Newsmaker: Relating to the Compact

Mathew Little

Angela Sibson Chief executive, Commission for the Compact - Will use education and understanding to improve relations with government.

Is it by chance that the person chosen by the Government to improve the occasionally fractious partnership between charities and state is a sex therapist? Depending on your perspective, Angela Sibson's background as chief executive of Relate, the relationship and sex counselling charity, is either irrelevant or speaks Freudian volumes about the fraught yet dependent relationship between voluntary worker and bureaucrat.

Sibson herself is clear she will apply some of the techniques learnt in her seven years at Relate to a new set of clients when she takes up the post of chief executive of the Commission for the Compact after Christmas.

"In Relate, one of the frameworks we have for working with relationships concerns exploration and understanding," she says. "You explore the issues, you understand their implications and then you work together to produce a plan of action to address them. It's not a bad paradigm to follow for this task as well."

Understanding is a word she uses a lot. Her approach will not be to wield a big stick with the public sector - she has no stick to wield - but to promote appreciation of each side's situation and needs as a first step on the road to an amicable relationship.

"If you want someone to adopt something, they have to go through a series of phases in their own lives," she says. "Understanding, acceptance, acceptance of the relevance of what's being said to that person in that context, and them having the power to act on that collective understanding. It's by no means clear that all parties in this can tick those four boxes."

At Relate, Sibson has had what she calls "live experience" of Compact problems with the Department for Education and Skills, but she believes that Compact breaches do not happen wilfully. She thinks they are caused by lack of awareness of the consequences that the actions of government can have on voluntary organisations on the ground.

"I don't think the DfES, or any civil servants, want to make decisions that make life difficult for the organisations they fund," she says. "There's this sense that everybody is trying to do a good job, but people are dancing to different rhythms."

It's clear that neither Sibson nor her chair, John Stoker, the former head of the Charity Commission, who was appointed as Compact Commissioner in September, are the Rottweiler that some in the sector had hoped would snap at the heels of Compact miscreants to make up for a lack for formal powers. But what if sweet reason fails? Would naming and shaming be appropriate for habitual offenders?

"I'm a long way from that," says Sibson. "People are mentioning things such as sanctions. But in the voluntary sector, when people are not behaving in a socially responsible way, then we are the ones who advocate an educative response. So it shouldn't be too hard to understand that the right approach is educative, reasoning and demonstrating added value."

She says that, for the immediate future, the Compact will be seen as a set of problems that need to be solved. In time, however, the commission will develop a "body of intellectual capital" - from research to training courses - that both voluntary and public bodies will be able to use from day to day to enhance their relationships.

Until then, Sibson will make the case for treating the voluntary sector well. "I'd be interested in how someone would construct an argument in the public services that the Compact doesn't matter," she says. "I'd be interested to know how a person would do that. Maybe one day that's a question we'll have to ask."

- See At Work Partnerships, page 29

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