News in focus: The critical report that never was

Stephen Cook

A report on the Charity Commission pulled no punches, so why is the revise so upbeat?

A few weeks ago, a 66-page report called A New Vision for Regulation was delivered to the Charity Commission by DHA Communications, a Merseyside consultancy hired last autumn to survey the views of 75 of the commission's main stakeholders.

It was a detailed document that pulled no punches. It said the new leadership of the commission was widely welcomed and that people praised some of its services and staff, but a reader's eye was drawn inevitably to one key figure: 44 per cent of stakeholders said the organisation was not doing a good job.

One early paragraph seemed to set the tone. "A majority of respondents say they believe the commission has significant scope for improvement," it said. "The clear message from many respondents is that the commission is rigid, out-of-touch, inaccessible, old- fashioned and lacking in focus."

Last week, the commission posted a 19-page version of the document on its website (Third Sector, 20 April). It contains a central section that gives the main themes of the earlier version in an abridged form. Other parts, including the introduction and conclusion, are substantially different.

Positive tone

All the figures - including the 44 per cent dissatisfaction finding - have been removed, and the tone is much more upbeat. "All agree," it concludes, "that with a dynamic and engaging regulator, charities and public confidence will flourish, and they welcome the changes that the Charity Commission is already starting to make."

So what happened in between? On one interpretation, it was the normal process of a consultant and a client discussing a piece of work and finding the best final version to present to the world - a process usually hidden from view. More cynical observers might see it as a fairly hard-nosed re-prioritisation of the facts.

The first view is the one taken by the commission and the report's author, Daniel Harris. He delivered the report, went on holiday to the US, and returned to urgent messages from commission chairman Geraldine Peacock. She was concerned that the report was too long, that it contained all-too-familiar criticisms and that it was hard on staff who had already taken a battering from all sides.

Crucially, she felt the timing of the original report was unfortunate: during the months it was in production, things were happening to tackle the problems it was turning up, many of which were familiar. Chief executive Andrew Hind was appointed last September, and an intense period of change was under way that led to the recent strategic review (Third Sector, 23 March).

Harris says: "We had a meeting at which the commission said it was looking for a report that helped it move forward and asked, without any arm-twisting, whether we could bear in mind the advances that had already been made.

"I accept that sort of thing, and these reports are always produced in discussion with the people with whom we work. We worked for the commission, the process was honest, open and fair, and it owns the results.

"It would have been very easy to write a damning report. We could have put in the figure of nearly 50 per cent saying it wasn't doing a good job, that it was bureaucratic and had low skills and so on, and everyone would have said 'tell us something new'. But our brief was to help the commission move forward, and that wouldn't have helped. So we focused on the strategic task and how to solve the commission's problems.

"Everything in the report is independent, and if the commission had tried to censor it I would have published the real version straight away."

Agenda for the future

Commission chief executive Andrew Hind says the final report, which draws out more clearly what the future agenda should be, was not a process of watering down the first version, but of focusing on what was asked for in the first place.

"We wanted ideas on priorities for the coming years, and I think we've got that," he says. "Much of what the report says chimes with the kind of ideas we're developing anyway, and there are some phrases and chunks of text that carry over from the report to our strategy document."

Changing the image and identity of a dinosaur such as the Charity Commission was never going to be easy, and no doubt there will be bigger blips than this as the process continues. One message from this episode, perhaps, is that the process is being pursued in a determined and forceful way, and both parties appear to agree that the uneasy story of the report that never was has had a satisfactory ending.

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