News in focus: Hubs cause a hubbub at ChangeUp

Infighting and doubts over long-term availability of funds continue to stymie progress, says Tania Mason.

Once upon a time, in a government office somewhere, someone realised that if smaller charities had more help to do things such as file their accounts, set up decent computer systems, train their staff or find sources of money, they could probably do what they do even better.

So a plan was hatched. It was called ChangeUp, and around £80m was found to put it in place. ChangeUp had lots of components, including six 'hubs of expertise' on such issues as training, information and communication technology, and financing. These hubs would use the expertise of all the relevant infrastructure and umbrella groups, working together in harmony, to create a resource that smaller charities could access to improve their own expertise in the subject. And each group would get some of the money.

Problems, problems

Nice idea, no? But the first, well-documented cracks appeared last summer when nine groups that have expertise in ICT - all members of a coalition called Citra - complained to the Home Office that another coalition, the ICT Consortium, was setting up the ICT hub without their input. The Active Community Unit had to step in and get all those involved sat around a table.

The quarrel, however, is far from over: many members of Citra, which includes Acevo, the Charity Finance Directors Group and the Institute of Fundraising, say privately that the ICT Consortium, led by the NCVO, is still as aloof as ever. Instead of accepting Citra into the hub as an entity, it has allegedly been trying to "pick off" individual Citra members so as not to dilute its power in the hub. The NCVO admits it has been recruiting new members to the consortium, but a spokesman adds: "I don't think 'picking off' is language we would use - we have simply invited organisations to join if they want." But a source on the Citra side says: "The NCVO appears to have read the general principle that 'the sector will own it' as 'we will own it', and can't understand why everybody isn't happy with that."

The ACU gave an assurance last year that if Citra is not happy with the ICT Consortium's hub business plan, it can submit its own bid to run the hub. But the ICT Consortium has so far released only a summary of its business plan, which makes no mention of who will receive what money.

And the ACU's wish to present all plans to the minister by late March makes a mockery of the promise to Citra. The ICT Consortium had six months to write its plan; Citra would have just one.

"All this leaves the ACU in a very difficult position," says Citra chairman John Tate. "It has two options now - it can support the ICT Consortium or go with our alternative plan, both of which are highly unattractive. Can it really present the ICT Consortium's plan to the minister and say, hand on heart, that it's the sector's bid, knowing that it had a string of complaints about the consortium last year?"

But there is a third option - one already mooted by charities minister Fiona Mactaggart - to hand development of the ICT hub over to the private sector. Jitinder Kohli, head of the Active Communities Directorate, doesn't rule this out: "We have a strong preference to do this through the (voluntary) sector, but if we get to the point - and I don't think we will - where the ability to deliver our agenda is compromised, then we would look at other options. We owe it to small voluntary organisations to deliver the capacity-building change that we promised. If there are massive delays because the sector finds it hard to come up with a single proposal, then we may need a different way of doing things. But the evidence we have at the moment is that the hubs are going to be fine."

This appears to be true of some other hubs. Both Simon Hebditch, financing hub chairman, and Janet Fleming, head of the workforce development hub, say that theirs are progressing well. But another issue has arisen over how long ChangeUp funding will last. The current tranche expires in March 2006, yet all the hub business plans run until at least March 2007. The NCVO and other hub leaders are preparing a letter to Mactaggart, warning that if funding isn't guaranteed for at least three years, there is little point in setting the hubs up.

A satisfactory answer seems some way off. Kohli sidesteps the question of whether he expects ChangeUp to be funded beyond March 2006. "That's not something I can answer, because it's dependent on Treasury budget decisions - I don't yet know how much is in my pot," he says. He knows the sector is anxious, and understands why, but will only say that an answer is "imminent".

The Compact springs to mind, as does Mactaggart's advice to the sector last November to walk away from public sector contracts that don't offer decent terms. This is one story that will see a lot more chapters before it can end happily ever after.

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