COMPACT WEEK SPECIAL: Is Compact living up to its promise?

The word 'compact' acquired a radically different meaning for the voluntary sector in 1998. Previously used to describe many charity premises, for the past five years it has become shorthand for a promise by the government to treat the sector fairly.

Few would deny that this pledge has been honoured more often in the breach than in the observance. From being overlooked on vital policy consultations to the enduring problem of underfunding of core costs by local councils, the Compact has not been the panacea it was hailed as for relations between the voluntary sector and Whitehall - or the local town hall.

But as the Compact reaches its fifth birthday, many believe it is beginning to gain widespread acceptance and bring real benefits.

"Five years on we are beginning to get to a point where we are starting to see the Compact working in small but significant ways, and in an everyday sense," says Richard Stone, spokesman for the Compact Working Group.

This week sees an effort to use the anniversary of the Compact to give the agreement mass appeal and put pressure on those in power to uphold its principles.

Voluntary sector minister Fiona Mactaggart today launches a Compact 'pledge card' for government and the voluntary sector. The card commits the government to respect the independence of the sector, consult early enough to make a difference, and recognise the full cost of public service delivery.

In return, the card says the sector will be open and accountable, involve stakeholders and embrace diversity, and contribute constructively to public policy.

The plan is to send 100,000 pledge cards to government agencies and charities.

"The pledge card is a tool to mainstream the Compact and makes its core messages accessible," says Stone.

In addition, simple two-page guides have been produced for charities and trustees on how to use the Compact.

"The whole streamlining and simplifying of benefits and key messages should make it easier to swallow," he says.

A new version of the Compact code on funding has also been published.

The code's 'big idea' is for the sector's full role to be adequately resourced by statutory funders.

Funding code champion Erica De'Ath, chief executive of the National Council of Voluntary Child Care Organisations, says the code will insist upon full cost recovery "which the government and the sector need to see as prudent housekeeping". There is also potential for a continuum of funding, including grants and loans, she says.

Other "Compact champions" have been appointed to bang the drum for BME organisations, community groups and volunteers. Sector academic William Plowden has been entrusted with ensuring that policy consultation is done properly.

For the Compact to have real and enduring value, local government, as well as central government, needs to accept its principles. There is a deadline of April 2004 for all councils to develop a local compact. So far, 140 areas are covered by a local compact, which is more than double the number a year ago, and 180 areas are in the process of developing one. "I think there is a quiet optimism that is being built on," says Stone.

IS THE GOVERNMENT IN BREACH OF THE COMPACT?

Independence

- Has the Government supported the right of your organisation to campaign and comment on government policy, irrespective of any funding relationship that exists?

Funding

- Has the Government recognised core costs and the different ways that these can be met?

- Have you been consulted prior to reductions in funding?

- Is the monitoring system proportionate to the size of the funding and your organisation?

- Is the timetable for applications realistic and not less than three months?

Policy development and consultation

- Has the Government consulted your organisation on issues that affect you?

- Has the Government allowed 12 weeks for written consultations?

- Has the Government carefully analysed the results and provided feedback?

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