Focus: Policy and Politics - Charity Commission - Regulator widens role with public affairs strategy

Sarah Atkinson, the new head of corporate affairs, will take the commission into new territory, writes Nathalie Thomas.

Dame Suzi Leather isn't the only big appointment at the Charity Commission this month. With someone new at the helm, the regulator will no doubt undergo a culture change. But this change will also be influenced by another arrival - the regulator's new head of corporate affairs, Sarah Atkinson.

Atkinson joins from Nationwide Building Society, where she held the post of consumer and public affairs manager, to lead the commission's new public affairs strategy. The strategy was first made public in November last year and has already resulted in the appointment of the commission's first parliamentary officer in January. Until now, however, the commission has refused to elaborate on what this strategy involves.

So what's the big secret? According to Atkinson, the strategy is quite the reverse of secret, designed as it is to give the regulator a more visible and informative role among policy-makers and opinion-formers.

"It is related to our new responsibility under the Charities Bill to increase public confidence in charities," she says. "As a regulator, we have a responsibility to comment on policies that will, to our knowledge and understanding, affect the sector - and how those policies will affect us and our work."

Phase one of the strategy has already begun - the Charities Bill returned to Parliament for its second reading in the House of Commons on Monday.

As part of the strategy, Atkinson and Ruth Hydon, the commission's parliamentary officer, will engage more with ministers, as well as offering parliamentarians briefings on the Charities Bill.

However, Atkinson is keen to emphasise the idea that the commission is informing and not lobbying, and stresses that the regulator will not be stepping on the toes of other member-led lobby groups, such as Acevo or the NCVO. "The NCVO is a membership organisation, we're a regulator," she says. "We have totally different viewpoints and there's always going to be a clear difference."

Atkinson understands there may be concerns about the regulator taking up a public affairs role and about the potential for messages from the commission getting confused with messages from the sector.

However, she points out that it is her job to make sure this doesn't happen, adding that such concerns shouldn't deter the commission from making its own important contributions to the development of policy.

"There is information that we hold and specific responsibilities that belong to us alone as a regulator," she says. "Only we can communicate and explain those."

Atkinson has so far spent the whole of her career working in the private sector, starting as public affairs consultant at AS Biss & Co in 1998.

However, as a trustee for international development charity Womankind Worldwide, she's quite aware of the responsibility of working in a passionate but sometimes rather sensitive sector.

"I'm conscious as I take this role that everyone has a view about charities and everyone has this sense of personal connection and ownership," she says. "That is what made me want to do this job, but I realise that it's also a very fragile Ming vase that I've got to handle."

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