Interview: Peter Wanless, chief executive, Big Lottery Fund

On the grand tour: gaining some local knowledge as he prepares for the hurdles ahead.

(Credit: David Devins)
(Credit: David Devins)

Peter Wanless has barely touched base at the Big Lottery Fund's London offices since joining the organisation as chief executive three months ago.

Even before his official starting date, the formerly Westminster-based civil servant had started travelling around the UK on a grand tour of the projects that he will oversee. He has been a grants officer for a day, shadowed chief executives of small voluntary organisations and visited rural areas where people didn't even know the fund existed.

"I've been getting out there and seeing a lot of projects," says Wanless. "By the time I came in as the new boy, there wasn't anyone else in the organisation who had spoken to quite so many people and had such up-to-date impressions of what everybody thought of the organisation."

This ability to muck in and understand what's going on at ground level will stand Wanless in good stead as a challenging period for lottery distributors approaches. With the fund's entire schedule of programmes due for renewal in 2009 and the upcoming £425m diversion to the 2012 Olympics starting in the same year, the new chief is not in for an easy ride.

But despite the hurdles ahead, Wanless seems buoyant. Freed from the bureaucracy of his previous government posts, he is excited at the prospect of being able to shape an organisation. "I really appreciate the positivity of everyone who works in and around the fund," he says. "I hadn't realised that I spent a considerable period analysing, picking holes in things and working out why things wouldn't work, whereas here it's all about building things up."

Wanless acknowledges that the fund could be improved in some areas. "I want us to become much more customer-focused and stream-lined in our application processes," he says. "We're experimenting with online applications."

He also says the fund needs to sharpen criteria for programmes that are created to solve a particular social need, and to work towards making quicker decisions on grant applications to smaller open-access programmes such as Awards for All.

The exact make-up of the new programmes will be decided in a consultation with the sector this autumn. In the meantime, Wanless's first task will be to develop the fund's advisory capacity. "My overwhelming desire is to ensure that we are seen as much more than a funder of good causes," he says. "We can do much more than distribute money. I've been struck by the great expertise that's being developed within the fund and with our partners."

This element of advising other funders and distributing non-lottery funds is already in evidence with the BLF's role as a distributor for unclaimed assets. Wanless insists that "the last thing I want to be is some kind of contracting arm of government", but his experience would qualify him to promote the fund as a mechanism for assessing, distributing and managing public funding for hard-to-reach groups.

He says that he would be interested in distributing money for individual philanthropists, as long as they were interested in funding the communities and cause areas where the BLF has most expertise.

For the moment, however, Wanless is keen to continue his UK tour. "One of my ambitions is to keep that connection with staff and customers going," he says. "My intention is to be an outward-facing chief executive. I would have given a lot at the Department for Children, Schools and Families to have that list of phone numbers and really know those people who are making a difference."

WANLESS CV

2008: Chief executive, Big Lottery Fund

2003: Director of schools, Department for Education and Skills, later the Department for Children, Schools and Families

1998: Director of strategy and communications, Department for Education and Employment, later the Department for Education and Skills

1995: Head of private finance policy, HM Treasury

1992: Principal private secretary to Michael Portillo in his ministerial roles at HM Treasury and the Department for Employment.

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