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Challenging time for the AHVLA

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DOCUMENTS bearing the title ‘Corporate and Business Plan’ don't exactly set the pulse racing, but the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency's Corporate and Business Plan for 2011–2012,* which has recently been made available on the agency's website, is potentially more interesting than most.

The AHVLA came into being in April as a result of a merger between the agency Animal Health and the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA) – one of the first of many organisational changes announced by the Government soon after the General Election in May last year. Between them, these two organisations played a vital role in safeguarding animal and public health and, while there is some logic in combining the field operational functions of Animal Health with the veterinary investigative and disease surveillance functions of the VLA, it is in everyone's interest to see that overall capability is maintained in the new agency. Although the merger took place against a background of spending cuts, the agency denied that this was ‘simply a cost saving measure’. Rather, it said, ‘the main rationale is to improve the resilience of the combined agency to continue to deliver an effective and a professional service in the light of the Government's Spending Review’ (VR, April 9, 2011, vol 168, p 365).

Catherine Brown, the AHVLA's chief executive, points out in her foreword to the plan that ‘The agency is being launched in a challenging environment which will require a flexible and innovative response’. Giving examples, she notes that, in its first year, it will need to respond to ‘the [Government's] spending review outcome, the Defra science laboratories review, the reports on Responsibility and Cost Sharing in England and Scotland, the report from the Farming Regulation Task Force and other initiatives designed to reduce the regulatory burdens on business, the Kinnaird Surveillance Review for Scotland and the outcome of devolution of budgets to Wales and Scotland’.

Noting that the agency provides services that are crucial to the well being of the livestock industry and related sectors of the economy, and that it has been created to ‘maximise resilience’, she says that the merger provides ‘a new, wider opportunity to change the way we do things – to provide a more cost effective service and to create more flexible and robust working methods’. The programme of change cannot be achieved overnight, but, she says, ‘The body that leaves its first year will look very different to how it was at the start of the year.’

That the AHVLA is in a state of flux, if not to say upheaval, is reflected in the plan itself, which deals only with its first year and in which the word ‘challenging’ appears several times. The aim is that it will develop its vision and make a number of changes in 2011/12 while carrying out ‘business as usual’; during the year it will also produce a revised corporate plan for 2012/13 to 2014/15 (the next three years of the spending review period) that will take account of emerging thinking on how to operate in the future in the light of the agency's ‘strategic drivers’. These ‘drivers’ are set out in the document and serve to emphasise both the changing and in many respects uncertain environment in which the AHVLA must operate, as well as the importance of its role in areas such as disease surveillance, work on bovine TB and managing outbreaks of exotic disease.

The AHVLA's working relationship with private practitioners in relation to TB testing and other activities is mentioned only briefly in the document but is one area where change seems inevitable and where, for the time being at least, uncertainties remain. Concern about the way things have progressed and a lack of clarity in this area was expressed at the BVA's Council meeting in July (VR, August 6, 2011, vol 169, p 142) and concern about the approach being taken by the AHVLA is raised by practitioner Neil Howie in a letter in this issue of Veterinary Record (p 235). More information may soon be forthcoming. In a press release last week, the AHVLA announced that, next month, it will be setting out its proposed approach to competitive tendering for TB testing services in England, as well as holding some regional meetings to listen to views on its proposals from practitioners and farmers. It also intends to ‘share its thinking on developing a more collaborative and strategic approach to working with private veterinary practices who carry out vital work on behalf of the agency’ (see p 219 of this issue).

The corporate and business plan indicates that this is a challenging time for the AHVLA while also making clear that much is at stake. The working relationship with practitioners may only be mentioned briefly in the document but, given the significance of their contribution to the agency's activities, this is an area where it will be particularly important to get things right.

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