Interview: It was all about vision

Geraldine Peacock never expected to be offered the chair of the Charity Commission but believes her short tenure brought about a fundamental shift in culture. In a frank interview with Third Sector editor Stephen Cook, she talks about her successes, frustrations and unfinished business.

Her tenure was short but eventful. It started with a bruising encounter with a heavyweight former minister and ended with a trial of strength with the grandees of the Tate. In between came wholesale changes to the mission, image and culture of the Charity Commission - which, by common consent, are not likely to be reversed.

As Geraldine Peacock looks back, the changes she made are oddly symbolised for her by postage and trains. "One thing that made me laugh when I got there was that the commission paid for first-class travel for staff and second-class postage for the customers," she says. "Now it's mostly the other way round, and quite rightly - although there is still first-class travel above a certain level.

"Changing the culture wasn't easy - it felt a bit like trying to change the traditions of the entire civil service. The commission was almost military in its approach, with things being passed up the line all the time. It wasn't flexible or bendy in the least, and the emphasis was on compliance rather than enablement. By the time I left, the whole structure, vision, mission and image of the commission had changed. I think this has made it feel proud of itself and its potential."

Peacock says the thing that made the biggest difference was bringing in the commission's new 'T-shirt' logo. "I know that sounds a bit crass, but we didn't do it just for its own sake," she points out. "We did it because of the idea that if you look different, you behave differently. It was all part of a strategy that included, for example, not calling a document CC46 but calling it Help For Trustees instead.

"I took it on myself to rebrand the commission in a way that would make people try to be more user-friendly, so I got the staff to talk about it in small groups and to discuss it with the design agency. What we ended up with was chosen by the staff. Some love it and some hate it, but it was different, it was owned by people in the commission and it made them feel they had a new form of commission."

Just before she left in July for a mixture of personal and health reasons, Peacock's bold claims about culture changes were confirmed in a final appraisal by her colleagues, who agreed that she had brought about a fundamental shift that could not easily be reversed. "I think I left with my reputation pretty much intact," she says.

But her two years at the commission weren't all plain sailing: the appraisal also concluded that she had been weak on internal issues, leaving them mostly to chief executive Andrew Hind, and she accepts that she could have done more to support other senior members of staff. "The appraisal was a fair one - it was me," she says.

There were also frustrations and setbacks in relations with other voluntary sector organisations. Her ambition for the commission to be much more than just a regulator of charities put people's backs up sometimes. One sector figure sighed on one occasion: "I wish Geraldine wouldn't go round acting like the queen of the voluntary sector."

This aspect came to a head, she says, when the NCVO took exception to part of the commission's new strategy document, published in 2005, which said that one of its purposes was "championing the work of the sector".

"I thought the NCVO would welcome a proactive Charity Commission, but they challenged that part of the document," she says. "We had a meeting with them, and we agreed to change the wording."

A new document was issued at the start of this year - changing the objective to read "championing the public interest in charity", which satisfied the NCVO and, says Peacock, was in fact closer to what was originally intended.

Political problems

It was on the political front, however, that Peacock had the most difficult time. On her first day in office, she gave evidence to the joint scrutiny committee on the Charities Bill and was savaged by its chairman, former Cabinet minister Alan Milburn.

The commission had submitted a document indicating that case law on public benefit was such that the public benefit provisions of the Bill would not affect fee-paying charities unless the Bill was amended. Peacock said the commission might, by consultation, be able to find a way forward without an amendment.

Milburn cut loose, saying the commission could not have it both ways and "the point about changing the law is to change the law". Peacock defended herself, implying that Milburn's approach was "pig-headed". Looking back, she says the episode at least showed she was prepared to stand up and be counted. "He was making absurd statements, things that just weren't true," she says. The Bill has now gone through the Commons, with Milburn speaking in support of the unamended version of the Bill he appeared to be criticising at the hearing.

The Milburn fracas seemed to set the tone for the protracted wrangling over the public benefit question, which was the major factor in preventing the rapid passage of the Bill in the dying days of the last Government.

After the election, it had to start again, with a second exhaustive examination in the Lords.

"The slow passage of the Bill was horrendous," says Peacock. "People began to run out of steam, and I really felt that we might not get an Act at all because of the whole public schools question. Going through it twice in the Lords was a farce; such a laborious process. Charles Clarke said to me at one point: 'You were in a hurry, and it was a pity that Parliament wasn't.'"

The main reason Peacock was in a hurry was that the Bill would permit the commission to appoint nine new commissioners. She hoped this would accelerate the modernisation of its governance that had begun on her appointment with the separation of chair and chief executive into two separate posts for the first time.

She also thought new commissioners, of different ages and drawn from various sectors of society, would make a big contribution to grappling with the definition of public benefit. But her proposal to appoint 'shadow commissioners' pending the passage of the Bill was vetoed by the Home Office for as long as the Bill was in Parliament. "That was probably the most disappointing thing of all," she says.

Seeing the Bill onto the statute book would have made up for some of these frustrations, but she still thinks she was right to resign when she did, allowing herself to cope better with her Parkinson's Disease and frequent transatlantic flights to see her new Canadian husband.

One reason why it was right, she says, is that her successor, Dame Suzi Leather, will be able to appoint her own commissioners rather than inherit them from someone else. " I would have liked to stay for four or five years, but I feel very comfortable with Suzi's appointment," she says.

"We met several times to talk, and I think she's a good woman. She's someone who won't go back to the old days and will continue with the same sort of mission. She is from a similar background, and she has good quango experience, whereas I had good sector experience. I was pleased to see she was on Question Time. A lot depends on who she recruits to be the new commissioners, of course, because they will influence her a lot."

What challenges does Peacock foresee for Leather? "You've got to take the sector with you, and you don't have to be of the sector to be accepted," she says. "Second, she must tackle the Treasury about funding and about how the commission can earn money from an overseas programme and its good intellectual property. Then there's the implementation of the Bill, with public benefit and regulation of fundraising - she might have to make a stand over funding for that.

"There's also the job of showing that the commission has teeth, while engaging with people - it's not an easy mix. You've got to keep the politicians onside as well, which is another balancing act."

Unexpected offer

Peacock might have had a bumpy ride at the commission from time to time, but she says her life would have been much poorer if she had not done the job - one she never expected to be offered.

"I was surprised to get it because I didn't think they had the balls to do it," she says. "It was so obviously a different kind of appointment. And I was asked a lot a questions about my health because of my illness. I was also surprised because at first I didn't think they really wanted to change. Then I worried that it was tokenistic - that they wanted to look as if they were changing without really doing so.

"And I was further surprised because all the chief commissioners before me had been men, and often from a legal background. I'd been told at school that I wasn't clever enough to be a lawyer, and now here I was on the end of that list, in charge of 60 lawyers. It was the most wonderful opportunity anyone could have given to me."

Peacock didn't have enough time in the post to develop her other ideas, such as allowing the commission to charge for some of its services, including registration. It's her belief that the sector should be more entrepreneurial and that "people don't respect what they don't pay for".

She would also have liked to instigate a complete new look at charities and how they relate to other organisations. "My dream is of a continuum of non-profit organisations, from community groups to charities to community interest companies, all under one regulatory system but with different regimes and incentives," she says.

"There is a big opportunity to move forward on this and show that charity is really a philosophy rather than a series of entities - it's an approach of 'doing with' rather than 'doing to'. You might call me a wacky old hippy, but I think these things. And I'm not deserting the sector yet."

HIGH STAKES AT THE TATE

Feelings still run high over the controversial Charity Commission clash with the Tate last year, with both sides offering different views of a meeting where a compromise was hammered out.

Last summer the Charity Commission was preparing to publish an inquiry into purchases by the Tate when Peacock had a phone call in Somerset from its chairman, Paul Myners.

The report contained severe criticism of the Tate for buying works from its own trustees without permission from the commission. Among them was Chris Ofili's The Upper Room, bought for £600,000.

"Paul Myners began by asking: 'Are you the girl that runs the Charity Commission?'" recalls Peacock. "Those were his words.I said: 'Yes, I'm chair of the commission.' I was quite frosty towards him."

A meeting was arranged to discuss the draft press release on the report.

It was attended by commission legal chief Kenneth Dibble, Peacock, Myners and Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota.

"They said the release would damage the Tate so severely that it would never get support again," Peacock says. "At one time or other, each of them said they might have to resign.

"I said: 'If you 'fess up and say it's a fair cop and make an effort to get on the right track, you could be the good guys'." She later had a handwritten letter from Serota saying her suggested revisions were crucial to obtaining an acceptable outcome.

"The episode showed we did have teeth and we weren't afraid to take on big charities such as the Tate in a constructive way," says Peacock.

A statement from the Tate says it had been happy for the report to be published, but Serota and Myners felt the press release contained "sensationalism" and did not reflect the tone of the report.

The statement says Myners made a "quite reasonable series of requests, admittedly put very strongly". A spokeswoman for the Tate denies that Myners addressed Peacock as a 'girl'. "It's not the kind of language he would use," she says.

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