Opinion: Hot issue - Are hubs the best way to build sector capacity?

Simon Hebditch, chief executive of Capacity Builders, pledged to conduct a full and open-ended review of the national 'hubs of expertise' when he officially launched the new arm's-length agency in Birmingham last week.

NO - PHILIPPA READ, deputy chief executive, Community First

I believe the hubs have worked, or are beginning to work, at the local level. However, I have real concerns about the effectiveness of the national hubs in relation to that regional and sub-regional work.

This was made apparent to me at the national ICT hub conference on 29 March, when a national conference aimed at small voluntary organisations was held in London. The large number of small groups from the capital that were there probably got a lot out of it. But I believe it is at the sub-regional ICT hub level that we will be building relationships with groups we can continue to support and direct to other sources of local infrastructure support.

It is neither possible nor practical to do that at the national level.

I hoped the national hubs would provide support, information and good practice for regional and sub-regional consortia and thematic partnerships.

Because of the unwieldiness of the national hubs, they have taken longer to establish and are certainly way behind some of the local work. It seems as if a lot of money has been put into developing the same thing at different levels, instead of having a clear vision of where expertise should best lie and how that is most effectively rolled out to grass-roots groups.

YES - DIANNE LEYLAND, director of development, NACVS

NACVS is involved in the national hubs of expertise because we support them in principle and are keen to ensure the investment benefits organisations working at local level.

A common criticism of sector infrastructure is that there is unnecessary overlap, duplication and complexity. The hubs aim to tackle this by ensuring infrastructure at all levels can share learning and good practice, and by offering front-line organisations a clearer route to appropriate support.

The hubs also support infrastructure by leading on activities where economies of scale are appropriate, and they strengthen the voice of the sector on issues such as ICT and governance.

Are hubs the best way to build sector capacity? Yes, but they are not the only way. The investment in hubs will be worthwhile only if it is backed up by significant and sustained investment at local level, ensuring local infrastructure organisations can use the hubs' resources for effective face-to-face support for front-line organisations. The hubs are in their infancy, but they are starting to benefit the sector. We would urge Capacity Builders to build on the investment so far and allow the hubs time to demonstrate their worth.

YES - DAN SUMNERS, policy adviser, King's College London Student Union

The sector would not have been able to weather the many storms to which it has been subject were it not for the fact that those who choose to work in it understand that together we are stronger.

An individual with a goal may feel like a lone mountaineer, standing at the foot of an imposing edifice, unable to see the peak for the clouds that surround it. But with companions and the right equipment, the final destination soon comes into view.

The hubs event in Birmingham on March 28 was humbling. In one room were gathered representatives of many organisations, all dedicated to helping others. This was the hubs represented in physical form - a coming together of knowledge, experience, expertise and, above all, the desire to succeed.

One person standing alone has only their own strength, but 20 people combined possess the strength of maybe 30 or 40. If the hubs are able to pull together our individual strengths, the load will become much lighter - and then we'll be able to add even more to it.

YES - BARBARA DENNIS, chief executive, Norcare

Hubs still offer the greatest potential to benefit the sector. If long-term funding is committed to these initiatives, they could deliver real support and build capacity. The fact that we all discuss sector capacity shows that, despite the hubs' slow start, the issues being addressed are widely acknowledged.

Recent surveys suggest limited confidence in the Government's ChangeUp programme. This seems to reflect the length of time it's taken to get the hubs up and running and the limited communication about what has been achieved so far.

We have already seen the development of the sector's first code of governance and the establishment of a leadership centre, which are good, tangible results. A more significant concern must be that the initial funding of these activities expires in less than 12 months.

The major advantage of the hubs is that they can look at the longer term and address the potential to build capacity. At Norcare we are introducing initiatives such as volunteer schemes for our service users and social enterprises to build capacity. The challenge for everyone in the sector is to feed back their experiences to the hubs and ensure there is a two-way process.

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