"Pernicious, draconian and bullying." That was how the NCVO described the Learning and Skills Council last year. The non-departmental government organisation incurred the umbrella body's wrath when it sued a small voluntary organisation, Kids in Communication, for failing to meet the terms of a contract worth £119,000 (Third Sector, 13 June 2007). The LSC's solicitors' fees had reached £155,000 by the time the charity paid £50,000 to settle out of court.
The case generated widespread anger, largely because of the LSC's disregard for the Compact. It even tried to prevent the document being mentioned in court. "As a direct consequence of that case, we decided we would look at what we were doing," says Cheryl Turner, senior policy officer at the LSC.
In November, the organisation agreed to review its relationship with the voluntary sector. It interviewed directors in its nine regions about their approach to funding and procurement. "They are the most important things to the voluntary sector," says Turner.
The first round of interviews has now been concluded. Turner won't yet discuss the findings, but she says: "What has come out is that where we have senior management buy-in to the Compact there is a drive throughout the region for the third sector to be involved."
The LSC has invited a voluntary sector consultant to analyse its approach to funding. Turner concedes that some slack practice remains, but adds that the LSC "has come a heck of a long way in the past two years".
In January, the LSC awarded its first three-year contracts to voluntary organisations, announcing 43 deals worth £7.61m. It has also appointed regional voluntary sector champions and instigated a staff training programme about the value of the sector.
Shirley Cramer, chief executive of Dyslexia Action and chair of the LSC's voluntary sector advisory group, says: "Things have improved. The Learning and Skills Council has changed and really wants to work with the third sector."
Is the NCVO equally convinced? "The jury is still out," says Saskia Daggett, manager of the organisation's Compact advocacy programme. However, she says, it is good to see the LSC using the Compact to improve its relationship with the sector.