Editorial: Capacitybuilders pays wages of spin

The infrastructure agency should have been open about the closure of the Third Sector Leadership Centre from the start, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

When the board of the infrastructure agency Capacitybuilders met in February last year, it decided to follow the advice of officials on how to announce its decision not to continue funding the Third Sector Leadership Centre, which closed soon afterwards.

The result was a statement of 66 words, some of which referred to competing demands on funding and half of which were devoted to singing the praises of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, whose application for funding to run the centre had just been rejected.

Capacitybuilders then refused to answer any questions about the decision. What later emerged through Third Sector's use of the Freedom of Information Act is that the application had been rejected because the NCVO's business plan was considered "rather simplistic and poorly drafted".

It took an appeal to the Information Commissioner for Capacitybuilders to release the document last week that briefed the board about the handling of the announcement. This reveals a plan to achieve two aims that seem hard to reconcile: preventing the sector's closure being blamed on Capacitybuilders and avoiding "unnecessary impact on our relationship with delivery partners". The result was the statement that concealed the real reason for the decision and, for reasons that remain unclear, praised the NCVO.

Tony Blair said in his recent autobiography that he regretted passing the Freedom of Information Act because it put extra burdens on government. This episode illustrates what a good thing the act actually is because it obliges public authorities to be more transparent about the way they handle public money.

Any extra burden and expense in this case could have been averted if Capacitybuilders had just been open from the start, instead of conspiring to avoid embarrassment for itself and its associates by declining to give a frank account of its decisions.

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