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Paula Sussex and the bed of nails

The Charity Commission offered the job of chief executive to Paula Sussex at the end of February, and finally got around to announcing it yesterday. The delay is officially explained as “normal processes of appointment and resignation.” Being translated, this tends to mean various kinds of horse-trading, to-ing and fro-ing with the Cabinet Office, and sorting out the details of what is known these days as “the package”. Public appointments always seem to be delayed and long drawn-out these days; but at least we’ve finally got there.

First, the package. Sussex is going to be paid £125,000 a year, which is £5,000 less than her predecessor, plus unspecified pension contributions. Her current job is a senior vice-president of the consulting and outsourcing firm CGI UK, so it’s a fair bet that she is taking a cut in salary, possibly a significant one, to come and lie on this particular bed of nails. The commission, remember, is still struggling to recover from huge budget cuts, public criticism and internal upheaval. Is this masochism on her part, or a sense of mission? There is an honourable tradition, not followed by many, of taking a pay cut to do something interesting (if difficult), or worth doing for the public good, or both. Perhaps Sussex falls into this category: it remains to be seen.

Then there’s her background.  It’s pointed out in her CV that she’s a qualified barrister, but she has not practised, so it would be unwise to see that as much more than window-dressing. She is basically a career consultant, a profession which at worst is characterised as borrowing your watch to tell you the time but at best can perceive and help you act on things you can’t see for yourself. Her current employer is the UK arm of a Canadian outfit which calls itself a “transformative information consultancy”, specialising in “mission-critical results in complex environments.” OK, super, but what does it actually do? Closer inquiry shows that it recently completed a project that enables UK crown prosecutors to work off tablets rather than bundles of papers, and set up the police national database that was called for after the Soham murders so that police forces can share intelligence.

Does experience of this kind of IT-specialist consultancy and outsourcing work make someone the best person to run the Charity Commission? There is a big IT dimension in the commission’s website and its drive to put more of its services and systems online, so perhaps that has played a part. But Sussex will have been operating more at a strategic level, negotiating with government and making difficult business decisions, and that is likely to stand her in good stead in her new job. An interesting video of her on YouTube shows her relating her company “having a s*** time providing services to the public sector at the moment” and jokingly describing the attitude of the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, as “demanding money with menaces.” So she’s done her fair share of eyeballing politicians.

Finally, the question of her sector experience. Until four years ago, she was a trustee and member of the finance committee of Crisis, which sounds like solid experience. Debra Allcock Tyler of the Directory of Social Change has drawn attention to Sussex’s lack of evident experience or knowledge of small charities that form the great bulk of the sector. Does this apparent deficit matter?  Some might argue, after all, that what the commission needs above all is fresh thinking, a good brain and a new broom, and that all the touchy-feely stuff is very last decade.

The best results, however, are likely to be achieved by someone who can successfully balance hard-headed strategy and innovation with an informed empathy with the charity world as a whole and an appreciation of its role in society and politics. If Sussex is as smart as she looks and is well advised, she will realise that and move quickly to make up for any deficits in her knowledge and experience.  The commission is entering a crucial phase and the stakes are high.