Sexual politics

Simon Blake, chief executive, Brook wants a complementary relationship between the voluntary and public sectors.

Blake: 'work together - push boundaries' (Credit: Newscats)
Blake: 'work together - push boundaries' (Credit: Newscats)

If finding Brook's offices within the bewildering labyrinth of London's Highgate Studios was the first test of Simon Blake's third sector management abilities, he admits that he didn't exactly pass with flying colours.

Five months down the line, though, he seems to have well and truly got his bearings at the young people's sexual health charity.

"The key to our services is that they address the emotional and the physical," he says. "We are trusted to maintain confidentiality, to be friendly, not to judge and to provide support."

Such core principles will also apply to Brook's latest centre (its 18th) in Stockton-on-Tees, opening this week just after National Contraceptive Awareness Week. However, the charity's decision to enter a competitive tendering process to run the centre marked a significant departure from its previous reliance on grants.

"The exciting thing about it is that we are offering additional services that local government and the primary care trust thought they didn't have the expertise in," says Blake. "We are complementing and working in partnership with them."

This notion of 'complementarity' is central to Blake's vision of the relationship between the public and third sectors, a topic with which he is deeply involved as a newly appointed member of Compact Voice.

"At Brook we don't want to be doing things that other people can do just as well," he says. "We firmly believe we have an added-value element to our work, which is reaching the most vulnerable. We should be seen as an ally and a supporter of what the local authority is doing, not as a competitor."

The key to resolving that tension, he says, is mutual understanding.

As the Compact Voice member with responsibility for working with the Department of Health, he is committed to ensuring "the Compact is something that runs all the way through policy development" rather than just manifesting itself at the end, "when the principles aren't there".

Blake admits that "shocking" ignorance of the Compact abounds in some councils, but declines, after a long pause, to add his voice to calls for the new Compact Commissioner to be given the power to enforce compliance.

"I would want people to have an absolute commitment to taking the Compact very seriously," he says. "But I'm not convinced that forcing it would be the best way to promote mutual understanding and respect."

Nor does he share worries that increasing involvement in public service provision will endanger charities' independence. He describes the link at Brook between service delivery and campaigning as "gold dust". He also emphasises the need for service commissioners "to acknowledge that part of a charity's work is to be campaigning and to push the boundaries".

Blake also worries about commissioners' short-termism. "Because of the change of responsibility from health services to children's services, one of our services is just not being commissioned for anything," he says.

"The services will stop, the staff will be made redundant, and when people recommission in six months there won't be the skills in the marketplace."

As for the perception among some commissioners that giving contracts to charities is a way to save money, Blake says the sector must do everything possible to counter it - even if that means turning down grants. "If we are always grateful for scraps, we will always be perceived as being cheaper," he argues. "The sector may have to make some difficult choices in the short term in order to maintain, develop and establish a credible and equal position in the long term."

BLAKE CV

2006
: Chief executive, Brook
2002: Assistant director and then acting director, children's development, National Children's Bureau
1999: Director, Sex Education Forum
1996: Project manager, boys and young men, fpa (Wales and London).

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