Sue Killen interview: A change of direction for Change Grow Live

As the drug and alcohol treatment charity prepares to take on a new chair and a fresh crop of trustees, Rebecca Cooney finds out how the sector behemoth plans to work effectively with others

Sue Killen
Sue Killen

Many people treat the coming of a new year as an opportunity to mark a turning point, which will bring in a new era in their life – and it seems the drug and alcohol charity Change Grow Live is planning to do much the same thing.

In January, the charity will gain a new chair, as well as adding four new members to its 10-strong trustee board, and it plans to recruit more trustees later in 2022.

The move will build on recent changes to the charity’s staffing – it recently reduced its executive team by two roles and then created four new director roles, with the aim, it says, of strengthening the organisation’s structures.

Sue Killen, former chief executive of St John Ambulance, is CGL’s chair-in-waiting and has been involved in the recruitment of her fellow future board members.

She’s full of praise for the existing board and the current chair, Mike Pringle, but she’s equally enthusiastic about the new recruits, and hopes the changeover will bring “a rush of energy” to the organisation.

“You never want to have too many people leaving at once because you destabilise good governance, but having new people coming in all the time is part of the lifeblood of a charity,” Killen says.

And the refreshed board will support the charity in what she describes as a change in direction, something chief executive Mark Moody is already working on.

With this change of direction, she says, the charity will focus on “being more outward-facing, linking more with other parts of the sector, seeing the government more as a partner and working with Collective Voice, the umbrella body for alcohol and drug treatment providers”.

Through her interactions with CGL so far, Killen says: “I get the impression of an organisation that has been really good at what it does, but has taken quite a ‘heads down’ approach.”

Working with government

Killen believes the charity could be doing a lot more in terms of sharing its experiences with others if it wants to take the sector forward.

“An important part of drug and alcohol services and the kind of work we do with young people around early intervention and mental health is that it has to be evidence-based,” she says.

“We have a certain amount of information within CGL, but there is a collective need to share data across the sector, because that way we can drive forward treatment services overall and make sure they’re commissioned even more effectively.”

The drug and alcohol treatment sector is currently at what Killen describes as a “once-in-a-generation moment, where we get the traction and support we need or we lose momentum all together”.

A report from the independent review of drugs led by Dame Carol Black was published in July, and organisations working in the area are waiting to see what the government’s response will be.

The report concluded that current provision for prevention, treatment and recovery from addiction is “not fit for purpose, and urgently needs repair”.

It called for “a whole-system approach” to the issue, with increased funding for treatment and recovery services, as well as co-ordinated action by multiple government departments with a single minister responsible for drug policy holding them to account.

It also said addiction should be recognised as a chronic health condition, which, like other long-term conditions, requires long-term follow-up.

CGL contributed to the review and has endorsed its findings. All hopes are now pinned on whether the government implements the recommendations in its upcoming spending review.

For Killen, this crucial moment highlights how important it is for the charity to be able to work effectively with the government.

“The way charities interact with government tends to be not at a big policy level. It’s more about if a civil servant is sitting in a department and wants to be effective in what they're doing in a policy area, why wouldn’t they speak to the charities who are players there and are part of how their solution will be delivered,” she says.

“The same goes for charities – if you can influence policy effectively, through evidence-based campaigning, that’s going to drive even more charitable outcomes.”

But, she acknowledges, the pandemic has made it difficult to assess whether that government and charity relationship is functioning as she believes it should.

“It’s been a strange time – the news agenda has been driven in a different way over the past 18 months,” she says.

Even so, she says, the Black review has generated a lot of optimism.

The issues raised by the report are familiar to Killen. A former civil servant, she was the director of the UK Anti-Drugs Co-ordination Unit, the government’s drugs strategy team, 20 years ago.

Even though she moved on to the Department for Transport in 2003 and then into the charity sector, it was a cause that stayed close to her heart.

When the CGL role came up, she jumped at the opportunity to add it to her portfolio of governance work (she’s also chair of the Katy Piper Foundation and the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, as well as having previously chaired the grantmaker Clarion Futures).

In some respects there seems to have been relatively little progress made since she was with the Anti-Drugs Co-ordination Unit, she says.

“One of my last meetings when I left was going up to Scotland to talk about drug-related deaths because they were too high – and now I’m reading in my briefing pack that they are currently at an eight-year high,” she says.

But, she says, the landscape has certainly shifted in terms of who is offering the treatments.

“It’s great to see the things that have been successful,” she says.

“Back then, it was right at the beginning of these big treatment providers starting to massively grow, and the charity sector has really taken on the role of being champions of drug and alcohol treatment as the government has slightly moved out of the space.

“This is an area where the charity sector has expanded and driven delivery.”

A new approach

But the size of the organisations involved has been a bone of contention in the sector.

In the year to 31 March 2021, CGL had an income of £219.1m, of which £217.8m came from government contracts, and the charity reported a total of 3,741 employees in its accounts. By December 2020, it had an adult caseload of 61,983 people – up by 13.3 per cent on 2019 as lockdown pushed more people to seek treatment.

Many smaller organisations accuse giants like CGL of hoovering up contracts, undercutting smaller service providers who have specialist local knowledge and driving them out of the market.

So what does this mean for the new “outward-facing” CGL?

Killen says she believes working alongside smaller organisations will be vital.

“We’ve got to network with small charities, other providers and other bits of the public sector if we’re going to meet the needs of our client group,” she says.

And just as the Black review calls for greater integration between government departments to provide integrated holistic support around housing, employment and other services, Killen says the same approach is needed at a local level.

“There’s always this debate between small and large in the charity sector, not just drug and alcohol; but I think the sector is stronger because it has both, and they both bring different things to it – it’s about supporting and engaging with others at the right time,” she says.

“Charities are a really rich mix of how they do things. The great thing is how they adapt but retain that relentless focus on the people they are there to serve.”

While it may not be a huge comfort to those who are suspicious of the size and clout CGL has in its field, Killen says she was won over by her interactions with the charity and “the genuineness of how they operate” during her appointment.

“They are really up for working alongside other organisations – if they weren’t I wouldn’t have wanted to join them in the first place,” she says.

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