Editorial: Goodbye to the hubs, but will the latest change benefit the sector?

Mention the word 'hubs' in the voluntary sector and a common reaction is a blank look - a lot of people still aren't sure what they are.

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

Another reaction is a rolling heavenwards of the eyes: this comes from those who know what the hubs are, all right, but are fed up with their complexities and sceptical about their purpose. Another response, from a minority deeply engaged in the saga, may involve flushed features and steamed-up spectacles.

To recap: the Government decided in 2004 that about a seventh of the £80m in the first three years of its capacity-building ChangeUp programme should be used for national-level organisations that would dispense expertise to the sector on finance, volunteering, workforce, performance, governance and information technology.

Sector bodies were asked to form partnerships to set up these 'hubs' - a move that, with hindsight, was a bit like asking the kids in the playground to decide for themselves who gets the sweets. Some partnerships formed up gracefully and got on with a decent job. Others descended into unseemly squabbles over who was in and who was out: the worst was the ICT Hub, about which an independent inquiry coined the memorable phrase "an intensity of mistrust of no benefit to anyone".

Clearly the Government had to sort this out, and the answer was handing over ChangeUp to Capacitybuilders, an arm's-length organisation with a sector-skilled board, chaired by former minister Chris Pond and run by the respected Simon Hebditch. A consultant's review quickly confirmed that the hubs model, though capable of working, was discredited and no longer saleable.

The first replacement suggested by Capacitybuilders - four 'national support services' - did not go down very well, and some saw them as the hubs in a thin disguise. Now it has upped the number of support services to nine and applied what is usually an effective business principle - cutting out the middle man.

At present, the hubs decide on what should be done and who should do it, and the fact that they have decided to ask themselves to do some of those things has been part of the problem. In future, Capacitybuilders will decide what is to be done and commission services directly from individual organisations; small partnerships will be considered, but not large ones, says Hebditch.

The new approach is close to the one called for last year by Acevo, Bassac, Action with Communities in Rural England, the Community Development Finance Association and the Development Trusts Association. It is not the preferred approach of the NCVO, which is concerned that the shots will be called by a Government-appointed body rather than the sector itself. The trouble is that letting the sector call the shots - and for 'the sector' in this context, read its stronger representative bodies - has been one source of the grief. Capacitybuilders has clearly decided that something different must be tried.

There now looms a lot of difficult and detailed spadework against a tight timetable. The new services have to be decided and commissioned by the time the hubs lose funding early next year, and handing over the baton has tricky implications, not least for jobs. On the biggest question - will this whole business bring long-term benefit to organisations on the ground? - the jury will be out for some time yet.

Stephen Cook is editor of Third Sector

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