Interview: Simon Blake

The chair of Compact Voice says the Compact agreement on relations between public and voluntary sectors remains worthwhile, despite breaches

Simon Blake
Simon Blake

Simon Blake is one of the voluntary sector's highest-profile leaders. The chief executive of the young people's sexual health charity Brook is frequently quoted in the media and invited to speak at conferences.

When not talking about chlamydia and genital herpes, he promotes the Compact - the public and voluntary sector partnership agreement, which similarly lacks glamour. Blake recently started a second three-year term as chair of Compact Voice, which represents the voluntary sector on the Compact.

Since it was introduced in 1998, the agreement has been criticised for its ineffectiveness. This year has been particularly difficult, with the abolition of the Commission for the Compact and fierce spending cuts prompting many councils to ride roughshod over the agreement.

Sir Bert Massie, former commissioner for the Compact, claimed the commission's closure had created "dysfunctional architecture" because it had removed an independent body and left stewardship of the Compact in the hands of two organisations - Compact Voice and the Office for Civil Society - that represent specific interests. That the former depends on the latter for funding was another cause for concern, he said.

Massie warned that the Compact could die, saying much depended on whether the OCS takes it seriously and Compact Voice "comes up to the mark". Blake is adamant his organisation is doing precisely that.

Its board includes representatives of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the chief executives body Acevo, the local infrastructure support group Navca, Volunteering England, the British Red Cross and Voice4Change England.

"It is a real body of expertise," he says. "Compact Voice is committed to speaking truth to power and challenging when necessary."

Blake says the Compact is more effective than many people realise. "There are lots of examples of people who have benefited," he says.

In a survey carried out by Compact Voice last month, 88 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement "that the Compact is important and that effort needs to be made to implement it in full".

But people were less convinced that it is working: only 25 per cent of sector respondents agreed that people in charities were actively engaged in their local Compact.

Blake admits it is a mixed picture. He says: "There have been breaches, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth investing in. If we didn't have the Compact, we would need something that did a similar job. The Compact is a mechanism to achieve things, not an end in itself."

He talks about the importance of building Compact principles into policies, rather than just seeing the document as a means to resolve differences. He sidesteps questions about whether he was disappointed by Massie's comments but says it is wrong to think Compact Voice and the OCS can't work together effectively without the commission sitting between them.

"I don't believe there should be a mediator on a day-to-day basis," he says. "There was value in having an independent voice, but it's the role of Compact Voice and the government to speak to each other."

Blake admits Compact Voice's £358,000 annual budget means it has less capacity than the commission, which received £2m a year. But he says the commission's closure says more about the funding environment than any weakening of government commitment to the Compact.

But he does have some concerns. He says the OCS has "missed opportunities" for enshrining Compact principles in policies, and says its record for meaningful engagement during consultation periods has "not been good enough".

He says: "The OCS has to show leadership. We cannot allow the Compact to fall off the agenda."

How often has he met Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society? "About three times in the past six months," he says. Compact Voice is trying to arrange regular meetings to facilitate the relationship, he adds.

Blake's entire working life has been in the voluntary sector, except for a six-month secondment to the Department of Health, which he says was valuable for understanding how government works. "Everyone in the voluntary and public sectors would benefit from having an understanding of each other's sector," he says.

He hopes to stay in the voluntary sector. If so, does he think the Compact will always be there to help him? "It's been around for 13 years," he says. "It's one of the few things in government that has survived that long. It will continue to evolve and might not be called the Compact, but I'm sure something that governs the relationship between government and the sector will still be there."

CV

2011: Chief executive, Brook

2006: National director, Brook

2002: Assistant director for children's development, National Children's Bureau

1999: Director, Sex Education Forum

1996: Development officer, Family Planning Association.

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