Editorial: New year, new start for the sector's hubs

Stephen Cook, editor

Among the more tricky questions for the voluntary sector in the coming year is the future of the hubs, which we examine in detail on our features pages this week. These are the organisations set up with £16.5m of public money to help the sector improve its infrastructure, and they have not had the best of starts.

Rather than set up a new performance improvement agency, the Home Office invited bids from sector bodies to run these 'hubs of expertise'. It stipulated that the bids should be 'inclusive', which led at one extreme to the dispute between the ICT Consortium and Citra over who should be included in the ICT hub. At the other, it led to a finance hub that includes no fewer than 17 organisations.

Much of the past year has been spent aligning these partnerships, in which the biggest organisations with the most clout have the strongest presence: of the 56 jobs being created, for example, 23 are at the NCVO, which is the 'accountable body' for three of the hubs and 'joint lead partner' in another.

The hubs are now beginning to function, and a couple of years' experience is probably needed before the sector can decide whether they are having any real effect. But the Home Office has financed them only until March 2007 - barely a year away - so a decision about further funding will have to be taken before a thorough assessment is possible.

Better infrastructure is known to be one of the pressing needs of the voluntary sector. It has two components - advice and resources. The extent to which organisations need one more than the other varies according to size and sources of income.

But it's probably a fair generalisation that resources - equipment, people to do things for free, or the money to pay them - are needed more than advice.

Some hubs are planning to give grants and provide free services, but their proposals are weighted towards giving advice. Websites, best practice guidelines and 'knowledge bases' feature strongly. So it would be useful if plenty of the advice is about helping charities find the resources they need.

So far, it's been hard to find great enthusiasm for the hubs in the sector at large. But now they are finally under way, organisations should perhaps study what's on offer, ask for what they need and feed back their experiences to the hubs' new paymaster, Capacity Builders.

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