Will the winds of change blow through charities following the appointment of William Shawcross as Chair of the Charities Commission?
I had been keeping tabs on this one because the appointment of Shawcross ruffled a number of feathers in political and charity circles. Shawcross was seen by some as being particularly partisan. However, the appointment of individuals with strong political views, or party political types to quangos is not something new. Indeed, Shawcross’s predecessor, Suzi Leather was a member of the Labour Party. The appointment of Shawcross split the Public Administration Select Committee, as the formal minutes of the Committee’s meeting on page 14 here show. This vote was preceded by a particularly ill-tempered hearing to cross-examine Shawcross, with MPs (and followers of Puffles!) Paul Flynn (Lab) and Greg Mulholland (LD) being notable in their opposition.
What’s Shawcross going to be like?
We get a feel of this from his speech to the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO). Things worth noting in that speech are his views on religious charities, transparency and the headline-grabbing line on his views about the relationship between charities and the state. He states explicitly that his personal view is that some charities have become too dependent on the state – either for grants or for public service contracts. Concern about this is not new. I first stumbled across this issue in civil service policy world, noting a threshold of government funding which, if a charity crossed it would also find itself with the status of non-departmental public body. The two charities I had dealings with during those days were NESTA and the Community Development Foundation. Since the Coalition came in, the strings that binded both organisations to the state have been significantly loosened.
Shawcross’ speech is particularly interesting in the overview of history – citing that there was no ‘golden age’ where charities did good stuff on the ground but refrained from any sort of political engagement. Indeed, it reminds me of the quotation attributed to the South American cleric Hélder Pessoa Câmara:
“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
Given the scale of the cuts as well as the ongoing economic crisis, charities are caught between a rock and a hard place. Demands on their services have spiked, income and donations are falling. Under such twin pressures, the incentive to speak out about such pressures is intense. The challenge is how to do so without alienating ministers while at the same time not alienating your core support – including small donors and volunteers. It’s all too easy for things to become party political – especially when you look at the links that some MPs have with charities. Indeed, there are numerous examples of MPs having worked for charities before becoming MPs.
The model of the state contracting out service delivery to charities
Again, this is not new – but in recent decades led to some worries that this would constrain the independence of charities to criticise the government of the day. While procurement rules prevent ministerial/political intervention in public contracts, it is very easy for politicians to freeze out charities that they do not like or do not agree with. The relationship between independent schools and the Labour administration was regularly in the charity press headlines. Shawcross, in line with the changing political winds since 2010 has sought to reassure such schools.
From a public administration perspective, if a charity is already running a sound service to people with a particular need, does it not make more sense to contract with them to provide wider service provision rather than set up a separate operation through the state? This was the thinking during the Blair era. Hence opening up delivery to non-state actors.
Separating campaigning from service delivery
This is mainly an issue for the larger charities, and in part is around separating personal relationships with politicians and ministers from the day-to-day public service delivery work. One thing that is not in the public interest is where the ups and downs of personal relationships or campaigning issues with politicians has a negative impact on service delivery. Those on the front line are the ones with the most to lose when things go wrong. Given Shawcross’ comments, will the sector need to look even more closely at how it separates these two strands of activities? Quite possibly, given the desire from ministers for voluntary organisations to take over the running of some public services.
Transparency and accountability
This has been an issue for me since before my university days: How do people find out where their charitable pounds are going? In his speech, Shawcross cited SightSavers International as an example of a charity increasing its transparency with what it publishes. This is not a bad thing. Surely most of the arguments for transparency in the public sector apply to the voluntary sector too? At least that way you increase the chances of informed scrutiny, and make bad things more difficult to cover up. Hence increasing the likelihood they are nipped in the bud.
There is a capacity issue for the sector. However, my take is that such transparency can help improve systems and processes. Not only that, a number of people – in particular those at the top – are on salaries large enough to require such transparency so as to aid accountability. It’s also my view around all things digital and social media: Some people within the sector are on salaries large enough that within their job descriptions it should be standard that an understanding and experience of using digital and social media should be on their job descriptions.
For the duration of his time at the Charity Commission, I expect Shawcross will be as controversial to Labour just as Leather was to the Conservatives. The challenge for Shawcross is to protect the Commission from party political interference in the organisation’s job as regulator, as well as to be its (and the sector’s) champion in the face of tough political and economic times.