Newsmaker: Pay attention at the back - Simon Hebditch, New chiefexecutive of Capacity Builders

Mathew Little

Taking control of Home Office funding for voluntary organisations.

The term 'capacity building' does not set the pulse racing in most ordinary mortals. And the words 'sub-regional infrastructure body' have a distinctly soporific effect.

Simon Hebditch is not a boring man, but such phrases will trip off his tongue thousands of times in the next few years. Try to pay attention.

He might not have the most glamorous job in the voluntary sector, but it could be one of the most powerful.

From April, Hebditch, policy chief of the Charities Aid Foundation for the past 12 years, will assume control of the Government's £150m voluntary sector infrastructure programme ChangeUp, as head of a new 'arm's length' agency, Capacity Builders.

The terminology may have originated on a whiteboard in Whitehall, but Hebditch insists that the effects will reach down to the grass-roots.

Unless Capacity Builders makes the small voluntary organisation on the Isle of Sheppey ten times better at what it does, it won't have worked, he says.

Hebditch, a former primary school teacher with the sonorous tones of a Radio 4 presenter, is the safe pair of hands ministers chose for ChangeUp.

His current employer, CAF, tends to remain above the fray of internecine sector debates. He is also a voluntary sector stalwart - his career in charities, after a stint writing speeches for a Liberal MP in the 1970s, has taken in NCVO, Age Concern and Mind.

He is inheriting used goods. ChangeUp was nearly a year old when ministers decided to transfer control to an arm's-length body. Parts of the programme had been beset by squabbling between umbrella bodies over funding and, according to Hebditch, the Government realised it was right to hand over the reins.

"I think they wanted to achieve certain objectives," he says. "And they concluded that the best way to achieve them was to let go."

Rather than taking the flak themselves as arguments flare over the direction of the programme, he thinks ministers decided to pass responsibility to the sector's 'wise men'.

Hebditch says the Government had its own reasons for establishing ChangeUp.

Labour has been accused of having a one-eyed approach to the voluntary sector, seeing only its potential to run schools or children's homes, not to campaign or make a nuisance of itself. But Hebditch promises that, under his watch, the programme will not be skewed away from supporting the sector's advocacy role. "It is just as important as direct service provision," he says. "It's a fundamental ingredient of a democratic society."

ChangeUp has also faced criticism for having a top-down, centralising approach. The model is that funding trickles down from the government offices in the regions to 104 local consortia that commission projects.

Separately, six 'hubs of expertise', dedicated to areas such as governance and ICT, commission their own projects.

But Hebditch believes the system will eventually tap successfully into grass-roots needs. "It has to be decentralised," he says. "I have no idea what organisations in Lincolnshire really need; they must make that judgement.

The hubs will not be successful if they are handing down imprimaturs about what is needed."

The hubs, the cause of some unseemly territorial scuffles between umbrella bodies in their first year, will pass to Hebditch's control from April.

He will have to agree their business plans, referee any disagreements between members and decide about their future funding. The former teacher seems determined to keep order. "There has got to be a huge amount of co-ordination," he says. "We need to resolve the difficulties in relationships and, where necessary, bang heads together."

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