Newsmaker: Getting to know you - Jitinder Kohli, Head of Active Communities Directorate, Home Office

Stephen Cook

If you're a small voluntary organisation in Stafford, don't be surprised if you get a visit before long from an intense, fast-talking young man who wants to know all about your day-to-day experience and what keeps you awake at night.

This will be Jitinder Kohli, head of the Active Communities Directorate in the Home Office, trying to find out what makes the voluntary sector tick at local level. "I want to lead a directorate that spends more time out and about," he says.

"That is the way we will become effective in our work, by understanding what's on the mind of the voluntary sector. I'm one of the breed of civil servants that believes evidence-based policy-making is the way forward."

It won't necessarily be Stafford - Kohli uses the Midlands town as a metaphor for life outside the metropolitan goldfish bowl with its lobbyists, pressure groups and umbrella bodies.

"The umbrella bodies do often have their finger on the pulse, but I believe in triangulation," he says. "It's a surveying term. You gather information from various sources, and if they tell you the same thing you have a much harder, deeper evidence base."

At 32, Kohli is one of the youngest people of his seniority in the civil service. He arrived at the ACD last autumn after a stint in the Treasury.

Having earlier run the Home Office Community Cohesion Unit, he was keen to return to a role where he could get out more.

He arrived just as the directorate completed its expansion from a £15m unit five years ago to one with a budget of £150m and 60 staff, some of them more senior than before. He's divided it into three sections: the Charities Bill unit, the volunteering and charitable giving unit and the Active Communities Unit, which deals with capacity-building and public service delivery.

The charitable giving work is ex-perimental, he says, and is looking at whether the Government puts up barriers to giving: "We might be reducing it slightly if we think it's all about tax. The team is talking to a lot of people, trying to understand it better."

Kohli sees the ACD as a sort of meta-unit in the Government - based in the Home Office, but operating across all departments to promote the interests of the voluntary and community sector. "We're trying to be a stronger influence in Whitehall," he says.

"The fact we've now got more senior staff is important because you need more people who can have often difficult conversations with other government departments in order to champion the sector effectively."

One success on this front, he says, is the obscurely named Local Area Agreement Advice Note 1, which tells local authorities to start measuring how much they spend on the voluntary sector. Similarly, there's the Regional Development Agencies Tasking Framework, managing the wind-down of local Single Regeneration Budgets.

"These things are often much bigger in their impact on voluntary organisations than the programmes that make the headlines," says Kohli. "From where the press are sitting, it's easier to talk about something like ChangeUp, which is an important piece of capacity-building, than to dig up all these little words and weird government documents.

"But they are important. So we'll try to understand the effect of such programmes on the voluntary sector, and then try to influence and improve their impact."

The message to Stafford is clear: make a list of all the unnecessary bureacracy that makes your life difficult, hand it over to Kohli, and he'll try to get the Government and local and public authorities to act more sensibly. Even for a 32-year-old high-flyer, it's an ambitious agenda.

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