Analysis: partners with government

The Office for Civil Society's strategic partner transition fund, beginning this week, signals a tighter focus than the scheme it replaces, with successful bidders expected to develop the big society agenda. John Plummer reports

Strategic Partners Programme: winners and losers
Strategic Partners Programme: winners and losers

When the Labour government evaluated its strategic partners programme in 2009, it published the results six months later, and only after a request had been made under the Freedom of Information Act.

The secrecy led to speculation that ministers had been critical of some of the main voluntary sector organisations. But the assessments were remarkably bland: the National Council for Voluntary Organisations was credited with raising the profile of the sector, and local infrastructure group Navca was described as a "trusted adviser".

The vague comments suggested that, far from being strategic, the programme had unclear outcomes, was loosely supervised and existed primarily to provide £62.9m of unrestricted funding for some 40 recipients over five years.

Many beneficiaries defend the value of core funding, but few dispute the programme lacked a clear purpose. The same cannot be said of the coalition government's strategic partner transition fund, which began this week and will award 17 organisations £8.2m before closing in 2014.

Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, is due to meet successful applicants tomorrow to reveal more detail about his plans, but it is already clear that the new programme will be more demanding and will tie partners to the government's agenda.

Successful applications

The Office for Civil Society will commission the successful applicants to carry out specific projects, such as hosting conferences and promoting better funding and governance models, as well as providing a voice for the sector in Whitehall.

But the application criteria included political as well as practical measures. Bidders were asked how they would "support and deliver the strategic priorities of the OCS" and "contribute to the development of the big society agenda". They were also expected to "promote good working relationships with government".

Andy ThorntonKevin Curley, chief executive of Navca, describes the new programme as "sharper and more prescriptive". Andy Thornton, chief executive of the Citizenship Foundation, which is making several redundancies after its joint bid with the volunteering charity CSV was rejected, says the subtext to the programme contains some worrying messages. "There was previously a sense that you could say what you wanted and still be a strategic partner," he says. "But this government has its own mantra - big society - and there isn't the same sense of freedom. You are seen as either for or against; there is no room for the critical friend, so more strident criticism is not forthcoming."

There are clear winners and losers in the new programme. The main umbrella bodies have fared best, receiving £1.4m of the £4m awarded this year. Acevo received an extra 33 per cent and was the only successful bidder to bring new partners into the programme - the think tank New Philanthropy Capital and Euclid, the European sector leaders network.

Commercial thinking

Social enterprise has also done well, with seven organisations sharing £814,000. Sara McGinley, marketing and communications manager at Social Firms UK, says this reflects the government's desire to bring more commercial thinking into the sector. "It's about stimulating the economy through business, and it sees social enterprise as the way to do that," she says.

Vandna GohilSeveral applicants expressed surprise at the absence of equalities groups from the new programme. Voice4Change England, which represents black and minority ethnic charities, is campaigning to reverse the decision. Vandna Gohil, its director, says the decision to exclude equalities organisations "signals a big shift and a complete marginalisation of the BME voice at the policy table".

Vivienne Hayes, chief executive of the Women's Resource Centre, says: "We are very concerned that the needs and concerns of women are not deemed important enough to be gathered in an effective way. The idea that generic organisations can do our job properly is laughable. If they could, our organisation would not exist."

The Consortium of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgendered Voluntary and Community Organisations says the application process, which encouraged organisations to bid in partnership, counted against it because, "given our unique remit, there are no potential partners for merging".

Uncertain futures

Youth and education charities fared equally poorly, with seven former partners receiving nothing. Youth Action Network, which has about 100 youth organisations as members, will close in September, largely because of its loss of funding. Others face uncertain futures.

Community organisations are also suffering, with five previous partners no longer supported.

A spokeswoman for the social justice organisation Community Development Exchange, which received 87 per cent of its income from the old programme, says: "The very organisations that find they are having their funding strangled are often the ones that are best placed to deliver the big society agenda."

Locality, the charity formed this week by the merger of Bassac and the Development Trusts Association, was the only successful community group bidder, and its £497,000 award represented a 65 per cent increase on the pre-merger charities' last settlement - better than anyone.

Steve Wyler, chief executive of Locality, says: "We think we presented a confident vision of what we want to do and how we want to do it."

Strategic partners

Justin Davis SmithOf the four volunteering charity bidders, only Volunteering England was successful, although its award was down £1m from last year. Chief executive Justin Davis Smith says: "It is clear the government is looking to strategic partners not only to work more closely with government, but also to work more closely with each other - and we welcome that."

An OCS spokesman says the criteria for the programme were different from in the past. "We will know what they do with their money," he says.

Hurd offered some consolation to the losers on Twitter: "Just because an organisation is no longer a strategic partner of OCS does not mean that it will lose its voice," he wrote. "My door is open."

See Editorial

Winners and losers

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