The Big Interview: Compact commissioner Sir Bert Massie

The Compact Commission has had its fair share of controversy, not least the resignation of its first commissioner John Stoker and chief executive Angela Sibson within weeks of each other last year.

Stoker cited personal reasons for his resignation and if there were any work-related explanations then new Compact commissioner Sir Bert Massie can’t shed any light on this, and “wouldn’t, even if I knew”.

However, he’s keen to stress that when he arrived at the commission “there was no question of organisational crisis, it had settled”, and praises interim commissioner Helen Baker for doing a great job.

Massie arrived in the job two months ago after being headhunted. He’d already seen the advertisement and was mulling it over – no surprise considering he’s been involved in the third sector for most of his life.

“I thought the Compact wasn’t achieving what it could and the commission had had a rough ride since it was formed and thought it was a challenge. If it hadn’t been I wouldn’t have bothered.”

He needn’t worry about the lack of challenges. During its 10-year history, the Compact has been widely criticised for failing to live up to its premise that it would improve relationships between the statutory and voluntary sectors by encouraging agreements between the two that would lead to improved services.

Massie acknowledges the criticisms but is not too despondent. “Many think it is working well and equally many think it isn’t. We need to look at the limitations and see what we can do where it isn’t working well.”

There’s also been disappointment from the third sector that highlighting best practice seemed a greater priority for Stoker than exposing bodies in breach of their Compact obligations. Massie believes they are equally important, the problem is that, as a voluntary agreement, not even he has the right to hold a Compact partner to account.

“The government is committed to it, the voluntary sector wants it to work so therefore you have to look at those who don’t work on Compact principles and ask why. It could be that they don’t believe it is relevant to them, or they can’t be bothered.”

But before you can name and shame you need information and Massie was surprised at the lack of data on how often Compact obligations are breached. Predictably, calls for the commission to have statutory powers are not new. But on this topic Massie will only go as far as to say, “I don’t believe the current situation is tenable in the long term so something has to change.”

To this end, he is looking at several options: the Compact being included in performance indicators statutory powers and ombudsman-like powers so that the commission can call for papers.

He will be making recommendations to ministers “sooner rather than later”.

But he is resolute in his belief that there have been successes. “Where it has worked well it has given the third sector a great deal more influence in local authority decision-making and enabled councils to draw on a skill-set and people that they wouldn’t normally have access to.

“It’s how you get people to realise that the Compact is in everybody’s interest. An awful lot is about people respecting each other and the Compact tries to drive this working relationship. Where it isn’t working well we need to work out how much that is down to systems, political leadership, or personalities, for example.

He sees one of his challenges as making sure that the Compact is up-to-date and revived so that it becomes part of everyone’s engrained thinking. “It needs to be hard-wired into people so it becomes an influential document.”

When Stoker resigned, Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, said the Compact needed “a Genghis Khan not a mandarin”. Does Massie see himself as the Genghis Khan of the social care world?

“Genghis Khan had a certain ruthlessness which damaged his reputation. But he was a good manager – he united tribes on the flats after his mother was killed and had a good way of engineering loyalty from his troops.

“If I interpret what Stephen was probably implying it’s that the commission needs a sense of not just being neutral but going out and promoting the Compact and recognising that where it fails we need to look at whether that’s on the statutory or voluntary sector side, or both. They needed someone with a greater campaigning stance.”

This stance will hold him in good stead as he seeks to make the commission a more solid organisation with enhanced powers during his three-year tenure.

“I want people to see the Compact as a document that isn’t a threat but a tool to ease relationships between a number of parties with the purpose of enabling all of us to deliver services in a better way and create a better Britain.

“I see this as a plant ready to blossom.”

What is the compact?

The Compact is the agreement between government and the voluntary and community sector to improve their relationship for the benefit of services and policies. The Commission for the Compact’s main aim is the effective implementation of the Compact through the use of codes of good practice.

Relevant articles

Conservative plans for the Compact

Archive of articles on Bert Massie

Published in the 19 June edition of Community Care under the heading The Glass is Half Full

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