Interview: Baroness Young

The chief executive of Diabetes UK says a less than fond goodbye to a decade in the public sector

Baroness Young
Baroness Young

Ambitious leaders seem to move with increasing ease between the public and voluntary sectors nowadays, but Baroness Barbara Young, who has great experience of both, says she is very happy to be back in charge of a charity.

"This feeling of freedom is immense," says Young, who became chief executive of Diabetes UK in November after eight years as chief executive of the Environment Agency and two years as chair of the Care Quality Commission.

"Providing you can square your stakeholders, keep the Charity Commission happy and keep your trustees onside, you can do anything you bloody well like, within reason," she says, half jokingly.

Young, 62, recalls her first charity chief executive's job at the RSPB in 1991. "For the first two weeks, I sat there and nobody sent me anything telling me what I should be doing," she says.

This contrasts with her experience of state employment: "Your fate is in somebody else's hands all the time. In the end, I got to the stage where the continual interference was becoming extremely irritating."

The voluntary sector has changed considerably since Young joined the RSPB. "It's more professional now," she says.

"In a way, that's a good thing, but we have to be careful that we don't iron out the things that make the sector - its organic growth from people's passions and its ability to be fluent and nimble.

"The sector, at its best, is innovative and close to the people it serves. At its worst, it's paternalistic, inefficient and near to shambolic."

Young says Diabetes UK's low level of state income protects its independence. So does she oppose charities delivering public services and the big society programme?

"We're keen to play a role in the big society, but we'd be nervous of becoming an organisation that was a major delivery arm of the government, because we don't think that's what we're here for," she says.

"We're here to get a better deal for people with diabetes. If there are things the government needs done that fit with our agenda, we will of course want to work in partnership. But I don't see this organisation as a big service provider."

She has wider concerns about service delivery by volunteers, however. "Unless services are provided on contracts, you're actually saying to beneficiaries 'you are the deserving poor', and 'charity' could go back to being a dirty word."

Young was a member of the 1995 Commission on the Future of the Voluntary Sector, chaired by Nicholas Deakin, which influenced the eventual establishment of the Office for Civil Society, the £231m Change-Up infrastructure programme and the Compact.

A former NCVO trustee, she helped to recruit Sir Stuart Etherington as chief executive of the organisation in 1994.

"Stuart is a star because there isn't a single recommendation in the Deakin report that hasn't been implemented," she says. "He has done that by hunching his shoulders and keeping on trucking."

Young became Baroness Young of Old Scone in 1997. Initially a Labour peer, she became a cross-bencher when she joined the Environment Agency in 2000.

Her views on the public benefit test are distinctly un-New Labour. "I campaigned hard for all educational organisations to be automatically charitable," she says. "Education is a good thing, even if it's for snotty little rich kids.

"The test is a big red herring because one of the great virtues of the voluntary sector is the idea of 1,000 flowers blooming, which is why I'm against charity mergers. If you're into butterflies, say, you don't want to join a big generic organisation. It's the same across the sector."

At the Environment Agency, Young had a £1.3bn budget and 13,500 staff. At Diabetes UK, she is in charge of 277 staff and an income of £30m. But her leadership approach is the same.

"I've always run my public sector organisations as if they were voluntary organisations," she says. "I used to annoy the government something shocking by saying the Environment Agency was the largest government-funded NGO. We were a big service deliverer, but we were also a policy campaigner."

Young, who away from work rides a dressage horse called Huggy Bear VI at her home in Bedfordshire, isn't diabetic and admits to being "staggered by her ignorance" of the illness, despite having worked in health and social care. Raising public awareness of diabetes will be among her top priorities in the years ahead, rather than being a voice for the sector as a whole, she says.

"I'm trying not to get too active in the sector because I want to focus on diabetes," she says. "I did my stint last time. But it won't stop me interfering from time to time."

CV

2010: Chief executive, Diabetes UK
2008: Chair, Care Quality Commission
2000: Chief executive, Environment Agency
1997: Made a Labour peer
1991: Chief executive, RSPB

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