Infrastructure: The hub of the matter

The six national 'hubs' intended to help the sector improve its infrastructure are finally getting under way. Here Stephen Lee tells the story so far, Nick Aldridge looks at what might have been and Jenny Harrow examines future challenges. On the following pages we profile the six different hubs.

Autumn 2005 witnessed the launch of a rash of Government-led voluntary sector infrastructure development initiatives supported by previously unheard-of levels of core funding.

Although some voluntary sector leaders have characterised this new-found Government largesse as a seminal moment in the development of the sector, others, like me, remain unsure of what this surfeit of initiatives will mean in practice to the average voluntary sector organisation struggling to meet daily operational challenges.

Let us start at the beginning. The Treasury-sponsored cross-cutting review of the role of the voluntary and community sector in public service delivery, published in 2002, focused its recommendations on the targeting of future government support for the sector on infrastructure development.

Why? Because a core element in the broader Treasury vision of the future of public sector service delivery across the UK is unashamedly based on a leaner, more strategic role for central and local government, transferring responsibility for actual service delivery to external partner delivery agencies in the private and voluntary sectors.

The report identified key strategic deficiencies in the sector's ability to deliver both an increased volume and quality of service to end users.

These deficiencies included the inability of the sector to raise and sustain a diverse pattern of funding support, to avoid duplication of service provision at the coalface, to co-ordinate the distribution of services in a manner that matches demand with supply, and to identify, measure and evaluate 'quality service performance' when and wherever it is actually achieved.

Additional challenges involve creating a more effective response to the management of diversity, ensuring that local and rural service delivery can be met, developing accessible practical support for smaller community organisations, mobilising, managing and sustaining voluntary effort, ensuring the provision of effective governance and accountability, and improving competence in information and communication technology across the voluntary sector.

In response to the report, the Home Office Active Communities Unit - the body charged with the responsibility for making these recommendations a reality across government - published a cross-government capacity building and infrastructure framework in 2004.

Known as ChangeUp, this framework outlined a 10-year vision for infrastructure and capacity-building support for the sector that would be entered into jointly by central and local government and the sector itself and would deliver practical infrastructure support at the national, regional and local levels.

What's more, the Government put its money where its mouth is, committing £188m over three years to the Active Communities Unit to achieve this vision in practice and providing a further £125m to fund the creation of Futurebuilders, a one-off, three-year fund designed to help voluntary and community organisations directly engaged in the delivery of public services.

A central component of the practical delivery of infrastructure support to the sector lies in the creation of six new national 'hubs' of expertise.

Located within the sector itself, each of these hubs will focus on helping to meet the key infrastructure needs of the sector:

- Performance improvement

- Workforce development

- Information and communication technology

- Governance

- Financing voluntary and community activity

- Volunteering.

To be effective, the framework document says, these hubs "will bring key players together to provide strategic leadership and act as gateways and beacons of good practice on key areas, reaching directly to front-line organisations to develop advanced thinking and good practice". So far, £80m has been earmarked to fund their development.

With so much at stake, not least in terms of the size of the funding packages on offer, it is not surprising that the 'partnerships' of voluntary sector umbrella bodies that are expected to own each of these hubs went into collective meltdown throughout 2004/05 as competitive tenders were developed and business plans submitted.

Out of all of this, six hubs have emerged, each funded by core grant aid and each residing within accountable umbrella bodies. All become operational this year. In a move to further distance itself from direct control (and perhaps responsibility) for the actions of these at times unruly new offspring, the Government has announced the creation of another funding and strategy agency, Capacity Builders. This body will oversee the hubs' own performance management and development needs.

All of this might be welcome, but the real challenges have yet to be met. Will the often complex partnerships of umbrella bodies that make up these hubs of excellence deliver real, practical, support at the grass-roots level, or will they simply offer services they themselves already purport to provide?

How can they themselves prove their own effectiveness and accountability when a review of the publicly accessible versions of their business plans shows them to be long on rhetoric, short on targets linked directly to monies expended and confused and inconsistent when compared one with the other?

With £188m to be spent, it is now time for these bodies themselves, and the new Capacity Builders agency established to oversee them, to demonstrate a real, practical enhancement of support service across the sector - anything less than this would be a serious failure.

- Stephen Lee is professor of not-for-profit and public sector management at Henley Management College, where the leadership centre of the workforce hub will be based.

THE ALTERNATIVE WAY

In many ways, the national strategy of developing hubs of expertise has already been a success. The sector has focused more than ever before on its own capacity. Support organisations across the country are collaborating to set priorities for investment and development in crucial areas for the sector. This has led to good results such as the publication of the sector's first ever code of governance and the establishment of a leadership centre.

But the hubs also have their disadvantages. Decision-making by committee is slow at the best of times, and the hubs have had to invest heavily in facilitation by consultants. These new and complex partnerships have had to devote serious time to their own governance and commissioning processes to manage numerous conflicts of interest. Only now, little more than a year before initial funding runs out, are they genuinely turning outwards to the sector they exist to support.

In 2004, Acevo proposed an alternative model for infrastructure development in the sector. We suggested that an improvement and development agency for the sector, along the lines of local government's IDeA, would deliver a change in support and capacity more rapidly and efficiently than separate hubs.

With no political or representative remit, the third sector IDeA would exist solely to build capacity and improve performance. It would work with Acevo, the NCVO and others, as the local government IDeA works with the LGA and Solace. The individual hubs would have been work streams or departments within the IDeA.

Such a body would have brought efficiency, co-ordination and a clear focus to the national infrastructure strategy. With a single strategic plan and a single staff team, it would have provided a single point of call for the sector. It would also have challenged the representative bodies, including Acevo, to justify and, where necessary, improve the services they offer.

The creation of Capacity Builders brings an opportunity to reinvigorate the strategy through exactly the kind of leadership and co-ordination envisaged in Acevo's IDeA proposal. However, its board must also work to maintain the positive relationships and partnerships generated through the hubs. If it succeeds, we will have the best of both worlds.

- Nick Aldridge is director of strategy at Acevo, a core group member of the finance and governance hubs.

HERE FOR THE LONG HAUL?

What is the likely future of hubs? What unintended consequences of this policy might occur? The structuralist approach to sectoral performance improvement and growth was always going to have high start-up costs and attract strong opinions on directions for change, not all of which would be amenable to mediation. A sense of geniality surrounding a policy initiative is not always necessary to make it work.

The hubs are becoming policy networks in their own right. Policy analysis tells us that programmes tend to develop objectives of their own alongside those already set. A new consequence of the hubs model may be an increase in the number and type of voluntary organisations with access to public policy-making as insiders rather than supplicants, and, paradoxically, a challenge to the orthodoxy that building capacity is only a staging post on the route to a sector-run set of public services.

The emphasis on representation within hub structures could help ensure the hubs' 'creatures' are able to strengthen their organisational offers for their own purposes and not solely for those of government. The slow-burn approach to the hubs means they are here for the long haul, and not in the business of offering performance-enhancing gains for the short spurt required to win 'just another government contract'.

The multiple points of entry for organisations seeking support and advice mirror the multiplicity of the sector in the way that a single agency or entry point could never do. As a senior civil servant acknowledged wearily to a Commons committee in November, "dealing with the voluntary sector is a very decentralised business". And so it should be. A worst-case scenario is policy failure as a result of inbuilt structural and financial fragility. Yet this would underscore the demanding nature of the task that the hubs have assumed.

The hubs now seem set to become, at best, part of the policy iconography of the sector, or, at worst, its demonology. Tests of success will include the ability to change the capacity-building chemistry of the sector. For sector organisations looking to exchange and learn from the knowledge and know-how that the hubs are tasked with promoting and disseminating, merely drowning in a sea of toolkits is not an option.

- Jenny Harrow is professor of voluntary sector management at Cass Business School, City University.

HUBS THE FACTS AND FIGURES

FINANCE

Who's in it?

Charities Aid Foundation and 17 finance groups and umbrella bodies.

How much money has it got from ChangeUp?

£2,482,800 over two years to March 2007.

How's the money being spent?

Mostly on projects to strengthen the financial capacity of local and regional infrastructure and front-line organisations. These include advice services through a website, expanding the role of funding advisers, supporting funding adviser networks and promoting and extending full cost recovery, financial management skills, training and development toolkits and the extension of community accountancy services. The hub will monitor changes in the funding environment and alert funders and other policy-makers to their likely impact.

Who's in charge and how many staff are there?

Ronan Tyer, a freelance consultant, is interim programme director and Penny Lambert is programme manager. There are funds for a third staff member.

What's been done, and what's planned?

The business plan, a website, branding and a commissioning process are now being developed. From this month, the various projects for tendering will be publicised. It will be an open competitive bidding process for grants to deliver services outlined in the business plan.

How can voluntary organisations access its services?

A website will be available within the next few weeks. Penny Lambert can be contacted on 020 7832 7000 or by email on plambert@cafonline.org.

How will it measure how effective it is?

The hub will rely heavily on the feedback it receives from those who use it. It will also closely monitor the objectives that are outlined in the business plan and measure its success against those.

GOVERNANCE

Who's in it?

NCVO, Acevo, the Black Training and Enterprise Group, the British Association of Settlements and Social Action Centres, Charity Trustee Networks and NACVS.

How much money has it got from ChangeUp?

£2.5m over two years to March 2007.

How's the money being spent?

Staff (£350,000), overheads, website (£80,000), signposting service, telephone helpline (£40,000), publications, toolkits, resources, commissioning, development grants, partnership projects, sites of good practice, case studies, workshops, events, training and development opportunities.

Who's in charge and how many staff are there?

Deanna Buick, former professional resources programme manager at Macmillan Cancer Relief, is head of the hub. Three implementation managers and an administrator. The independent chair is Gill Edelman.

What's been done, and what's planned?

It has created a code of governance, set up an interim website and is collating and reviewing governance research. In future it will carry out a range of activities to improve the quality of governance and attract more trustees from diverse communities. The website will be expanded to include downloadable resources, online learning, case studies and news on governance initiatives. A helpline will be launched shortly.

How can voluntary organisations access its services?

Through its website www.governancehub.org.uk and the planned helpline.

Voluntary and community organisations can also contact Poonam Thapa, governance hub administrator, on poonam.thapa@ncvo-vol.org.uk or 020 7520 2514.

How will it measure how effective it is?

The Office of Public Management will evaluate the hub. There will also be focus groups, case studies and surveys.

ICT

Who's in it?

NCVO, AbilityNet, IT4Communities, London Advice Services Alliance and NACVS.

How much money has it got from ChangeUp?

£4m over 19 months to the end of March 2007.

How's the money being spent?

Details on www.ictconsortium.org.uk. Examples include £1,560,067 on commissioning services and £890,204 on staff costs.

Who's in charge and how many staff are there?

Nicola Thompson, a former NCVO finance officer, is project manager. There are 14.3 staff - five at NCVO, three at AbilityNet, two at IT4Communities, 2.8 at LASA and 1.5 at NACVS.

What's been done, and what's planned?

Conferences, workshops and meetings have been held about circuit riders and to provide advice and information. The interim hub website signs to a free ICT helpdesk and a website directory of good practice resources.

Tenders have been invited for services such as ICT accessibility research, a new ICT hub website and a good practice knowledge base.

Nine regional voluntary and community sector organisations will be commissioned as 'accessibility champions'. There will be a directory of ICT suppliers, training and circuit riders. The new website will provide advice and there will be regional and national seminars and conferences.

How can voluntary organisations access its services?

The interim website www.ictconsortium.org.uk has information on hub activities, and an ICT newsletter is available by emailing ictresources@ncvo-vol.org.uk or contacting the adminstrator on 0207 520 2509. After the launch of the new website this year, hub services can be accessed from there.

How will it measure how effective it is?

An external evaluator will set up a framework for steering group and delivery partners to compile reports on outcomes.

PERFORMANCE

Who's in it?

Charities Evaluation Services,NCVO, British Association of Settlements and Social Action Centres, Black Training and Enterprise Group, NACVS, New Economics Foundation and Norwich and Norfolk Voluntary Services.

How much money has it got from ChangeUp?

£2.5m from July 2005 to March 2007.

How's the money being spent?

£1.38m on projects, including £330,000 on increasing face-to-face support to voluntary and community organisations. There will be open tendering for at least £185,000 worth of projects. Overheads are £463,000 (18.5 per cent of total costs) and staff costs are £693,000 (28 per cent).

Who's in charge and how many staff are there?

Joint managers are Tim Wilson at CES and Richard Piper at NCVO. There will be five full-time and one part-time staff at CES, four at NCVO and one at NACVS.

What's been done, and what's planned?

It has recruited nine staff, produced the first Achieve More newsletter, held focus groups with front-line voluntary and community organisations, developed an interim website, commissioned a developer for the main website due in spring this year, signed up nearly 600 people to the Active Network, held two strategic planning seminars, and researched tools for identifying organisational strengths and weaknesses.

Plans include developing a practical performance improvement tool, working with support agencies from May to train a nationwide network of performance champions, improving the knowledge base, producing simple guidance and developing appropriate new tools, and creating a more supportive environment for voluntary and community organisations by persuading funders to finance performance improvement and to reduce the regulatory burden.

How can voluntary organisations access its services?

By joining the free Active Network: benefits include the free quarterly newsletter, email updates and the chance to help shape hub services. To sign up, visit www.performancehub.org. uk,call 020 7520 2540 or email info@performancehub.org.uk.

How will it measure how effective it is?

By internal monitoring and external evaluation.

VOLUNTEERING

Who's in it?

Volunteering England.

How much money has it got from ChangeUp?

£2.6m from June 2005 to March 2007.

How's the money being spent?

£329,791 on staff, £330,850 on other overheads, £1,865,359 on projects and £100,000 on grants.

Who's in charge and how many staff are there?

Chris Penberthy, as part of his role as director of strategy and planning at Volunteering England. Staff are an implementation manager, a secretary, two web developers (one-year posts), two information officers and one research officer.

What's been done, and what's planned?

The hub has recruited staff, approved a preferred provider list, and commenced commissioning of activity. It has also begun work on the redevelopment of the website. The opening hours of the information service have been doubled and the library updated. It has held a conference on regional volunteering infrastructure and supported the work of the England Volunteering Development Council, including its reorganisation. Volunteer centre rebranding is being supported and research undertaken into volunteering infrastructure.

Research into volunteering and risk has been completed, and work has started on good practice materials.

Planned activity includes a commission on the future of volunteering, development of additional good practice materials, training and support for volunteer managers and volunteer centre managers, and conferences on leadership in volunteering and on volunteering infrastructure providers.

There will also be support for employer-supported volunteering, the modernisation of the volunteering infrastructure and the marketing and assessment of volunteer centres.

How can voluntary organisations access its services?

Details at www.volunteering.org.uk. The information service and library can be contacted on 0800 028 3304 or by email at information@volunteeringengland.org.

How will it measure how effective it is?

Participant evaluation of specific pieces of work and an independent evaluation.

WORKFORCE

Who's in it?

NCVO, Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations and Wales Council for Voluntary Action.

How much money has it got from ChangeUp?

£2.5m until March 2007, plus £215,000 for a leadership centre in partnership with Acevo.

How's the money being spent?

£759,900 on staff and running costs, £308,000 on projects and supporting regional networks, £1,431,612 on commissions and grants to agencies delivering work for the hub, and £230,000 on the leadership centre.

Who's in charge and how many staff are there?

Janet Fleming, former head of the Voluntary Sector National Training Organisation, heads the hub in England. Twelve full and part-time staff are based at NCVO, plus others at NICVA, SCVO and WCVA. There will be three in the leadership centre at Henley Management College.

What's been done, and what's planned?

It has produced the Good Employment Guide and Working for a Better World, a guide to careers in the sector. It has also developed a training package to help organisations to use national occupational standards.

A website is to be launched early this year, with resources and signposting on employment and skills. New national occupational standards for trustees and management committee members are being developed, and the hub will work with the governance hub to support organisations in using the new standards. In partnership with the hub and other organisations, NACVS is developing a knowledge framework for advisers who support front-line organisations.

How can voluntary organisations access its services?

Through the website www.voluntarysectorskills.org.uk, which has about 20,000 visitors per month, or the telephone helpline to be set up early this year. There is a monthly e-briefing: to subscribe, contact workforcehub@ncvo-vol.org.uk.

How will it measure how effective it is?

It will submit regular reports to the Active Communities Unit at the Home Office and the Sector Skills Development Agency, and will commission an external evaluation.

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