Editorial: Support for the Compact falls away

Correspondence between civil servants and the National Audit Office suggests that the Office for Civil Society is lukewarm about the agreement, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

The National Audit Office report in January about central government's implementation of the Compact said there was a "lack of clarity" about who in Whitehall is responsible for promoting Compact compliance, increasing awareness and disseminating good practice.

The correspondence between the NAO and the Office for Civil Society on this topic, obtained by Third Sector under the Freedom of Information Act and published last week, reveals just how determined the OCS was to disclaim all but nominal responsibility for the Compact. Exchanges between the two bodies in advance of the report's publication included a telling note from the OCS saying the view of its head, Gareth Davies, was that "it's for Compact Voice and other departments to work together on implementing the Compact".

All this comes on top of the abolition of the Commission for the Compact a year ago and the abandonment by the OCS in 2010 of annual reports on the implementation of the agreement across government. The NAO report reveals in passing that one official in the OCS now spends one day a week on the Compact, and the office says in the FoI correspondence that "it is difficult to see how this will be a Cabinet Office priority in future".

No wonder that Compact Voice, which represents and helps the sector on the Compact, sounds discomfited in the letter we publish below. It looks like another support has been kicked away from this vital agreement about the conduct of relations between the sector and government.

The episode also raises questions about how the National Audit Office, which is responsible to parliament and not to ministers, goes about its work. It gave the draft report to the OCS for fact-checking, which is normal procedure, but what ensued looks a lot like horse-trading.

The NAO may not have dropped any of its key points, but it appears to have gone along with the OCS on some matters of wording and detail. These are always fine judgements, but the most important aspect of the NAO is its cherished independence.

 

Letter from Compact Voice:

Dear editor 

Compact Voice’s work with the Office for Civil Society suggests that the OCS has taken seriously the recommendations and criticisms in the recent National Audit Office report about government’s implementation of the Compact. We are therefore surprised to read that the OCS had made efforts during the NAO’s investigation to reduce its role in supporting the Compact across government.

Our work with the OCS since the report’s publication suggests that progress is being made – including the announcement that Number 10 has made the Compact one of six departmental priorities in its business plans. However, we will contact the Minister for Civil Society to discuss the implications of the reported correspondence on our activities.

Tom Elkins, manager, Compact Voice, London N1

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