David Robb: 'I bring a layman's perspective to the role'
David Robb has been in the hot seat of Scottish regulation for four months now as the second chief executive of the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR). He speaks to Niki May Young about his move from politics to charity, the influence of changing regulation structures throughout the UK, and what his fresh eyes are bringing to the role.
How have you found the transition from the political into the charity sector?
"It’s not been such an abrupt transition for me. Although I’ve been a civil servant for over 20 years, I’ve had a few spells away from central government. About 15 years ago I helped set up what is now the Cairngorms National Park Authority on a secondment so that was interesting, setting up a brand new organisation up in the highlands of Scotland, which is close to my home, I was brought up in the North East of Scotland.
"The biggest step for me is that this is the first time I have been chief executive of an organisation so certainly assuming that full figurehead role and assuming a much higher profile has been a step for me. But so far I’m still enjoying it, I don’t seem to have put my foot in it too much. And I’ve got a good team keeping me on the straight and narrow.
"I’ve been a long-time supporter and enthusiast of the charity and voluntary sector – I think my preferred term is ‘the social economy’, because that has some of the least baggage and connotations associated to it. I think the social economy makes a vast unsung contribution to life across Britain and it’s a real privilege for me to be in a position where I can help support the development of the charity sector in Scotland.
"We have an organisation that is still relatively young. The Charity Commission in England has been going for a long time, but we’re still not quite six years old in terms of accepting our full formal responsibilities under the new legislation. So it’s been a really interesting period for charities in Scotland and for this organisation to get to grips with having integrated regulation.
"There was always an opportunity for the public to complain about any alleged wrongdoing but it was a small investigatory team and it was outside the registration process. Bringing everything together into one place has been an experience for Scotland. I think some of the charities probably chaffed a little bit in the early years of regulation and some of the reporting requirements, but I hope that now people see the benefits of that. And we try to be proportionate in everything that we do.
"Certainly as I’ve gone out and about in the past three or four months since I’ve started, there’s been lots of positive comments about the way staff here have been helpful, the knowledge that’s been built up in Dundee (OSCR's HQ) over the past six years and for me I’ve inherited a great legacy to build on."
How has it been stepping into the shoes of Jane Ryder, as only the second chief executive of an organisation with such an important remit?
"I think Jane has done a fantastic job – I sometimes complain that she could have left things in worse condition so that I could have made an immediate improvement on things. But really, this is an organisation that has been really well established and is running very smoothly, so I don’t come in to do a recovery job or to have to make drastic surgery.
"But Jane I think recognised that, after she had done the job as an agency before we became an independent public body - so Jane had about eight years working in the field - I think she realised that it was time for her to move on, let someone else take stock and pick up the reins for the next phase of the challenge.
"I come in with fresh eyes, I’m not an expert on charity law and probably never will be – I’ve got an expert team here who know more about this than I ever will but what I bring to the job is a fresh pair of eyes, a layman’s perspective. I’m very keen that our processes work, both from the point of view of the charities using them and the public who are the ultimate beneficiaries."
What have your fresh eyes identified as the key challenges going ahead?
"It’s a difficult time for the sector. We know that the public spending squeeze that we’ve experienced for the past couple of years is likely to be sustained for some time to come, and that makes things very difficult right throughout the sector.
"We ourselves as a public body have a slightly declining budget in the time ahead so that forces us to make sure that we’re ever more efficient in what we’re doing. But more importantly than that, we’re very sensitive to the challenges that charities themselves face as funding is harder to find and some of the activities and projects become harder to sustain.
"So I think it’s incumbent on us to be ever more supportive of charities, to make sure that the burden of regulation is as light as it possibly can be, whilst not disappearing off the scene to the extent that the public start to get fresh concerns about charities. This organisation was born out of a period where there had been some pretty high-profile scandals in the Scottish charity sector and quite rightly parliamentarians here and the public were concerned that steps were taken so that we can reassure the public that charities were being properly governed.
"For me the challenge is striking the balance between ensuring that the public are reassured and that any untoward activity is clamped down on, but at the same time that we haven’t regulated the life out of the charities.
"I’m always very conscious that most of our charities are relatively small. They rely on volunteer input and effort and we certainly don’t want to place an unnecessary burden on charities and stifle that activity because as I said, the contribution to society is enormous and we want to support that."
The latest figures for the register show around 23,500 registered charities in Scotland. Have you noticed any trends in the register of late?
The total number of charities has stayed remarkably static since we took over the register about six years ago. So although there is a steady rate of creation of new charities, about ten a week, they are becoming inactive and dropping off the register at roughly the same rate so the number has hovered between 23 and 24,000 over the last few years. That in itself is quite remarkable. I think you would expect to see either an upwards, or possibly a long-term downwards trend. But the number stays pretty firm.
"Now, what we are seeing at the moment is possibly driven by the adverse economic climate, we’re seeing fairly large numbers of applications to reorganise and to rationalise schemes. Lots of local authorities in Scotland who have tens if not hundreds of small charities are trying to rationalise that. So there may be a sort of slow trend downwards in the overall number, but what is fascinating for the team here and for me is to see the steady and continuing interest in addressing new charitable needs as they emerge. And as I say there’s no sign of the application numbers drying up."
How is OSCR playing its part in helping charities to combat the cuts?
"I think what we’re doing is making sure that as a contribution to governance in the charity sector – there’s lots of umbrella organisations and professional bodies which have a shared interest in that respect – is encouraging trustees to make sure that they have a good strategic look at their forward planning to make sure that they’re not exposed to too big financial risks. To take the opportunity to make sure that they can sustain their services going forward and protect their assets at these difficult times.
"We’re not seeking to get into the business of providing one-to-one advice to charities or second guessing trustees in their operations, but we do devote an increasing amount of time to outreach work and some training and preparation of guidance and dissemination of good practice, in the hope that that is of help to trustees at a difficult time."
Do you see the Charity Commission review as an influence on OSCR’s strategy now, or in the future?
"We’re not directly concerned in terms of we have a separate legislative regime and there are some differences between ourselves and the Commission, but by-and-large there is a lot of similarity between our activity, so we’re observing closely that debate.
"I think there are some very interesting questions that the Hodgson review is throwing up and we will follow that quite closely. I’ll be in London next month to meet Sam Younger and his team, I think it’s really important that we stay in touch and communicate and cooperate with each other.
"We’ve got charities active on both sides of the border so we need to have close working relations at operational level. But I think that some of those stragegic discussions that the reviews in England will kick off may have resonance here in Scotland so we’re interested observers in all of that."
And Northern Ireland is going through the beginning of its regulation process now, have you been working with them at all?
"Yes we have, the team here have had steady contact with the team in Northern Ireland who are getting into their stride, and we’ll continue to be supportive of them. I think our own experience as a relatively new organisation might be more helpful to them than with the Charity Commission which is a much older and more venerable organisation. But we’ll be working closely with the team in Northern Ireland and I think some of the senior team here will be visiting in the next few months just to give them a bit more practical advice."
Have you identified any different challenges between yours and the Northern Irish regulation system?
"Not from a distance, no. I know that they are in a similar position to where we were a few years ago, inheriting a large list from the HMRC about who has charitable status. They are faced with the same challenge that we had ensuring that all those charities are still active and are still involved in charitable purposes, so they face similar challenges but I am not yet up on the detail of exactly how they are approaching that."
What about political influences closer to home? SCVO has been quite vocal in the discussions over the referendum on Scottish independence. Does this have any bearing over your activities?
"We are not directly involved in these discussions. I think what we’ve seen SCVO doing is accepting that these are such important questions for the future of Scotland that in a way, and I think I may be almost directly quoting some of the SCVO spokespeople here but, it’s too important to be left to the politicians.
"And what they and others across civic society in Scotland are trying to do is construct a place where the important questions can be debated, but away from the feverish political arena where parties are, if you like, scoring points off one another. Speaking as a Scot who’s very interested in the outcome of this debate, I think it’s absolutely right that these issues are thoroughly explored and aired.
"Now, charities will have to be careful about making sure they don’t stray too close to political boundaries but I think that trustees understand any limitations in that regard.We have local government elections coming up too, so we issued a recent reminder to trustees just about responsibilities in relation to political activity. But it’s not a big concern for us at the moment and I think that the big important debate about our constitutional future is one that we all follow with very close interest in Scotland."
Do you have any big plans in the offing at OSCR?
"One of the things we’re putting a lot of effort into at the moment, in fact some of the team outside are desperately trying to test, hopefully not to destruction, is new IT systems. We have a programme of moving services online, so 2012 is the year of OSCR online for us. And from the summer onwards we will be encouraging charities to conduct as much of their business as they can online, so there will be an opportunity to do the annual monitoring return online, to seek consents and other transactional business online, and that will lead to enhancements to the amount of information that is available on our register which I really welcome.
"I think that it’s important for the public and for potential funders that as much information about charities is as readily accessible as is possible so we’ll see some enhancement as to the information available on the register, and we’ll see some streamlining in the annual processes. And if we can be successful in bedding in the first phase of OSCR online, then I’m very keen that we look to further improve that in the months and years to come.
"At the moment most of our transactions are still by old-fashioned hard copy and snail mail so this will be a big cultural shift. Already over half the charities have said that they will be interested in taking up the online services. I’m hopeful that that number grows quite quickly. As I say that should yield improvements both for the charities but also in terms of efficiency here."