David Locke admits that when he first attended outreach events held by the Charity Commission, he was frequently collared by someone with a horror story about their experiences with the regulator. Now, he says, he is more likely to be complimented on the speed or helpfulness of the commission's response.
A lawyer by training, Locke worked for more than 10 years in law and advice centres before joining the commission's legal team in 2002. He was promoted to head of charity services in 2005 and became an executive director two years later, with responsibility for strategic leadership of all the commission's one-to-one services, including the registration division, the large charities division and Charity Commission Direct, the regulator's enquiries and requests service.
Locke says setting up CC Direct with Sandie Brown (who became its head) is one of his biggest achievements. Established as a result of the commission's 2005 strategic review, CC Direct replaced the 54 ways that previously existed to contact the commission by mail. "You often had to know which office was going to deal with your issue and there were legitimate complaints about a lack of consistency," he says. "We moved the organisation from a regional structure to a national body with a consistent response and improved speed, quality and customer satisfaction."
He says nine out of 10 people now rate the service they get from the commission as good or very good, and he lauds its five-day average response time to written enquiries.
"We have made radical improvements," he says. "When I joined, our target response time was 15 working days and it took us 92 working days to register a charity. Now we register within 28 days, or 15 online."
Locke believes moving services online is key to the commission continuing to improve its services in an era of shrinking resources. "It is not sexy, but it is critically important to us as an organisation and to improve the experience of customers," he says. "The alternative is to carry on doing things the way we do to a worse standard."
The commission is anxious to get email addresses for all charities - it still lacks addresses for 28 per cent of them - so it can do away with paper as soon as possible. He accepts that some charities might not be internet-savvy, but says there is little reason for professional advisers, who send out 27 per cent of the commission's correspondence, to continue using letters.
Another frustration is when the commission fails to live up to its own standards in customer service. He admits that mistakes are inevitable in any organisation, but is conscious of the effect they can have on the commission's reputation.
"I realised when I was working in law centres that reputations that take years to build up can be destroyed very quickly," he says. "Silly mistakes change the way people view the commission. We have to admit our mistakes and improve."