Interview: Sir Stephen Bubb

The chief executive of Acevo tells Stephen Cook that politicians of both main parties no longer have a coherent narrative on the voluntary sector

Sir Stephen Bubb
Sir Stephen Bubb

On the wall of Sir Stephen Bubb's office, vying for pride of place with cartoons and pictures of him with politicians and celebrities, is a framed list of 16 bullet points, none of them longer than three words. "Spin", "lament", "clunky" and "the people" give a flavour of it.

These were his only speaking notes when, two years ago, he became the first charity leader to address a full meeting of the Cabinet, talking about the contribution the voluntary sector could make to the National Health Service. "It was described by two of the ministers there as brilliant," he says. "It went down bloody well, actually."

The big picture

This all says a lot about Bubb. He's not famous for his modesty. He also sees the big picture, thinks on his feet and is rarely lost for words. He's well-connected and on the ball politically, and is a fierce advocate of the service-delivering potential of the charities led by his members.

Since that speech, made at the end of the two months he spent in Whitehall as a member of the NHS Future Forum, some wind has gone out of the sails of the service-delivery vessel, not least because of the disappointments for the sector in the Work Programme. Bubb acknowledges that, but has confidence in the longer term.

"David Cameron gets the point about citizen empowerment and knows that the way to do it is more service delivery by Mind or Scope, and the right to challenge and acquire assets," says Bubb. "But that instinct, which is right, got muddled with the big society, which was ineptly communicated and got mixed up with the cuts, and now the government hasn't got a narrative on the sector any more.

"Nor have Labour, who need to get their narrative back on track as well and realise that a significant part of the solution to our problems lies in the third sector. That's one of the sad things about politics at the moment - neither the Tories nor Labour are thinking clearly about the sector, although they know that the trend towards less delivery by the state and more by third sector organisations will carry on: it's absolutely irreversible."


So how does the Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd, fit into this state of affairs? Bubb, who claims substantial credit for the establishment of the Office of the Third Sector in 2006, thinks that its successor, the Office for Civil Society, has been "substantially underplayed" by the present government.

"It's significantly smaller and has got less clout across Whitehall, none of which is to do with Nick Hurd - and we can't blame him for the big society either. I would have liked to see a bigger push on public service reform but he's not sufficiently high in the hierarchy. He completely understood the issues in the Work Programme and has worked hard behind the scenes to make sure the Ministry of Justice contracts are different.

"So we could have done a damn sight worse than Nick. He's sensible, he likes the sector and he works with us. He absolutely gets the power of the sector in public service delivery and he avoids some of the nonsense from the right wing about campaigning by charities and other stuff in the recent report by the Public Administration Select Committee. The investment readiness fund is the right approach and some of his other programmes are excellent."

Time of retrenchment

The current slowing of political momentum, which Bubb calls "a kind of limbo", has coincided with a time of retrenchment and change at Acevo, which used to have an annual income of £3m and 45 staff, but now has 30 staff and an income closer to £2m. This is partly a result of the phasing out by next spring of the OCS Strategic Partners programme, but the number of sector leaders who pay between £200 and £800 a year for Acevo membership has also slipped, from a high point of about 2,000 to 1,591.

The changes in the commissioning of public services have also prompted the formation of Acevo Solutions, a consultancy that tries to help sector organisations gear up to deliver services to individual local authorities and NHS clinical commissioning groups. Recently, for example, it was paid by the Local Government Association to work with it and the council for voluntary service in Knowsley, Merseyside, to set up a consortium of national and local charities intended to bid for local service-delivery contracts.

"If the sector's going to survive in the new public sector environment, collaborative working and setting up consortia at the local level is the only way to do it," says Bubb. "It enables our national members to work more at local level with local organisations."


Linked to the formation of Acevo Solutions is the decision to introduce a soft rebrand that changes the organisation's name in its logo from upper to lower case letters and replaces the phrase "third sector" with the word "charity" in the strapline (see below). "We're such a diverse sector that there's always this debate about what to call ourselves," says Bubb. "And for the external public the word 'charity' resonates."

Another recent change has been Acevo's cost-saving move across London from New Oxford Street to the second floor of Society Building, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations' property near King's Cross that Bubb now defiantly refers to as "Acevo Towers". Has the move altered his occasionally fractious relationship with Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO? "The move is partly a demonstration that the two organisations are not at each other's throats and that there's more noise than reality about the opposition between us," says Bubb. "We're a very diverse sector, and it would be very odd if there was only one voice at the centre. We represent chief executives, they represent charities and perhaps half of their membership have no staff, so there's always a different emphasis.

"Our membership consists to a large extent of organisations involved in public services or advocacy, and professional bodies, so we will on occasion have different views. But on the core issues such as charity tax there is no real difference and he and I are as one. I like Stuart and he invited me to his wedding, so things are not that bad."

Although Bubb has not been in his job at Acevo as long as Etherington has been at the NCVO, he has now clocked up 13 years and has just passed the age of 60. But he says he is thoroughly enjoying the work and that he is planning to be there for a few more years yet: "The run-up to the next election is a critical time and it wouldn't be good to disappear too quickly."


Soft rebrand brings a subtle change to logo

Acevo's old logo

Acevo was one of the first organisations to adopt the phrase 'third sector' and went for the strapline Third Sector Leaders in its logo in 2001 (right). Sir Stephen Bubb says it remains one of the best expressions because it encompasses everything that's not in the private and public sectors.

But he's reluctantly accepted that 'third sector' hasn't become established outside the sector and says that the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations - the full Acevo title, which might help to explain the phrase - is thought by the media to take up too much time and space.

"For the external public, the word charity is what resonates," Bubb says. "And the majority of our members are in fact registered charities, although they might call themselves social enterprises or something different. So we decided not to be coy about charities, which are bloody great, after all."

Acevo's new logoThe upshot is that Acevo is doing a soft rebrand, changing its name in its logo from upper to lower case and adopting the new strapline "Charity Leaders Network" (right). "It's a subtle change, and we're just starting to use it," says Bubb. "It's been an internal process involving no extra expense - if people think you're spending a lot of money gazing at your own navel, it's not appreciated."

He says that the change also reflects the likely future expansion in the work already being done by Acevo in local authority areas and NHS clinical commissioning groups, dealing with organisations that might be more comfortable with the word 'charity'.

This expansion is the result of the shift of decision-making from national to local level in government and the health service. "Five years ago the emphasis was on dealing with Communities and Local Government and the Department of Health," says Bubb. "Now the commissioning power has moved downwards, which is why we started Acevo Solutions to both drive strategy and support sector organisations in local authorities and CCGs."

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