Campbell's Kingdom

Office of the Third Sector Director general Campbell Robb plans to put the voluntary sector at the heart of government.

Campbell Robb. Photo: Newscast
Campbell Robb. Photo: Newscast

For the past eight months, Campbell Robb has been developing and reorganising the Office of the Third Sector, and he's clear about what the trickiest part of its work will be.

"The biggest challenge will be gaining traction in central and local government on our agenda," he says. "It will take evidence, patience, commitment and partnership working. And it's how I'll measure my success."

The agenda he means is persuading the public sector to improve its treatment of the voluntary sector, a subject in the news last week when the Learning and Skills Council concluded its punitive legal action against Kids in Communication. One of the five sections in Robb's office specialises in this area of public sector partnerships, and it works closely with Whitehall's big-spending departments and the Compact Commissioner.

Another important section deals with social enterprise and is intended to act as a catalyst for the voluntary sector to generate profits and employment. "Social enterprise has come up the agenda," he says.

The other three sections deal with participation, which includes volunteering, campaigning and giving; policy, which includes capacity-building, law and regulation; and business management, incorporating research and communications.

The office, based on former Home Office and Department of Trade & Industry units, was set up within the Cabinet Office by Tony Blair last year. Robb says it is an attempt to do something "extraordinarily new and different". The only other country he knows with a similar office is New Zealand.

He says there is real excitement about what the office could achieve. In the past six months, there have been 700 applications for the 25 vacancies there have been in the 55-strong team.

The reorganisation has been carried out with the help of Vanessa Potter, former policy director of the Big Lottery Fund, working on secondment. This has allowed Robb to get out and make between 50 and 60 speeches so far, emulating the workrate of his political master, Ed Miliband.

The office has a dual role, he says: acting as advocate for the third sector across government, while also facing outwards and listening. "Many voluntary organisations censor themselves," he says. "They worry about what they can and can't say. We want to hear lots of voices. It's great when the sector does speak with one voice, but there's no expectation of that from here. We want to hear what's happening in front-line agencies."

Robb says his previous role as policy head of the NCVO has been no hindrance, and that he has a great relationship with all stakeholders, including Stephen Bubb of Acevo. "It's a completely different job," he says. "People have been very welcoming."

He says he finds it strange to be asked how, as a former adviser to Labour politicians, he would view working under a Conservative administration: "It's not relevant which political party is there - it's about putting the sector at the heart of government."

But before there's any chance of the Tories taking over, he'll be working under a Brown premiership and - more likely than not - a different minister. Given that Brown's enthusiasm for the third sector rivals Blair's, this seems unlikely to be a problem.

By the time Parliament returns in October, Robb's reorganisation will be complete and in-trays will be groaning with work, including the review of the sector's future role, the appointment of social enterprise ambassadors and the Treasury-led consultation on Gift Aid.

Robb CV

2006: Director general, Office of the Third Sector
2006: Secondment to the Treasury for one day a week
2002: Director of public policy, NCVO
1998: Head of campaigns, NCVO
1997: Press and policy adviser, Labour health team
1994: Press and policy adviser to Chris Smith MP
1992: Researcher for David Blunkett MP

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