John Stoker: Compact commissioner

The first Compact commissioner outlines to Maria Ahmed his plans to be the peace broker between government and third sector

Age: 55
2005: chief executive, London Bombings Relief Charitable Fund.
1999-2004: chief charity commissioner for England and Wales.
1998: National Lottery regulator.
1997: Deputy director of the National Lottery.
1992-6: Regional director for the regeneration of Merseyside.
1973: Joined civil service.
Biggest achievement: Raising £12m for London bombings victims.
Most admires: Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, for his longevity and management skills.

Propinquity is John Stoker’s favourite word. Meaning “closeness”, it sums up the key challenge of his role as the first Compact commissioner, in which he will be expected to improve the sometimes fraught relationship between the government and voluntary sector.

Stoker, a career civil servant and a former chief charity commissioner who starts his new job on 1 October, says he wants to encourage a “meeting of minds”.

It could be a difficult task.

Since the non-statutory Compact agreement containing guidance on transactions between the government and voluntary sector was drawn up eight years ago, it has had a mixed record. Lack of enforcement has set organisations at loggerheads with government, most recently over the Department of Health’s delay in releasing £17m to health and social care to charities that put it in breach of Compact guidelines on funding.

After the role was first mooted last year, charity leaders expressed hopes that it could act as a watchdog over breaches of the Compact and confront government bodies.

But Stoker, who will work two days a week for his £40,000 a year, describes his role as enabler rather than ombudsman or regulator.

He says: “I have the chance to say anything to any people, including ministers. I want to look at problems from a standpoint of independence from both sides and act as an interpreter. I won’t shirk criticism, but make it in a positive way that helps development. Where problems crop up, I hope for dialogue.”

Among Stoker’s priorities will be “listening intensively” to people in government and the voluntary sector to see what issues arise, and building trust and confidence in his role.

He will also appoint a chief executive for the Office of the Compact Commissioner, which has yet to be established.

Stoker believes there is a consensus in Whitehall and the voluntary sector that it is a “better world” with the Compact in it, but more needs to be done to make it work.

He is keen to see some proper research into what progress the Compact has made – as this remains piecemeal so far – although there is a “certain amount of wisdom and experience” from which to learn.

Stoker sees improving the Compact as key at a time when the government is promising the voluntary sector a greater role in public service delivery.

“This is about getting away from top-down state services to services with a human face,” he says.

Alongside this, he can also see the voluntary sector’s need for independence, as set out in the Compact.

“Organisations ask what taking the king’s shilling will mean for their ability to agitate, but there are ways of coping with these uncertainties.”

Stoker believes the relationship between the government and voluntary sector can become closer if lines of communication are improved between leaders and people procuring services on the ground. He says: “There is a need to package the Compact as a real live issue relevant to what people are doing.”

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