It was brought into being nine years ago, but its obscure name and entirely voluntary nature mean that its existence is not widely known outside specialist circles. It has many forms and sub-species, both national and local, which confuses matters further.
It has engendered numerous associated organisations and events, such as Compact Voice, the Compact Advocacy Programme, the Compact Annual Meeting and - most recently - the Commission for the Compact, all with interrelationships unfathomable to the layman. Between them they have gained important ground but no great victories, so people queue up to assert that the Compact has never achieved anything very much: most recently, the Conservatives' Commission for Social Justice commented that its lack of real power had contributed to "an abject failure in achieving the promised full cost recovery, multi-year contracts and other essentials of good funding practice".
When John Stoker was appointed as Compact Commissioner nearly a year ago, ears pricked up all round the savannah: here was someone with gravitas and a track record who was perhaps going to take ownership of the whole business, give it a bit of a shake-up and generally make it more effective. There was even some expectation that the Compact might be given teeth and start acting as an enforcer, but this was quickly laid to rest in interviews by Stoker, who revealed himself to be first and foremost a consensus man. The nearest thing to sensation came with the sudden departure of the Compact Commission chief executive, Angela Sibson, after only six months. The former head of relationship and counselling charity Relate said her strengths were education and sharing best practice, while the commission's policy was moving more towards holding public bodies to account and assessing performance.
This explanation is not entirely borne out by the commission's draft business plan, on which consultation ended last month. This appears to stress the importance of both activities - finding and disseminating good practice, while also developing an "assessment tool" to measure how well organisations comply with the Compact. Be that as it may, the results of the business plan are what the commission will be judged by in the longer term, and its key elements are the assessment tool, the intention to influence the Local Government Bill by making the Compact a component of local area agreements, and a revision of the Compact itself.
As we move into the autumn, a final version of this plan will be produced, the commission will acquire a dozen more staff and things should start to happen. It has been a long time coming, and there is no knowing yet whether the next few years will produce much more progress than the past nine. The underlying reason for the slowness is the harsh reality that if you tried to speed things up by asking Parliament to give powers to an organisation such as the commission to chastise elected bodies on behalf of unelected ones, you might not get the answer you wanted. The story of the Compact gives a whole new meaning to the concept of the long game, and even now we are still in the early phases.
Stephen Cook is editor of Third Sector