Analysis: Will capacity-building ever work?

The government's £231m ChangeUp programme promised to transform the voluntary sector's infrastructure, but is now destined for the scrapheap. John Plummer finds out whether the money was well spent or wasted and asks what comes next for capacity-building

Future of capacity-builder under debate
Future of capacity-builder under debate

When in 2004 the Home Office launched a £231m programme to strengthen the voluntary sector's infrastructure, it was one of the biggest investments a government has ever made in the sector.

The move came after a 2002 Treasury review that identified a lack of skills and resources at charities in areas such as IT and governance as a major barrier to their delivery of more public services.

Ministers said the new initiative, called ChangeUp, would transform the sector by 2014 by giving front-line charities access to the skills and expertise of second-tier support organisations.

It was, said one government document of the time, a "bold but achievable aim". But less than a decade on, the programme is being abandoned. The infrastructure quango Capacitybuilders, which was set up to manage the programme, is being abolished at the end of March and the government recently ran a new consultation on how to improve sector infrastructure. Hardly anyone utters the word 'ChangeUp' now.

So was the £231m well spent? Despite the heady early rhetoric, ChangeUp was dogged by problems from the start. The programme was initially managed by the Home Office itself, which distributed funds to the nine regional government offices, which, in turn, established local infrastructure consortia. The Home Office also set up six national 'hubs' of expertise, covering themes such as finance, IT and volunteering. The local consortia and national hubs were expected to cascade skills and resources across the sector.

Competing interests

In 2006, growing difficulties prompted the government to transfer control of ChangeUp from the Home Office to Capacitybuilders, a new arm's length body sponsored by the Cabinet Office. Based in Birmingham, it hastily recruited 25 staff who inherited a complex and problematic network of competing interests.

Simon Hebditch, the first chief executive of Capacitybuilders, says some charities complained that local consortia were ignoring them, while some local consortia complained about money going to national hubs. But he says his biggest problem was infighting among the sector representative bodies that were running the hubs.

"It was damaging and showed the sector at its worst," says Hebditch. "It should not be beyond the wit of organisations to work together effectively, yet we found ourselves being lobbied constantly by different interests."

The hubs were replaced in 2007 by nine national support services covering more specific themes, each with a single accountable body. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations was responsible for three of them.

The speed at which Capacitybuilders was set up caused other problems. "Being in Birmingham meant we could not recruit well-known people," says Hebditch. "And our IT systems were not the best." Time was wasted setting up the office at a time when the government required £70m to be distributed within two years. Hebditch concedes the organisation was too slow to award funds.

He says that when Capacitybuilders secured renewed funding for 2008-11, a civil servant told him "you have won the battle, but don't think you have won the war" - which didn't fill him with confidence.

Matt Leach, former chief executive, CapacitybuildersHebditch left when his contract expired in March 2008. Catherine Johnstone became interim chief executive for nine months before Matt Leach, director of policy and communications at the Housing Corporation, took charge.

Two months later, Building the Capacity of the Third Sector, a National Audit Office report, said ChangeUp had helped to establish better partnerships, but criticised delays in decision-making that led to a rush to spend money. The report also described failures in setting outcomes and conducting evaluations, and concluded that ChangeUp had not demonstrated value for money. This was perhaps the killer blow.

Leach says the government decision to front-load Capacitybuilders' funding was a mistake. "All the big money went in the early years," he says. He tells of one local support agency that was awarded £20,000 by a regional government office to create two parking spaces - hardly the real purpose of ChangeUp. "Such was the pressure to get money out of the door," says Leach.

Expectation of change

Another problem, he says, was that the ambitious vision was not supported by a coherent strategy. "There was too much expectation of change and too much money before collaborative relationships had established themselves," he says. "It would have made more sense to start with between £5m and £10m a year, then gear up."

Leach's arrival came six months after the former Big Lottery Fund chief executive Stephen Dunmore replaced the former minister Chris Pond as chair. "There was a recognition that they needed additional expertise at managing grant programmes," says Leach.

A stakeholder survey in 2010 gave Capacitybuilders glowing marks for speed of decision-making, ease of application and quality of monitoring and reporting. "We certainly became better," says Leach.

During the later years, staff talked less about ChangeUp and more about individual programmes, such as the Modernisation Fund and Improving Reach. "It showed Capacitybuilders was more about support generally than just ChangeUp," says Leach. "The sector needed a broad range of support - not just a single programme created in 2002/03."

It was clear immediately after last year's election that Capacitybuilders was at risk. Leach left to join the think tank ResPublica in September, shortly before ministers confirmed that Capacitybuilders was on a list of quangos to be culled in March. "I recognised the programme had a lifespan and it was highly unlikely that something conceived in 2002 would continue in exactly the same form, whatever the government," Leach says.

Professional sector

The decision rendered useless the evaluation programmes that had been commissioned at a cost of about £180,000 by the nine support services. "We lost the opportunity to demonstrate our worth," says Karen Constantine, head of the equalities and diversity workstream led by the Women's Resource Centre.

Hebditch and Leach maintain that ChangeUp strengthened relationships and made the sector more professional. Leach claims the recent spate of collaborative working, which was a theme funded through the support services, highlights the benefits, and Dunmore says ChangeUp was "pretty successful" overall, despite early teething problems.

Nevertheless, all agree that the vision of a sector transformed wasn't realised, and some opinions were more damning.

Matthew Scott, for example, director of the Community Sector Coalition, describes ChangeUp as "spectacularly underwhelming" and says any similar new schemes must benefit far more grass-roots groups.

One striking statistic in the government's infrastructure consultation Supporting a Stronger Civil Society is that only 18 per cent of voluntary organisations receive infrastructure support, which suggests the ChangeUp programme passed by the majority of voluntary organisations. Not everyone will lament the demise of Capacitybuilders, but those that benefited from its largesse will. This year, 326 bodies received at least £25,000, and it's probable that some of them now face a struggle to avoid a fate similar to that of their benefactor.

See the three phases of ChangeUp

Read an idiot's guide to capacity-building

Find out what's next for capacity-building

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