Sorting out my basement this week, I found myself thinking about the Charity Commission; I had come across the notes I had prepared for my interview as chair of the commission, and they brought back memories.
I had also read in Third Sector about Andrew Hind’s reflections on his time at the Charity Commission and noted the view of Sam Younger, the new chief executive, that the coalition government’s mantras on belt-tightening and the age of austerity meant that his prime focus would have to be maintaining the register of charities and carrying out compliance work.
Andrew listed the commission’s achievements during his time as chief executive in similar terms – streamlining and reducing.
Stephen Cook’s recent editorial on culture change at the commission implied that it may still have some way to go to demonstrate real changes in efficacy and culture.
Interestingly, neither chief executive had placed emphasis on this. But it rang a few bells for me because the main thrust of my interview notes was that the commission, in order to be perceived more positively, had to demonstrate a new regulatory style and new ways of working, communicating and connecting. In short, a change in culture.
This cannot be done just by reducing numbers or even implementing new legislation. It has to be done by being different.
Alan Milburn, the MP who was chair of the Joint Parliamentary Committee that scrutinised the Charities Bill, reprimanded me when I appeared before the committee on my first day in office.
He intimated that I was too cavalier in my comments about changing the commission’s culture – the committee had insinuated that it was old fashioned and moribund. I replied that I couldn’t answer for what had gone before, but my intention was to make the commission fit for purpose to deliver a new bill.
This did not necessarily mean doing different things, but it did mean doing things differently. After all, if you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got.
What still troubles me about both the public perception of the commission and, possibly, the commission’s perception of itself, is that it looks at the cracks in the pavement – the detail, in other words – rather than the bigger picture.
I also pledged when I became chair that I would make best use of the unusual institutional status of the commission as a non-ministerial government department.
It does not report directly to a minister, but to Parliament, and is held to account by the High Court. This gives it an unusual degree of independence and flexibility which, if used properly, can help it work fast and be more responsive to its customers – the public and charities.
It also gives it the opportunity to be different.
When I appointed Andrew as chief executive, we agreed that we had to change internal behaviour before the commission could be perceived differently from the outside. The first move towards this involved changing the logo. This may seem superficial as a starting point, but in fact had far-reaching consequences.
Every member of the commission was involved and had to make decisions at many different levels, working together in teams, about what the new image should be.
This was the first time many of them had been asked to make, and take responsibility for, a decision. The culture of the commission was always to look upward for an answer rather than present a solution. That certainly changed after the logo exercise, and no one expected any more to raise an issue for which they didn’t have an answer. Thus began a new way of being at the commission – one which people found much more user-friendly.
Only by being transparent and approachable can the commission fulfil its role as an enabling regulator. If it is doing this, it should not have to worry about austerity and budget cuts, because people will use their own resources to help themselves.
Parliament left the commission the difficult task of defining public benefit. This provided an opportunity for it to demonstrate a change of approach, engaging the public and charities as true partners in the definition of public benefit within the legal and fiscal framework.
Combined with peer support, a regulatory framework based on consultation, and in a more rigorous process in registering charities in the first place, this offers the sector real support. If you help people set up charities effectively, you don’t have to wait for something to go wrong to teach them a lesson.
I am sure the new chief executive Sam Younger and Dame Suzi Leather, as chair, will not lose sight of this in the frenzy about cuts. If they continue to uphold the key values, practice what they preach, provide levels of regulation proportionate to the size and complexity of charities, and seek evidence-based outcome measures, they can and should become the leading agency promoting good practice in the sector.
So I hope that, faced with a limited budget and pressure for results, the commission will stand firm and avoid sliding back to being a toothless monster that needs to sharpen its bite.