Interview: Closer to the front line

Clare Checksfield, chief executive of Crime Concern, says charities shouldn't worry about government contracts.

Clare Checksfield
Clare Checksfield

Clare Checksfield appears entirely unfazed by her move to the charity sector from the civil service, where she worked for two decades.

After all, the aims of her new employer - reducing anti-social behaviour and cutting down arrests among young people - are similar to those of the Government's National Offender Management Service. "It's not a dramatic shift," she says. "Crime Concern is a relatively new charity. It's worked with the public sector and the private sector, so there's not a huge culture gap."

But she concedes that there has been a shift of expectation. "When you're in government you're involved in something that is actually going to happen, whereas in the voluntary sector there's a greater sense of risk and a greater sense of potential."

Given the relative insecurity of life in the sector, why did Checksfield make the move? "I was looking for something closer to the front line," she says. "The line between me and my projects is much thinner than it was in central government."

For Checksfield, working on the front line doesn't necessarily imply seat-of-the-pants judgements. She is keen to import some of the stability that she experienced in the civil service to the charity.

Although her background will inform her new role, Checksfield says that her Home Office connections will not provide a short cut to the department's coffers, or allow greater access to its policy-makers.

"I understand how the Home Office works," she says. "But whether that makes me any better depends on the quality of my arguments rather than on who I am. I hope that I'm listened to on the basis of my arguments rather than anything else."

One of the biggest questions faced by offender management charities is how close they should be to government. Such organisations fear that carrying out public sector contracts may damage the delicate relationships they have with their clients.

But Checksfield says voluntary organisations shouldn't worry about working with the public sector as long as the relationship is carefully managed. "You wouldn't enter into a contract if you knew that your workforce was going to be uncomfortable with it and not deliver," she says.

She is also dismissive of the danger that third sector groups will be pressurised into taking contracts to make up funding shortfalls. "A contract has to be in both parties' interests for it to work," she says. "If we are all being driven by commissioners as unthinking, non-independent service providers, then we haven't got what anyone wants."

Checksfield says that there are few certainties about the voluntary sector's contracting opportunities in the slimmed-down National Offender Management Service, but doesn't see the changes as a death knell. "It will put the focus right back on to local commissioning, which is actually good news for a lot of local voluntary organisations," she says.

She acknowledges that it may be difficult to establish such work for the sector on a UK-wide scale. "There are some national opportunities that we all know are much harder for third sector organisations to get involved in," she says. "It may be that you can do some fantastic work, but the question each of us has in the back of our mind is whether Noms will enable them to start doing something quite big and different."

Whether the opportunities will arise for such creativity, however, remains to be seen.

Checksfield CV

2007: Chief executive, Crime Concern (September)

2007: Head of Prison Population Task Force, Home Office (January)

2006: Head of Estates Planning and Development Unit, Noms, Home Office

2004: Chief of staff to the chief executive of the National Offender Management Service

2002: Director, Street Crime Action Team, Home Office.

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