News analysis: Hubs face up to an uncertain future

Mathew Little

Centres of expertise could have their commissioning powers removed in November.

"Perception," observes Simon Hebditch, chief executive of Capacitybuilders, "is almost as important as truth." And judging by the perceptions unearthed by Jo Durning last week, the national hubs of expertise, the umbrella body partnerships set up to deliver the national programmes of the Government's ChangeUp infrastructure initiative, may be living on borrowed time.

Durning's review of their role lauded some tangible achievements, such as the dissemination of a new governance code to more than 120,000 voluntary groups. But it also detected a strong current of discontent among local infrastructure bodies - the very customers the hubs are charged with catering for.

Interviews with local ChangeUp consortia exposed a range of gripes, from concerns about irrelevant material to accusations of a London bias. But most damaging of all was a sense of resentment that the hubs were a closed shop of national bodies using government money for their own benefit.

Durning emphasised that there was no evidence of improper conduct and that the hubs were "striving to be fair and open", but she claimed their combined roles of commissioning and delivery bred suspicion. "The perception is, and seems always likely to be, that decisions are influenced at some level by the interests of the partners," she wrote. "This damages the credibility of the national programme."

This appears to be the main reason why the former Department of Trade and Industry mandarin recommended that the hubs' commissioning role be switched to Capacitybuilders. Hebditch has until late November to decide whether to recommend this to his board - or an alternative option of retaining the hubs, but with more co-ordination between them.

Hebditch says he still has an open mind. But for a man who has declared that the ChangeUp programme will fail unless it improves the lot of the small voluntary group on the Isle of Sheppey, the views of front-line organisations are likely to be paramount.

"Many at a local level think the hubs are not worth having or that the services they provide are not what they want," he says. "That's their feeling - that it's the usual organisations getting together and deciding to use a big amount of money.

"In reality, I think the hubs are offering good services. It's a matter of trying to find the right connections between what people need locally and what the hubs can offer. I can understand why people think the hubs are not meeting their requirements."

The hubs themselves feel some resentment that they seem to be getting judged on a short-term record. "It would be unfair to criticise the hubs," Dianne Leyland, director of development at Navca, protests in the Durning report. "They have been under huge pressure to show they can deliver, but they haven't even had time to talk to each other."

There has been an explosion of activity in recent months, as the report notes, because the hubs were not launched until after local and regional consortia were well under way. This was a timetable that Hebditch himself describes as "crazy", although well-documented in-fighting among potential hub partners may have been partly responsible for the delay.

Ben Kernighan, director of services and development at the NCVO, which hosts four of the six hubs, says criticism by local infrastucture consortia might reflect a gnawing frustration with their own position with the ChangeUp programme. "People who work in the consortia are working on exceptionally short-term contracts," he says. "They are feeling under threat and under-resourced. The way in which ChangeUp was set up did not ensure that local and national organisations worked together."

Kernighan does not accept that there is any conflict of interest in the hubs combining commissioning and delivery roles, but he does advocate co-opting some local consortia members onto the hub partnerships to make them more representative.

The final decision of the Capacitybuilders' board on 22 November might well authorise a more radical reform than that. Stripping the hubs of their commissioning role and reducing them to disseminators of best practice would inevitably mean transferring powers from voluntary sector bodies to Capacitybuilders, despite the fact that it is an arm's-length government agency. Many in the hubs view this as a form of nationalisation. Umbrella bodies, too, will feel uneasy at the encroachment of a government rival on their service delivery patch.

"There is a real risk of the Government taking on responsibility for commissioning when it doesn't have the expertise," says Kernighan. "If the Government believes it understands the support needs of the voluntary sector better than the sector itself, then I think it's deluded."

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