The sector needs to quickly embrace regulation and good governance.
In Rehab, we have a lot of sympathy for the staff at Console right now. Our staff and the people who use our services know what it is like to be publicly thrashed by the media and politicians, to be in the headlines day after day about what was done wrong at the top of the organisation, and to be the subject of choruses of criticism from talk show panels. Although the failures in Rehab happened in 2014, the episode still haunts us, particularly when a negative story breaks. The coverage of Console regularly refers back to the “Rehab scandal” as some kind of benchmark for how a charity should not behave.
It is true that by 2014, Rehab had lost its way. Questionable governance had led to a collapse in standards. When the crisis hit, Rehab came close to collapse. Transformational change was essential and it is not an exaggeration to say that the very survival of the organisation was at stake.
But not only has Rehab survived, we have made and continue to make sweeping changes, both at board and organisational level. It’s not just a new line-up at the top. The failures at Rehab have become an opportunity to reconnect with our mission – to champion the economic and social independence of people with disabilities.
We are the first to acknowledge that what happened at Rehab in the past did huge damage to the charity sector. The media coverage was intensely critical. This was very hard on the people who depend on Rehab: the thousands of people with disabilities who use the services we provide, as well as our committed staff who work with them, their families and our volunteers. That’s why my heart goes out to the Console staff and volunteers right now. It’s very difficult to just get on and do your job when every time you open the paper or switch on the radio there’s another shocking headline about your former boss.
It’s a cliche to say that charities do good work, and that’s no excuse for low standards. But in Ireland, charities are doing a lot of the work that the State is not doing. And even though they are being funded to do so, having the charitable sector undermined in the public eye is a serious issue for society as a whole.
It’s worth looking at how the State – including the Health Service Executive as a major funder of the work charities are doing – views the sector. Despite the massive contribution of the sector as a service provider, there is no formal recognition or acknowledgment of this role. Despite some efforts, there never has been. We have service level agreements between the HSE and charitable providers, but this does not define the relationship and was never intended to.
It’s hard to know what real value the State places on the services provided. Charities are effectively at the mercy of their State funders who, according to research, do not see the sector as equal partners. I hope, when the Public Accounts Committee meets the HSE regarding its funding of Console, it is asked a bigger question about the true role of this sector in the delivery of vital social care services all over the country, and whether this role is worth formal recognition. The time for a dialogue in Ireland about the interaction between charity and State is long overdue. Irish people are innately charitable. Charities add valuable intangibles like compassion and empathy to the provision of essential support services, but we also add value by way of donations and volunteers. We have the freedom to innovate and develop outside the confines of the public sector. We contribute to the development of communities and not just the provision of services. We must be allowed to do this. In fact we should be encouraged and supported in doing this.
The relationship between charities and the State must foster, nurture and recognise this added value for the benefit of our citizens. This combined with full compliance from a governance perspective is essential to the future growth and prosperity of our charitable sector. But now we are communicating using the language of tendering and commissioning which make providers mere contractors in our relationships with State funders. This new framework defines our relationship with the State. It also forces charities to operate as commercial, rather than charitable entities. The public benefit can easily be lost in this transaction.
The Console controversy demonstrates there is a clear need to ensure the Office of the Charities Regulator has the resources it needs to do its job. It also demonstrates the need for the sector to embrace regulation as a good thing, not a threat, and not something they can ignore, cross their fingers and hope for the best.
Regulation is welcome. I hope that, in time, it will rebuild the trust which has been lost or undermined. As many have said in recent days, there is a lot more work to do in having the sector operate to the highest standards of governance. The sector needs to embrace this and do it quickly. Otherwise there is no guarantee that we won’t be reading about low standards of practice and governance in another Irish charity. Rehab is doing everything we can to rebuild trust. I hope we are an example of how change and rebuilding is possible following a reputational collapse. We are committed to act with integrity, honesty, commitment and accountability in everything we do. We strive to operate to the highest possible standards. This is the only way we can rebuild our relationship with the public. We are aware that not only is our future at stake, but also the future of the sector and the work it does.
Mo Flynn was appointed chief executive of the Rehab Group in January last year, as part of the restructuring of the organisation following its reputational collapse in 2014