News and Comment

Changing Times with Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of NCVO

Friday 23 August 2013


In this week’s Changing Times interview we hear from Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), the largest umbrella body for the voluntary and community sector in England.

If you compare today’s society and the society into which you were born: what’s most strikingly different, and what’s most surprisingly similar?

The principle difference is the significant change in communications technology. Once upon a time, if you wanted to call someone, you had to go and find a phonebox. A bit later on we got mobile phones the size of bricks. And now we have smartphones that do everything. That’s such a massive change – that and 24/7 media have increased the pace of everything. Everything moves faster and so you have to think faster. In general I think this is a change for the better. But it means we have less time to reflect, and sometimes that means we can make errors of judgement.

There are some areas where we’ve gone backwards. I came from a relatively modest background, I went to university because the state paid for my education. Education is a great leveller and it strikes me we’re heading backwards, particularly in higher education, as fees increase.

Some things haven’t changed much – there are parts of Britain that have changed very little in some ways – I can go back to the village where I was brought up, Mickleham in Surrey, and see the same people in the pub.

Given difficult choices have to be made, what one public service or source of support do you think we should prioritise most highly, and why?

Education – from schools to higher education. Because if we don’t intervene at this point we don’t create equality of opportunity. It is the biggest social intervention we can make in terms of people’s life chances.

If you could choose one person to be the Prime Minister’s adviser, who would that person be, and why?

Michael Sandel. He’s an exemplar of melding of public policy and moral philosophy, which is crucial in my view. He also has a particularly engaging method – something that’s helpful given policy debates can tend to get rather dry.

Public services rely on voluntary support more than ever: is this to be welcomed?

Yes. Voluntary support for public services has always been there. There have always been volunteer programmes in hospitals and elsewhere. I think we will ultimately have to change the balance – there will have to be more active citizen engagement in the provision of services, simply because the expectation that we be able to provide Scandinavian public services on an American tax basis is a circle that can’t be squared. We have to involve citizens more in caring for each other. We need to invest in the voluntary sector and volunteering. These things don’t happen by chance. If you look at the Gamesmakers, there was an extensive infrastructure to support them. We need to focus on creating the mechanisms to help people be active in their communities.

In the best case scenario, what will public services be like by 2023? What about the worst case scenario?

The best case scenario would be significant improvement in commissioning and procurement which focuses on early intervention to prevent upstream problems. The worst case scenario, we just continue to do the same thing in the same way, picking up the pieces when things have gone wrong, but doing less and less of it as levels of resources and demand go in opposite directions.

Previous Changing Times contributors

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA.

Professor Kate Pickett, epidemiologist and author

Carolyn Downs, Chief Executive of the LGA

Professor Chris Drinkwater, President of the NHS Alliance

Lord Victor Adebowale, Chief Executive of the social enterprise Turning Point

Professor Richard Wilkinson, researcher into social inequalities and author

Professor Ted Cantle CBE, expert on interculturalism and community cohesion

Jonty Olliff-Cooper, expert on independent sector involvement in public services

Dame Clare Tickell, Chief Executive of Action for Children