It's perhaps fortunate that the National Audit Office decided a year ago to conduct extra fieldwork on the impact of the Government's capacity-building programmes Futurebuilders and ChangeUp. At its heart, the NAO's report on the programmes is bleak - a story of confused objectives, non-existent evaluation and financial mismanagement. But the extra casework and evidence from the front line add some more optimistic notes that show some good things have been achieved.
ChangeUp, started in 2003 when voluntary sector policy was still decided by the Home Office, comes out worst. The report says decision-making was devolved initially to the sector itself - an untested approach that called for strict measurement, evaluation and control, none of which were put in place. The arm's-length public body Capacitybuilders took over in 2006 and has begun to get a grip on things, the report says, by replacing the national 'hubs of expertise' and introducing a better grants programme. The big challenge for ChangeUp, it concludes, will be finding new sources of income.
Futurebuilders fares better in the report, especially under its new management, which has clearer targets. Under the previous regime, the report indicates, things moved too slowly and there was not enough focus on objectives, which were themselves confused. In fact, there was so much confusion that some loan recipients interviewed by the NAO were surprised to hear they were expected to pay them back.
What of the future? The question may be academic, given that the two bodies might before long be subsumed into a new financial wholesaler that will help the sector on a broader front. So has it all been a waste of money? Not entirely. Both organisations were experimental and were bound to take casualties as they moved through uncharted territory. The Government deserves credit for putting public money into these and other experiments. Some will wind up, some will develop, and the mistakes should make for better systems in future.