News analysis: The hub goes ahead, but not alone

Tania Mason

As the ICT Consortium prepares to deliver ICT support, others are making progress too.

After more than a year at the centre of a very public conflict, the beleaguered ICT hub has finally been given the green light by the Home Office. At first glance, it appears that the ICT Consortium, led by the NCVO, is the clear victor in the hub battle, having seen off its adversary, Citra, to claim the £4m prize money all by itself.

But the ICT Consortium didn't take home the whole bounty, it emerges.

The Home Office Active Communities Unit (ACU) kept a sizeable chunk back from the hub pot to give to another contender - a 'dark-horse' coalition called Net:gain.

While the ICT Consortium and Citra were bickering over who could and should be part of the hub, Ruralnet UK and its partners the Foyer Federation, Ufi and Funding Matters were quietly keeping well out of it and piloting their own plan to help the sector improve its use of ICT. So impressed was the ACU with the new coalition's concept that it decided to bypass the ICT hub and award Net:gain £1.2m straight from the ChangeUp fund.

And it's not hard to see why. The Net:gain proposal is simple and transparent.

There are three main strands: a workshop programme; an online advice service; and signposting to other sources of help.

In the workshop

The workshop programme will see 50 existing charity-run UK Online centres upgraded to Net:gain centres by equipping them with the necessary hardware and training their trainers to run the workshops.

The aim of these is to show small local charities how ICT can help them in their day-to-day operations. "Our experience is that the biggest hurdle is convincing them that they even need to look at this issue," says David Ellis, project manager at Net:gain.

At the first workshop, clients will be shown templates of different ICT strategies and helped to formulate their own. They will return to their organisations and implement what they have learned, before returning to a second workshop for troubleshooting and advice on how to plug gaps.

Net:gain clients will also be able to access an online ICT help desk, run by Ruralnet's Experts Online service, and directions to other support services, including the ICT hub, but mainly to local sources.

Ellis says: "We've talked to regional and sub-regional ChangeUp consortia and we know that there are lots of local initiatives to give charities technical support. But there is very little in the way of strategic planning. That's where we come in."

The Net:gain coalition didn't bid to run the hub. "We are a small, pragmatic organisation helping people on the ground," says Ellis. "We're not so suited to a national advisory role."

Does Ellis think the ICT hub structure is the best way of spending the lion's share of the ChangeUp cash? "We don't know," he says. "We haven't had a full view of the hub business plan, so it's not clear how the £4m will be divided. But it must be more than a website, one would hope."

Nothing published

The ICT hub is the only hub not to have published its full business plan, and it remains unwilling to do so even now it has secured the funding.

Asked three times whether it planned to publish the plan in its entirety, a spokeswoman for the NCVO refused to give a yes or no answer. Instead, she said: "A full summary is available. The ICT hub has published 35 pages of comprehensive information on its strategy, plans and resources. This is in line with Home Office guidelines." The summary says the hub will provide strategic oversight and have a lead role in co-ordination.

Meanwhile, how does Citra feel now that its efforts to be included in the hub are shown to have been in vain? It came to an agreement with the ICT Consortium, at a meeting at the ACU in May, that it would advise bigger charities with an annual income of more than £1m while the hub focused on smaller groups.

But if that seemed like a thawing in relations, it wasn't. That division of labour still stands, according to John Tate, chair of Citra, but Citra won't be delivering its side of the bargain as any spoke of the ICT hub.

Says Tate pointedly: "Citra is not applying to be part of the hub, as a member of the core group, the advisory panel, or as a delivery partner. Our plan is to be independently funded."

Tate, who has felt frustrated throughout the whole affair, won't say much else. He clearly still feels that the exclusion of Citra from the hub makes a mockery of the Government's insistence that it should be "inclusive of the whole sector". But as well as disillusionment, there's a quiet determination to carry on regardless, circumvent the hub and help charities with their ICT through other means. Only time will tell which group has more impact.

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