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Margaret Sillis – Independent Technical Assessor

Specialist skills to support technical excellence in all sectors

Technical competence is central to UKAS’s ability to operate as the UK’s sole national accreditation body. Accreditation covers an increasingly broad range of sectors and disciplines and to conduct the robust assessments necessary to provide total confidence, UKAS must have access to and utilise high levels of expertise.

Assessment Managers are permanent members of the UKAS workforce and are the technical people that lead assessments. However, to serve the many and varied assessments that are conducted by UKAS each year, we also rely on our contracted independent technical assessors and experts for their specialised technical expertise. UKAS utilises over 750 different experts that between them cover all technical fields. Many of our assessors are employed in their respective sector and work occasionally for UKAS, others may act as independent consultants or may be semi-retired.  Whatever their background, they all must meet the relevant technical competence criteria and be free from any conflict of interest in their role.  Assessors and experts are required to demonstrate they have maintained their competence and have kept their knowledge up to date.

Knowledge and experience to rely on in times of crisis

A great example of an Independent Technical Assessor is Margaret Sillis, who retired from her main role twelve years ago, yet has remained a critical resource for UKAS, especially as we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

Margaret has helped UKAS as an Independent Technical Assessor since 2014, but we have leant on her expertise more heavily since the pandemic hit. In 2020 our technical assessors were an invaluable resource with the spike in demand from COVID-19 Private Providers’ assessments.

When examining Margaret’s career in any detail, it quickly becomes apparent why she has found it so hard to retire completely. The pure passion for what she does, combined with a skill set and experience level that is almost impossible to replicate, means that in a scientific role with a focus on virology it is difficult to imagine a more solid expert than Margaret.

A career dedicated to the highest possible standards

Having started work in the Public Health Laboratory, Norwich in 1969, by the time Margaret retired the service had escalated from a two-person to a twenty-person operation. Margaret spent some of her career in the Mycoplasma Reference Laboratory (MRL), when it moved to Norwich temporarily while the new Colindale site was built, eventually running and developing the human diagnostic service. When the MRL moved back to London, Margaret transferred back to the virology laboratory where she remained. Ultimately, Margaret became the head of the virology and chlamydia service for Norfolk until her ‘retirement’ as Consultant Clinical Scientist.

During her time in Norwich, Margaret was involved in technical work as a clinical scientist as well as being very involved in research and development. Margaret took her Royal College of Pathology exams at this time, hence for UKAS she is competent to assess the full repertoire of technical, scientific and clinical tasks.

Margaret’s involvement with assessing began in 1997 for CPA and stayed on just to help during the transition period when UKAS took over medical laboratory accreditation. Her motivation for taking on this additional work stemmed from her desire to help her own laboratory prepare for and maintain accreditation.

“This was invaluable to our progress within the laboratory and very useful for my own professional development. I have always been committed to the highest possible standards and am also rather nosey! Going into other laboratories enabled me see many different approaches which helped me develop me broaden my thinking and increase my experience.”

Margaret also outlined how being able to visit other laboratories and speak to people with different approaches helped her consider different interpretations of the standards, avoid complacency and continually re-evaluate her own practice. “Networking of any kind is so important to improve your own practice.”

Ultimately, the main driver for Margaret in this service is her passion for what she does.  “Virology is my passion and the more you put into something, the more you get out. My work with UKAS has certainly enhanced that.”

Margaret’s approach to interpretation of the standards is pragmatic rather than dogmatic. “The discussions you have with the labs are useful to the technical assessor as well as to the lab. Standards can certainly be applied differently and sometimes questioning your own interpretation can give you greater understanding and confidence. I try to point out what is required from the standard but, more importantly, to explain why it is required. I think I am regarded as a tough, but fair assessor and I feel it is imperative to ensure consistency at all times.”

Margaret was keen to highlight as an important benefit of her continuous involvement with UKAS, is the recognition by the Health and Care Professions Council as ‘continuing to practice’ (despite her attempts to retire) which was beneficial when she was asked in 2020 to go back to the lab as a consultant to help with the COVID-19 crisis for two months. There was no need to retrain so Margaret was able to hit the ground running. Two years later she was still there, retiring again in January this year.

A network of specialists – worth more than the sum of its parts

UKAS’s Accreditation Director, Lorraine Turner commented on the dedication and professional commitment demonstrated by Independent Technical Assessors like Margaret.

“Without the knowledge, experience and dedication of Independent Technical Assessors such as Margaret, UKAS simply wouldn’t be able to conduct assessments in the range of specialisms we serve to the necessary degree of technical depth.

We greatly appreciate what Margaret has done to support us through the increased demand of COVID-19 and the ongoing help provided by the entire network of Independent Technical Assessors.”