Mark Gifford: “The NCS wants to be a collaborative partner, not a competitor”

The chief executive of the National Citizen Service on rebuilding trust in challenging times

The boss of the National Citizen Service has vowed to build trust and emerge as a collaborative partner with the charity sector as the youth programme adapts to the challenges faced by Covid-19.

Mark Gifford became the chief executive of NCS on 2 March, just two weeks before the UK went into a national lockdown.

The proud Mancunian admits it has been a steep learning curve after more than a decade in senior retail leadership positions – at John Lewis and, more recently, as director for shop trade at Waitrose & Partners. 

“When [the NCS role] came up it was not because I was an expert in the youth sector,” Gifford says. 

“What I think it needed was great leadership, and someone who can manage change and deliver goals at cost. I’m here to help make it both more customer- and youth-focused.”

Outside of work Gifford, 49, has always had a passion for the development of young people, including helping to turn around the Ofsted rating at a school he chaired, and acting as the safeguarding lead at his son’s junior football club.

The NCS normally runs its residential youth programme during school holidays every summer and autumn, but the coronavirus pandemic brought operational and funding challenges. The programme was repurposed into a free offer for young people, with a greater focus on digital skills. 

“For those that wanted to give back, NCS teens volunteered for park and beach cleans, supporting food banks, worked in charity shops and supported the lonely. They are still delivering social action projects in their communities today,” Gifford explains. 

He says young people delivered just short of 200,000 hours of their time in August alone, and the success of its new initiative has given the organisation ideas for how it can increase participation, which had fallen for the first time in 2019, in the age of social distancing.

‘We will continue to build relations with schools [and] key stakeholders as well as continue our recruitment through our marketing efforts,” Gifford says.

“Prior to Covid-19 the numbers for 2020 were on track to achieve modest growth. Our comprehensive spending review submission has a pathway to grow our numbers on reduced costs.”

He admits that the NCS had some work to do to rebuild trust in the sector after a dispute with a former regional delivery partner, The Challenge, led to a failure to allocate about 4,000 young people a place on the programme, despite being told they would have one.

The dispute resulted in a £2.8m out-of-court settlement and resulted in The Challenge going into administration after it lost the £60m contract.

“We want to be seen as a collaborative partner, not a competitor, and build relationships with our recommissioned partner network based on trust, openness, and feedback; and doing what you say you will do when you say you will do it, and building mutually beneficial relationships.”

Gifford says NCS will be an advocate for partners within government going forward. Some in the network were more reliant on funding than others, he explains, especially during the current crisis.

“We have reached out directly to partners asking them to inform us of any pressing financial pressures they are currently facing as we await the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review.

“The challenge for our network is that the review coincides with when money would normally be distributed for next year.”

The NCS will not begin any 2021 recruitment until the Chancellors review is published later in the year, but Gifford says the NCS will still honour its contractual obligations during this period. 

He is also keen to address previous criticisms of the youth programme on its delivery and value for money. 

He points out that the NCS gives back £3.49 in benefits to society for every £1 spent, and that all its accounts are scrutinised by the National Audit Office.

Gifford says the NCS has reduced its head office costs by 25 per cent since he started, but he hopes the trust can do more to share its value and the impact it has.

“That’s why I’ve been brought in: more youth engagement and greater value for money, he says. I have cut a lot of fat within the system and to help create a better pathway to grow and to get money to others in the sector, because that's where our advantage is. We recognise the need to be prudent in these challenging times.”

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