'The chasm between rhetoric and reality'

In 2003, the Government asked the Directory of Social Change to set up a website. The problems that followed, says DSC chief executive Debra Allcock Tyler, illustrate the sector's wider difficulties when dealing with government.

Debra Allcock Tyler, DSC chief executive
Debra Allcock Tyler, DSC chief executive

You'd be forgiven for thinking the Directory of Social Change's experience with the Office of the Third Sector and governmentfunding.co.uk reads more like fantasy than reality (3 February, page 1). And there have indeed been times when we've felt like JRR Tolkien's hobbit Frodo struggling across the bleak plains of Mordor. But this is a true story.

Back in 2003, when the wizards still ruled Middle Earth, the Active Community Unit, now the OTS, came and asked for our help. The Government had publicly committed itself to providing online information about government funding for the sector. They had already spent a considerable amount on something that didn't work, and we responded willingly. We are a publishing and training organisation and already planned to produce a website containing government funding information that would run along the lines of our trustfunding.org.uk. We brought our plans forward on the understanding that the site would ultimately be self-sustaining, like our other funding information sites.

In the years since then, it has proved difficult to persuade the ACU/OTS to let go of the project. We have had one or two run-ins about who owned our intellectual property - us or the Government. But eventually our exit strategy was accepted.

So imagine our surprise when the OTS announced it would put a new service out to tender - the Third Sector Funding Gateway - to provide not only government funding information, but also all the other funding information that the DSC and others currently provide. This was done without providing evidence about why it was needed or meaningfully engaging with us, its current 'partner', about the funding issues the sector faces. On top of that, having publicly announced its support for the maintenance of grants, the OTS decided to turn what had been a grant into a contract - again, with no explanation as to why that was necessary.

We queried this. Meetings and exchanges of letters always resulted in the same thing: no proper explanation, no request for information to help its policymaking and an unwavering line - either tender for it or go away. We didn't tender. We had always been working towards releasing the Government from its obligation to fund the site. We didn't think it needed to spend precious and scarce resources on funding something that could pay for itself, and we did not believe this information should be 'owned' by government anyway.

We have lost our battle to be heard by the Government. But we want to tell our story to highlight what we now see not as a gap between rhetoric and reality but a yawning chasm - one that cuts across central and local government.

Through our work on governmentfunding.co.uk and feedback from our tens of thousands of subscribers, we have seen how well-meaning policy intentions go from good idea to bureaucratic nightmare, and actions intended to enable and strengthen the sector become a yoke around our necks. The Government says: more and better evidence; be enterprising and sustainable, not grant-dependent; they will ensure intelligent commissioning; innovation is critical; value for money is paramount.

On the surface, these five commandments seem sensible. Yet, as demonstrated in our struggle with the OTS, there are clear and unambiguous contradictions between what government says and what it does. In fairness, this is not restricted to the OTS. Our story is reflected hundreds if not thousands of times across other central government departments and local authorities.

Despite the call for more and better evidence, there are many cases of sound evidence being disregarded. In fact, poor and often contradictory evidence is used to support policy statements and decisions. For example, the Third Sector Review process involved getting feedback from about 1,000 organisations. That's moderately impressive until you read the summary of the responses, which give a very different perspective on the final report. The OTS asked for feedback, but the feedback was largely ignored.

Still on the topic of evidence, the Local Grants Forum is seeking clarification of a statement by our minister that statutory grants are not in decline, despite evidence from the Finance Hub and the annual NCVO Almanac that there is a decline.

Our experience in researching government funding has shown us that no one in government actually knows how much funding goes to the sector. Indeed, when you ask department heads, grant managers and local authorities about their own funding programmes, they don't even know how much they themselves give. In fact, we receive enquiries from government departments asking us to tell them how much money they give the sector.

The demand that we be sustainable and enterprising is contradicted by practices such as believing that you reduce grant dependency by turning the grant into a contract. This still relies on government money - it's only the form that has changed. By insisting that copyright of materials developed with government money has to reside with the Crown, they trap you in a relationship you can't get out of. You either have to keep asking the Government for money or hand over your 'asset' and start from scratch. Supportive? Enabling? I don't think so.

Then there's intelligent commissioning. The Legal Services Commission has changed the way it funds local advice services, outsourcing to the private sector much of what was previously grant funding to charities. In a climate in which advice, particularly relating to debt, is desperately needed, this means the most vulnerable are more likely to fall off the edge.

Which brings us to innovation. Advice bureaux work because for years they have known what people need and how to deliver it. This Government all too often dismisses what works and what has long been proven in favour of the new and unknown.

Finally, 'value for money', where it's time to call a spade a spade. In government terms, this nearly always means cheapest. Both central and local government deny this - but when asked to prove it, they usually decline on the grounds that the information concerned is "commercially sensitive".

- Government not meeting its own aspirations

So where has it all gone wrong? I do not believe the responsibility for any of this lies with civil servants - they work for the current government or the dominant party in their local council. They have to do their political masters' bidding, and those civil servants I have met are decent, committed, intelligent people. The key point is that these are not DSC standards the Government is failing to meet, but its own aspirations. Somewhere along the way our political leaders, local and central, have completely forgotten what the point of the voluntary sector is.

It is tempting, of course, to blame party politics for this. But what happens in Labour-led central government is unfortunately replicated across the majority of Conservative-led councils - there are thousands of Frodos out there, and the evidence so far suggests that the ring of power distorts the judgement of whoever wields it, whatever their political affiliation.

The Government's response

Third Sector sent a summary of this article to the Office of the Third Sector and invited it to reply in up to 350 words. It said: "The Third Sector Review identified a need for easier access to information on public funding. We are confident our new programme will deliver an excellent service to the sector. The Directory of Social Change would have been well placed to bid for the contract but chose not to, which is a matter for them."

The OTS also drew attention to a passage in a 2007 document from the Treasury and Cabinet Office called Consultation Feedback on the Future Role of the Third Sector in Social and Economic Regeneration. This was a summary of 93 consultation events, written submissions and advice from an OTS advisory panel.

It says: "Alternatively, the Government should explore further the possibility of developing a 'one-stop shop' website that lists, amongst others, all regulatory requirements for various activities, contain information/ideas from different organisations, and information on funding streams and latest news."

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