OPINION: Honesty is the hardest policy

LISA HARKER, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

What has your organisation achieved in the last year? It can be a pretty brutal question. Most organisations can rustle up a list of achievements for the annual report. But asked to assess performance against a list of objectives and - let's face it - it's more comfortable to opt for self-congratulation than to undertake a scrupulously fair assessment of organisational performance.

Yet the sector is hardly lacking in self-criticism, indeed some organisations are all-consumed by it. But thorough and honest assessments of performance are pretty rare. We all too often skate over difficult issues or count outputs rather than outcomes as measures of performance. Organisations pat themselves on the back for running events, publishing documents and gaining media coverage, but rarely ask themselves whether anything is gained by doing these things?

There are few external pressures for charities to improve performance.

Charities are not subject to the ruthlessness of either the consumer market or the ballot box.

Of course, the charitable sector as a whole is more professional than ever. Some charities have already started to regularly assess their impact systematically - the RNID's annual impact report is particularly impressive.

But there is also a defensiveness within the sector that is both unnecessary and unhelpful. A recent article in The Times suggesting that big charities had lost their sense of mission was roundly criticised by the sector's leaders. But we should acknowledge that some charities, large and small, have a stronger sense of survival than purpose.

Among the many recommendations of the Strategy Unit's report, there is a proposal that each charity should submit an annual standard information return, outlining achievements against objectives and assessing the charity's overall level of impact. No other sector has to provide such a regular public assessment of its performance. But then again, being committed to achieve change is the very reason why many people work for a charity in the first place.

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