Editorial: There are concerns, but the national support programmes promise much

After an assessment period of only two weeks, Capacitybuilders is to announce today which organisations are to be selected from 66 candidates to lead the work streams for the nine new national support programmes it will fund.

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

Capacitybuilders admits this is an ambitious timescale, but says it is achievable; it is probably also necessary, if the new support programmes are to get off the ground, as planned, in April next year.

The more cynical will no doubt say the speed of action derives from the fact that many of the key decisions were more or less settled in advance: it's a fair bet that there's been plenty of traffic behind the scenes, and we shall see how many surprises there are among the lead organisations.

Perhaps the main virtue of the new national support services is that they are not the hubs, those six misbegotten creatures that will soon be cast unlamented into the outer darkness. Some good work was done by excellent people, but the hubs started life amid controversy, never had a coherent rationale and have not succeeded in carving out a valued role for themselves. The ICT Hub is a particular case in point, and it is interesting to note that none of the new support services is specifically about information technology.

But the new national services may prove to have other virtues as well. In contrast with the hubs, they seem to have been properly thought through. They have been given the specific purpose of supporting other support providers, whereas the hubs often seemed to make it up as they went along, leap-frogging local support organisations, aiming their work at front-line organisations and failing to co-ordinate their activities with regional providers of other ChangeUp services. The hubs struggled to tell the world collectively what they were about, but Capacitybuilders is to set up a new national communications centre to provide information and form a link between the nine programmes. And whereas the hubs, once they had got the money, seemed to be answerable in a vague way only to harrassed civil servants with too much else to do, the new programmes will be very much under the watchful eye of an organisation designed to bring firm leadership to government capacity building. It has a proper framework and its business plans, work programmes, risk assessments and evaluation plans, though couched in the inevitable management-speak, are well buttoned down. There's even a diagram to illustrate "the capacity-building cascade".

Inevitably, there are concerns. There is pressure to award the services to partnerships in the attempt to keep everyone happy and accommodate the sector ethic of collaboration, but keeping differing organisations on the same path can sometimes be like herding cats. Capacitybuilders has also changed its mind a lot over the summer, which may illustrate either a willingness to listen or a lack of decisiveness. And some of the support programmes appear to have been influenced by Government priorities - equality and diversity, for example, was only a sub-theme in the hubs and is now a distinct programme. But it's hard to fault Capacitybuilders as an exercise in purposefulness and learning from experience, and in a year's time we should be getting some sense of whether the new national services are going to live up to their promise.

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