News analysis: The new face of support services

Capacitybuilders performs radical surgery, ditching the two-tier infrastructure model.

Simon Hebditch
Simon Hebditch

It's all change again for ChangeUp. The plans for the national face of the infrastructure programme have once again been rewritten by Capacitybuilders, which has abandoned its earlier proposals to replace the six hubs with four national support services from April next year.

Instead, it announced last week that it would directly commission nine national support programmes to deliver specific objectives instead of replicating the model of the six current hubs by farming programmes out to consortia of organisations.

The four national support services, which would have replaced the hubs and were first outlined by Capacitybuilders in April, will now never see the light of day.

So wave goodbye to themes on finance and resources, people and skills, performance and voice; and say hello to programmes on performance management, income generation, equalities and diversity, modernising volunteering, collaboration and partnership, adapting to social change, marketing and communications, campaigning and advocacy, and leadership and governance.

The new format will simplify the system. Instead of the organisations running a list of prescribed programmes within four strategic themes, Capacitybuilders will commission the programmes directly from delivery bodies. It has also confirmed that funding for the programmes will fall from £8.9m a year to between £5.5m and £6m in 2008/09 and a maximum of £5.5m a year in the following two years (Third Sector, 11 July).

Across the sector, there has been widespread approval. Ben Wittenberg, director of policy at the Directory of Social Change, says the changes put the programme on the right footing. "Going from six hubs to four did not really address the underlying problems of complexity, but this does," he says. "Breaking the programme up into nine pieces means Capacitybuilders will be able to engage with up to nine key organisations through the commissioning process, and that is much healthier."

Dianne Leyland, director of development at umbrella body Navca, says she had not expected such radical changes to the programme. "The structure is much more straightforward," she says. "But it is not clear what the wider strategy behind the decision was."

The change could make it harder for front-line organisations to know where to turn for support, Leyland warns. "When there were six organisations, people did not know where to go - and now there will be nine."

Justin Davis Smith, acting chief executive of Volunteering England, says there was a risk the new format could be confusing for front-line organisations, but it will in fact simplify the system. "It should make for greater clarity because it is now much clearer what these programmes are focusing on," he says.

The restructure will also widen the pool of organisations that could bid to run the new programmes, he says: "It will also open up bidding opportunities for smaller organisations."

Stephen Bubb, chief executive of chief executives group Acevo, says the new format is "nice and clean". Tighter funding constraints will help ensure the money is spent where it is most needed, he predicts: "It is a limited amount of money, but this means you have to start thinking about what needs doing, not about cuts."

The activities of the ICT and UK Workforce Hubs are conspicuous by their absence in the new plans. ICT support will come under the 'adapting to social change' programme, but the Workforce Hub will not be directly replaced. Capacitybuilders says an expected sector skills council should address the sector's needs. If that falls by the wayside, Capacitybuilders will consider adding a tenth programme.

This will come as cold comfort to the NCVO, the accountable body for the UK Workforce Hub. Sources predict it will face some tough decisions if it does badly in the forthcoming bidding process, given its large commitment to and income from the hubs.

Deputy chief executive Ben Kernighan, who has led the umbrella body¹s involvement in the hubs, was unable to confirm the amount of the NCVO¹s income is generated through the hubs, or the potential impact of the new structure on the organisation.

No final decisions have been made about which of the new programmes it would be putting forward bids to run, he says.

Simon Hebditch, chief executive of Capacitybuilders, says the changes were made in response to continued representation from the sector:"We are trying to eliminate the confusion and bureaucracy that could be implied in running a two-tier programme."

Capacitybuilders does not want to hand the work to consortia involving large organisations in the sector, Hebditch adds. "Some of the applications might be from single organisations, some might be from small partnerships - but we want to get away from big partnerships."

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