Use of technology cash brings out more critics

Criticism has begun to surface of the way the ICT hub is spending the ChangeUp money awarded to it by the Home Office to improve the sector's use of technology.

Detractors from both the private and voluntary sectors have asked why so much of the cash is being used by the five core partners, asserted that many projects could be delivered more cheaply and pointed out omissions in the plan.

The criticism has been sparked by publication of the hub business plan (Third Sector, 2 November), which reveals that two-thirds of the £4m allocation will be used by the five core partners (NCVO, Lasa, the NACVS, AbilityNet and IT4Communities).

The NCVO, the hub's accountable body, declined to comment and said such questions should be put to the Home Office because it approved the hub bid.

Stuart Johnson, managing director of web strategy agency ichameleon, described the hub as "a consortium of self-appointed experts taking fistfuls of public money to tell people what other organisations have been telling them for years".

Johnson, whose agency did not bid for any hub funding, was particularly critical of the £246,950 budget to produce the hub website. "We have worked with some heavyweight clients in both the private and voluntary sectors since the nineties, and I would be staggered if we were asked to produce a website for even half that," he said. "Most small charities are grappling with budgets of £5,000-£10,000 a year for their ICT - the hub is spending a quarter of a million to build a website.

"If your budget was £10,000 and you knew the hub spent £250,000 on its website, you would not go there for ICT advice."

In an email to the Lasa online forum last week, Nicky Thompson, hub project manager, said that the cost of developing the website included commissioning content, creating a supplier directory and developing a knowledgebase of best practice.

"The ICT hub is tendering for the development of the various aspects of its website via an open and transparent process," Thompson wrote.

Kathy Mulville, chief executive of the Telephone Helplines Association, lobbied for a seat on the hub advisory group shortly before its first meeting last month in order to press for telephony to be. "My major concern is that telephony is left out," Mulville said. "If you are helping organisations access basic ICT hardware, it is short-sighted not to take on board the need for telephony."

Mulville was concerned that the hub was trying to be too sophisticated.

"At the advisory group meeting, someone talked about the opportunities in digital TV and 'taking the sector to the edge of the digital precipice'," she said. "But organisations with income of less than £10,000 are not interested in the digital precipice."

Mulville said she hoped that by the time the hub begins to hold roadshows around the UK, telephony would have made its way onto the agenda.

A hub spokeswoman said it planned to look at how communication technologies are being used in the sector, "but at this stage the focus is in helping organisations take advantage of ICT".

Sam Field, a trustee of Dorset Community Action, said many grass-roots activists were disillusioned with the hubs because "the NCVO have sat on them to some degree and nothing seems to be percolating down yet except for emails".

Field added: "We feel that we've been put over a barrel - we never asked for the hubs and are distressed by the amount of money they are diverting from the grass roots."

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