Profile: Paula Sussex, the new chief executive of the Charity Commission

People think Sussex is making the Charity Commission sharper and more efficient, but sector figures who spoke to Stephen Cook are eager to know more about her views on policy and her relationship with the board

Paula Sussex
Paula Sussex

When it was announced in April that Paula Sussex had been appointed chief executive of the Charity Commission, there was no mistaking the enthusiasm of William Shawcross, the commission's chair, who was on the interview panel that chose her. "I think she will be terrific," he declared. It was a fair bet that ministers were pleased as well, not least because the appointment chimed with the government's current preference of attracting more people into public service who have worked for the private sector.

The announcement was greeted more warily by some sector leaders, who acknowledged that Sussex had impressive credentials in consultancy and the provision of outsourced IT services to governments and public bodies but were concerned about her limited experience of charities. She had been a trustee of Crisis and a member of its finance committee between 2003 and 2009 – the then chief executive, when consulted, gave her a good report – but that was it.

Four months into the job, how is she getting on? Her own answer to this question is not available because she has declined to give interviews: she is said to be unused to dealing with the media, disconcerted by the amount of press attention the commission attracts and confirmed in her reluctance to speak by any coverage she perceives as negative. Whether her position will change remains to be seen: her two predecessors were less inhibited about the press.

But even without the benefit of interviews, it is clear that since she started the job at the end of June, Sussex has been concentrating on getting to grips with the commission's internal agenda and getting to know the sector and its leaders. The internal activity has resulted in a restructure of senior management, so that five people now report directly to her rather than 11, and the drawing up of a new strategic approach to the commission's work, with an emphasis on tough regulation that gives charities less benefit of the doubt.

External work has included taking part in a round-table event with small charities at the Directory of Social Change, speaking at a charity finance conference, fronting the commission's annual public meeting and going to an Eid dinner with Muslim charity leaders. She has also met and listened to a range of people, including some of the commission's fiercest critics and slept out for a night for Action for Children.

Among those who have met her so far, there is a consensus that Sussex is keen to learn, good at listening, open-minded, intellectually sharp and attuned to the importance of staff morale in an organisation battered by criticism and budget cuts. There is also agreement that she is ideally qualified to carry through the managerial task of making the commission run more efficiently and extend its use of IT.

The policy underlying that task – that the sector should concentrate on its core regulatory functions – is one that Sussex has endorsed in public statements (see "The tasks ahead", below). It is less clear to those who have met her where she stands on wider questions, put on the agenda by Shawcross or members of his board, which have worried some in the sector. In speeches and interviews they have indicated concern about – among other things – public service delivery and political campaigning by charities and the pay of senior executives.

She is working exceptionally hard to get up to speed and takes great pains over things. And she has a great sense of humour

Debra Allcock Tyler, Directory of Social Change

Some speculate that she shares these concerns and point out how well she works with Shawcross. Others have gained the impression that she has not arrived with a pre-set policy agenda and is allowing herself time to make up her mind on policy matters while she concentrates first on the area considered most urgent – implementing more effective regulatory systems. "I think she does have views on policy matters but needs a few more miles before she reveals them," says one observer. "And I don't think she's the kind of person who would just keep quiet and do as she's told."

Previous profile

When her appointment was announced, there was one item in the public domain that shed some light on Sussex – a video on YouTube of her presentation, called "Rebuilding a Brand for a Changing World", to the Chartered Management Institute conference in 2012, when she was senior vice-president of CGI, the Canadian firm that had recently acquired Logica, the biggest UK information technology services company, for £17bn to become the world's sixth-largest IT provider.

She comes over in the video as self-possessed but also keen to appear human by throwing in some salty language ("we're having a shit time providing services to the public sector") and some mock-provocative remarks about the "sandal-wearing, sometimes Gauloise-smoking" creative types in IT.

Those present at her recent public appearances in her new job have witnessed much the same persona: confident, professional, focused and given to the occasional quip or a teasing remark about a colleague. Third Sector's reporter at the commission's annual public meeting thought she seemed "in her element" as she introduced other speakers and choreographed proceedings.

In the video of her presentation, her remarks about CGI were complimentary – "good old-fashioned business sense, authenticity, integrity" – but her slightly jaundiced remarks about the persistently tight market in government outsourcing could be interpreted as a prelude to her application, less than a year later, for the commission job. Her motives for the move have inevitably been a matter of speculation, especially given that the drop in salary to £130,000 is likely to have been significant.

One person who has met her speculates that she might have ambitions to be a senior civil servant and is using the commission as a route into Whitehall: "She seems terribly efficient and corporate, quite a cold fish, with no sense of passion about her job."

Another says Sussex might simply want to do something for the public good: "There comes a point where money isn't the most important thing and you're thinking about making a difference to society as well as your bank balance. I imagine she's in a position where she's able to do that."

Another acquaintance says Sussex has been characterised as a technocrat and feels that's too strong a word: "But she's evidently not a sector person and what lights her fire seems to be making things more efficient within the commission, rather than what's going on inside charities. It's not quite clear why she decided to take on this job – you can see it's not her passion; it's not in her DNA."

Whatever her motives, there has been little surprise in the sector about her provenance. "Shawcross had signalled he wanted someone with good management expertise," says one sector leader. "I always felt it would be someone from outside, against the tradition, with experience both of the commercial sector and of working with government – and she has brought both those skills.

"It's pretty clear when you speak to her that she's very down to earth and doesn't play games. That's very helpful. She wants to keep lines of communication open and seems to appreciate honest feedback. So I think she's a person you can do business with. I also think she's a warmer person than people give her credit for. There's a bit of a twinkle in her eye."

Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive of the Directory of Social Change, thinks it was wrong to appoint someone with so little experience of the sector. "But she is working exceptionally hard to get up to speed and takes great pains over things," she says. "She pays a great deal of attention to what's said to her. I might not always agree with everything she does, but she's moving swiftly – for example, over the management structure. And she has a great sense of humour, with a very dry take on things."

Another observer also declares himself impressed: "She's a different animal altogether from her predecessor, Sam Younger, who was a more of a civil servant. There's a sharper edge to her. The work of the commission is now summarised in three lines. It's a no-nonsense approach – she seems to know what she wants to achieve. And someone coming in from the private sector is no bad thing – you don't want things to be just a cosy club."

This widespread appreciation of Sussex's sense of purpose and efficiency is thought to have played a part in the Treasury announcing recently that the commission will be allowed an extra £8m over the next three years, much of which will be used to accelerate digitisation of services and release staff for priority work in regulation.

There is also growing optimism in the commission that a study of its work by the National Audit Office, following up its critical verdict at the end of 2013, will result in a more positive report in the new year. Some speculate that Sussex is cannily saving up any interviews for when she has a good story to tell; others doubt that this is a deliberate plan.

Views on policy

But conversations with those who have met her tend to return to the question of policy and her relationship with the board. "So far I don't have any sense of what she thinks about the policy dilemmas," says one observer. "I get the impression she has a rather formal view – the board's responsibility is policy and the political area, and her job is to deliver in the operational area. That's different from her predecessors, who were involved in policy and expressed a view publicly.

The benefit of the doubt is something we can't give to charities, and something the public is starting to say it can't give

Extract from speech, 7 October 2014

"She possibly thinks she needs to settle in and get the house in order first, but in the longer term she can't stay out of policy. The board is the principal driver, but the chief executive must be drawn in. So the issue is, will we ever see the policy side to her? And if we do, what will it be?"

Another informant suspects she has no influence on, or interest in, what he calls the "ideological excesses" of the board. "I think it's more likely that she's just very managerial and will leave all that policy stuff to the board and get on with running the show more efficiently.

"But the commission does actually need someone to make sure the board doesn't interfere and to keep them under control. Even under Sam Younger they were feeling free to do things like raise issues brought to them by their friends or try to impose their opinions about the RSPCA or tweets by Oxfam."

A third observer adds: "I think Sussex has the job of winning back territory from the board and preventing its interest in certain issues, such as overseas aid and Syria, overshadowing the commission's role with the sector as a whole."

A fourth concurs: "The potential weak point is not her, but the nature of her relationship with the board and whether they let her get on with her job. History does not suggest that it will. They started to interfere under Sam; if they do it with Paula, I don't know if it will be met with short shrift, as it should be. The strength and quality of that relationship will be the test of whether it will all work."

The story so far: The view from Sussex on her first 100 days

Promoting compliance by trustees and holding charities more rigorously to account was at the heart of a new strategic approach to regulation by the commission, Paula Sussex asserted at a charity finance conference in October.

She said the approach was prompted by demands from the public for greater accountability by charities, increased scrutiny by the National Audit Office and MPs, and a 50 per cent cut in real terms to the commission's budget.

To illustrate progress so far, she said that 64 charities had been placed under inquiry in 2013/14, compared with 15 the previous year, and the commission's statutory powers had been used 540 times during inquiries, compared with 216 in 2012/13.

The next tasks, she said, included better use of data to assess risk and taking an increasingly proactive approach to case work. More low-risk services for charities would be digitised and streamlined.

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