time ensuring those who visit our cemeteries and memorials are supported with relevant and engaging information.
Watch this space! These are exciting times to be working at the Commission.
Scott: What has been your biggest enjoyment/surprise in your work?
Alan: There are many…
From the high regard the Commission is held in by everyone I meet and their genuine interest and passion for our work, to the enthusiasm of my colleagues and their complete dedication to the task in hand. There’s something about not only the peace and the commemoration, but also the care with which our people look after both the graves and the memorials that just makes every day here so rewarding and I’m constantly finding out new snippets of information – it’s fascinating!
It is also hard to put a price on the genuine warmth one encounters from a member of the public because we commemorate their comrade, friend or family member. You can see the comfort our work brings to them and the constant letters of thanks I receive mean a lot to me personally and to my colleagues.
Scott: What is your greatest frustration?
Alan: There is a level of bureaucracy that frustrates me but we can and will deal with that.
I would probably like to answer this question and the one below about “if I had one wish what would it be” together. The Commission is a remarkable organisation, doing a remarkable job and full of remarkable people. Whilst our work is well known to some of the population, I would like to raise the profile of the Commission; our people should be immensely proud of what they do and I would like a little more recognition of their contribution.
Scott: If you had a magic wand and would be granted one wish, what would it be?
Scott: I personally had an opportunity to work with your customer service (if this is the right title) and they were remarkable in their help. How do you train your staff so well?
Alan: Thank you! I’ll pass that on.
Like any professional organisation we put a lot of emphasis on recruiting, developing and supporting our staff. In addition to formal training and development courses, more experienced team members will mentor and support new recruits during their career with us.
We also listen to our public and make improvements or changes where necessary – which is very important – and we continually monitor and benchmark our levels of customer service against recognised measures.
We are proud of the fact that our customer satisfaction levels place us the top 8% of those organisations’ measured in the UK but we are always challenging ourselves to do better.
But I also believe we benefit greatly from the kind of person we attract and retain – people who believe absolutely in what the Commission stands for and are fully aware of what our commemorative task means to the public. They have a strong customer service ethos, no matter if they work in Finance, HR, IT, our Enquiries department, or at the sharp end of operations in the field, and in my experience they are always prepared to go that extra mile – which is to be commended.
Scott: I’d like to thank you, Alan, for your time and wonderful insights into the work of the CWGC.
As a thank you for the efforts the staff made on behalf of my great Uncle, I made a donation in support of the important and wonderful work that the CWCG undertakes. All you have to do is go to the website and click on the Finance tab in the left column and you can make a gift online.
The CWCG also has an informative newsletter that comes out once a month. You can sign up for the newsletter at the CWCG website.