Transparency: Finding the right balance

June 6, 2014 at 16:31

I am currently enjoying the warm glow of the success of our Annual Conference. The CFG team pulled off an absolute blinder in my view. Not only did we have the largest number of bookings to date (over 700), but also the quality of the speakers, the delivery of the day and atmosphere were just superb!

In particular, it is worth mentioning the closing plenary. There’s no doubt it could have gone on longer, but to have the Minister (Nick Hurd) and Shadow Minister (Lisa Nandy) for Civil Society, a key Lib Dem peer (Baroness Barker), the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee (Rt Hon Margaret Hodge) and the CEO of NCVO (Sir Stuart Etherington), all chaired by Andrew Hind, was fantastic. A year out from the election we had a perfect insight into how the political parties are beginning to think about their engagement with the sector.

It appears that conversation in the run-up to the next election will be dominated by transparency and demonstrating trust. The relationship between the state and the sector, particularly regarding commissioning and how public money is spent, will feature heavily. The role of the Commission as a strong but supportive regulator will continue to be under immense scrutiny.

Indeed, trust and confidence was a theme throughout our conference. However, while we must intelligently engage with the debate, I think we should tread with care, exploring elements both with an open mind and with a healthy dose of scepticism regarding motives. Should “transparency” in accounting and disclosure go as far as some would like to see?

Margaret Hodge, for example, talked about open-book accounting. She hinted that charities that receive public money should be subject to freedom of information requirements and that perhaps disclosure should go even further than at present for all (irrespective of private or charitable status). Sir Stuart pointed out that most charities do not receive any public money, other than in the form of tax reliefs. But some would see these reliefs as justification in themselves for greater public scrutiny. As Margaret Hodge put it: “Taxpayers want to be able to follow their pound”. Personally I’m content with this as long as openness is sought and used for public benefit and accountability –however, I am not content when it is used to silence or limit what we do.

I fear that transparency, or rather pressure to disclose more and more in the name of transparency, is a veiled attempt to find “dirt” to throw at the sector. Of course, charities must be prepared to answer any reasonable questions asked of them by their stakeholders. However, I would hate to see this genuine aim of reconnecting and strengthening ties with our beneficiaries and supporters being used against us under tabloid headlines of “excessive pay”, “fatcat final-salary pension schemes”, “unethical investments” and “wasteful overheads”.

So in the run up to the next election, please engage with us in constructing our narrative and help us to shape our agenda for the coming year.

Caron Bradshaw, Chief Executive, CFG