It usually takes the National Audit Office about a year to complete one of its investigations into the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of spending by central government departments and public bodies.
But its report on third sector capacity-building bodies ChangeUp and Futurebuilders, published last Friday, took twice as long to put together. The delays began about a year ago, when the report's planned spring publication date was approaching and the six-strong National Audit Office team led by Rob Prideaux, a director of the watchdog's inquiries into culture, media, sport and the third sector, had completed its provisional findings.
Discussions about those findings began with the Office of the Third Sector, Prideaux told Third Sector. At around the same time, he said, there was an internal review involving the Comptroller and Auditor General - the head of the National Audit Office - which concluded that the focus groups the team had conducted did not provide sufficient evidence about the impact of ChangeUp and Futurebuilders - an impact that the Government itself had not evaluated.
The decision was taken to conduct more fieldwork among the charities and voluntary groups the two organisations had worked with. This was done over the summer of last year, and the 42-page report, which cost about £400,000 to produce, was finalised for publication last week.
"That was the order in which things happened, but we would absolutely strongly refute any challenge about independence, because this was not something that was suggested by the Office of the Third Sector or anyone else," said Prideaux. "It was very much our own decision. We have to form a judgement about whether we have sufficient evidence to produce a report that Parliament would value, and we took the view that we didn't have it at that stage."
One result of the extra research is that the report is peppered with case studies about the experience of third sector organisations. One describes how the treasurer of a group set up to improve a local park learnt about bookkeeping and spreadsheets with the help of ChangeUp. Another relates how a £180,000 Futurebuilders loan enabled an organisation to develop its training services and win public-service contracts.
This has provided additional backing for the optimistic top lines in the report - that ChangeUp has been a significant factor in establishing better partnerships between local support providers, and that Futurebuilders funding has brought about positive change.
In many respects, however, the report is highly critical, particularly of ChangeUp. It also says it is not yet possible to establish whether either outfit has provided good value for money (Third Sector Online, 6 February). Edward Leigh, chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, to which the National Audit Office reports, described the financial management of ChangeUp as "a mess from the start". His committee will shortly decide whether to hold a public hearing about the report's findings and call witnesses.