Analysis: Bonfire of the Quangos

The record of three axed sector programmes is praised by some but gets the thumbs-down from sector minister Nick Hurd. John Plummer reports

Bonfire of the Quangos
Bonfire of the Quangos

- Capacitybuilders: End of the line for the infrastructure quango

When was it established? 2006

Why? To manage the government's ChangeUp programme to strengthen voluntary sector infrastructure

Number of staff employed: 38

Total cost: £170m

CapacitybuildersStephen Dunmore, chair of Capacitybuilders, says the infrastructure quango achieved a great deal in its five-year life. It helped infrastructure providers work together more effectively and received good feedback from stakeholders, he says.

"Perhaps in the early days the jam was spread a little too thinly and insufficient pressure was put on ensuring infrastructure support that achieved real change, rather than providing more of the same," he says. "But overall we were extremely effective and our running costs were kept at a reasonable level."

Dunmore thinks the decision to abolish it had less to do with doubts about its performance and more to do with the government's general feeling that non-departmental public bodies don't deliver value for money because they "suck up costs".

Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, takes a different view. "My instinct is that a great deal of money was spent with not enough to show for it," he says. He refers to the National Audit Office report of 2009, Building the Capacity of the Third Sector, which said Capacitybuilders had failed to demonstrate value for money.

The report catalogued failures in setting outcomes and conducting evaluations, and criticised delays in decision-making that led to a rush to spend money. Subsequent evaluations suggested Capacitybuilders' performance had improved, but its reputation struggled to recover from the NAO criticism, leaving it ripe for a cull.

In its final year it awarded 326 organisations at least £25,000 each. "Things are a little uncertain now for infrastructure," says Dunmore.



- Strategic Partners: The Office for Civil Society programme is overhauled

When was it established? 2006

Why? To provide long-term government cooperation with and support for the third sector

Number of organisations affected: 42

Total cost: £62.9m

The strategic partners programme is being retained in a scaled-down form until 2014. The OCS announced last week that 17 organisations will receive £8.2m over the next three years; this compares with £62.9m awarded to 42 organisations in the five-year lifespan of the old partners initiative.

It remains unclear how the old and new programmes will differ. Hurd says the OCS "will be more proactive in asking them to do things like commissioning work", but declines to give further details until he has talked more to the partners, which include the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the chief executives body Acevo and the Institute of Fundraising.

The old programme was begun by the active communities directorate at the Home Office before the OCS was formed. It initially offered three types of grant - for organisations that could provide a voice for the sector nationally, promote volunteering or promote philanthropy. The criteria were widened in 2007 to include social enterprises.

"We inherited a very loose programme with too many partners and no real rigour in terms of understanding what the money was given for," says Hurd.

Few organisations dispute that the purposes and achievements of the old programme were unclear. But the significantly reduced funding has left some groups that were financially heavily dependent on it in a perilous state.

Elizabeth BalgobinThere is also concern about the decision to discontinue funding to all equality groups.

"This is devastating and represents a monumental blow to the black and minority ethnic voluntary sector and the communities they serve," says Elizabeth Balgobin, chair of the BME support group Voice4Change England.



- Office for Civil Society: Advisory Body 'Bridge to charities' is closed

When was it established? 2008

Why? To advise ministers and the OCS on policies that affected charities

Number of people affected: 12

Total cost: £132,494

Baroness Jill PitkeathleyIt's difficult to assess the value of the advisory body because the advice it gave to ministers was confidential. "It achieved what it was intended to," says Baroness Jill Pitkeathley, who received £10,000 a year to chair the body.

The government's third sector review of 2007 recommended establishing the body. It was set up as a non-departmental public body and replaced three OCS advisory structures - the Voluntary and Community Sector Advisory Group, the Futurebuilders Advisory Panel and the Infrastructure National Partnership.

It initially advised ministers on how to implement the recommendations of the third sector review and was regarded as complementary to the strategic partners programme. But it became a more general bridge between the OCS and charities.

Pitkeathley says it advised on issues such as the government's third sector action plan in 2009 and provided a health check for the OCS.

Its 12 members received £250 a day and were expected to work 15 days a year. They included Lynne Berry, chief executive of WRVS, Sir Nick Young, chief executive of the British Red Cross, and John Knight, former head of external policy at Leonard Cheshire Disability.

Pitkeathley, a Labour peer, denies that the members were appointed because they were party supporters. "I've never been on a gravy train in my life," she says.

Hurd describes the body as "useful but not essential" and "disjointed". He adds: "I attended one meeting. It was a bunch of good people from interesting backgrounds. But I decided we were better served by just one programme for giving us advice and representation from the sector."


See interview with Sir Bert Massie about the Commission for the Compact's closure

Read how the 'bonfire of the quangos' is part of the government's strategy for the sector

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