Charity Commission chief Helen Stephenson reflects on her first six months at the watchdog

Written by Civil Service World on 27 December 2017 in Feature

With the end of 2017 fast approaching, we asked the UK's top civil servants to look back at the year, outline their goals for 2018 – and tell us what they cannot do Christmas without

What are you most proud of achieving in 2017?

I was delighted to be appointed to the Charity Commission in July and that feeling has only grown as I’ve met staff in the Commission’s four offices, visited charities from across our register, and talked to colleagues from all over government. My earliest overwhelming impression was that charities are more crucial to our way of life than I had fully appreciated. They perform essential functions across UK society, and manage valuable national assets such as our schools, royal parks and canals. A robust regulator is key to upholding this precious role and maintaining public trust and confidence in the sector. It’s clear that the Commission is effective in this way – regulating 167,000 charities with just 300 staff – but what has struck me most is how much it does to help other government departments meet their priorities in areas such as education, housing and security.

What was your most difficult decision in 2017?

With some 100,000 pieces of communication from the public every year, Commission staff face tough calls every day on how to manage increasing demands on our services. Applications to register as a charity have increased by 40% over the past four years – yet our resources have halved in real terms since 2007. Colleagues expertly prioritise work according to risk but this means we are not able to address all issues as quickly as we would like. The charity sector has an income of over £74bn with over £250bn of assets, yet it is predominantly run by around 700,000 unpaid volunteers – I would love to do more to help them run their charities effectively, but we have to prioritise serious regulatory concerns such as fraud, safeguarding or abuse for terrorist purposes.

What are your department’s top priorities in the year ahead?

At the same time as being a robust and risk-led regulator, I want to ensure that we enable trustees to get it right by making advice and guidance more available, and by making it easier to do business with us online. I have been amazed at how well the Commission’s transformation programme compares to that of other, much bigger departments and ensuring that our rollout of digital services continues on this ambitious track will be a top priority.

For you, no Christmas holiday is complete without...

Christmas comes to me now which can be hard work but a lot of fun. I can’t quite break the habit of putting a stocking out for my 15-year-old son on Christmas Eve – though the illusion of Santa Clause is long gone as he now stays up later than I do!

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