Interview: Caroline Slocock

The director of Civil Exchange 'link tank' tells John Plummer that service delivery is a huge opportunity but the sector needs improved relations with government

Caroline Slocock
Caroline Slocock

Caroline Slocock has been employed in government and the voluntary sector for three decades, so she knows how difficult the relationship between the two sides can be.

She is now trying to improve it by establishing a think tank called Civil Exchange, which aims to "strengthen society's connection to government".

It is an ambitious task, but Slocock learned early in her career about the value of determination when she was private secretary to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

"She believed in getting things done and making things happen," says Slocock. "That's the big lesson I learned from her."

Slocock also worked briefly for John Major before leaving Number 10 for the Treasury, where she became a senior adviser on public spending and replaced annual departmental budgets with three-year spending rounds. "When you work in the Treasury and with the Prime Minister you know you can change things," she says. "It's just that governments struggle to execute good ideas."

Agents of the state

One of the coalition government's current ideas is for charities to provide more public services. This has led to concerns that charities could become mere agents of the state, which is one of the issues the new Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector is examining. Civil Exchange is acting as secretariat to the panel.

Slocock thinks that, whatever concerns the panel discovers, charities must take up the government's offer to provide more services. "It's a massive opportunity to give more power to the people the sector works with," she says. "I don't think anyone can pass that by."

Her comments might seem curious, given what happened to Refugee and Migrant Justice, a legal charity of which she was chief executive, which closed last year when its main funder, the Legal Services Commission, changed its payments system.

Instead of regarding this as an example of the perils of government collaboration, she says it highlights the need for better working relationships.

The LSC, she says, adopted bad funding practice and wouldn't listen to the charity's concerns. "The funding regime was driving behaviour that wasn't resolving cases," she says.

Slocock subsequently worked with the Home Office to develop an early legal advice pilot scheme, which she says shows what can be done "when people work effectively together and share knowledge".

Barriers to progress

Slocock describes Civil Exchange as a "link tank" because it will build bridges between the two sectors and link existing expertise. She says organisational and cultural problems in charities and government are the main barriers to progress.

"The voluntary sector isn't terribly well understood by government," she says. "It doesn't understand the diversity of the sector. It thinks it can treat it as one and it doesn't understand how much the sector can add in terms of policy development."

Contracts, she says, are another concern because they can reduce charities to service providers rather than policy creators. Charities also need to know government better. "They don't understand how the civil service operates and the importance of talking to officials as well as ministers," says Slocock.

Some charities tackle issues that cut across Whitehall departments. "If they want to change something, they need to talk to five or six government departments as well as local authorities," she says. "They need the capacity, time and patience to talk to government in its many different forms." This, she says, can particularly frustrate small charities.

Each side finds it a struggle to deal with the complexities of its own world, let alone those of the other, she concludes, and the speed of new policies and initiatives does not help: "Government has never moved so fast." Its short-term approach is a major problem for charities working long term, says Slocock.

Last week, Civil Exchange published Civil Dialogue, 20 essays on strengthening the dialogue between government and charities. It is also advising the early action taskforce led by David Robinson, chief executive of umbrella organisation Community Links, which is making the case for funding early intervention projects.

The think tank has three associate members: Lynne Berry, former chief executive of the older people's charity WRVS; David Harker, former chief executive of Citizens Advice; and Daniel Harris, managing director of DHA, a public sector communications agency.

There is no office and no full-time staff. But Slocock insists the landscape is ripe for better relations between government and charity. "There is a real opportunity to forge a better dialogue," she says. "Change is possible."

CV

2011: Director, Civil Exchange
2007: Chief executive, Refugee and Migrant Justice
2002: Chief executive, Equal Opportunities Commission
2000: Joint head of early years and childcare unit, Department for Education and Skills
1997: Senior policy adviser on expenditure, HM Treasury
1991: Head of employment spending team, HM Treasury
1989: Private secretary to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

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