So who is really setting the agenda?

Capacitybuilders' new strategy has reignited the row over leadership and independence.

If the voluntary sector were on the psychiatrist's couch, you might say it still had issues about Capacitybuilders.

Less than two months ago, Capacitybuilders' board announced that the six hubs of expertise established to improve the sector's infrastructure would be abolished in 2008 and replaced by contractors.

That seemed to quell the fractious debate about who was in charge of the Government's ChangeUp initiative to improve the sector's capacity.

But the silence was only temporary.

In response to Capacitybuilders' sector-wide consultation about its future strategy, the NCVO, closely followed by the Directory of Social Change, has now reignited the argument. The terms of the debate may have moved on, but the underlying concerns are the same.

The DSC's initial response to the Capacitybuilders strategy document Destination 2014 condemns in particular a proposed performance indicator that 40 per cent of third sector infrastructure bodies should be "centrally involved in promoting public service delivery in key government priority areas".

Ben Wittenberg, head of policy and research at the DSC, said: "We feel there is a real danger of ChangeUp following the same lamentable route as the National Lottery and, despite the best intentions, being annexed by government to address its own policy agenda, not the needs of the wider voluntary and community sector."

'Wholly inappropriate'

The NCVO describes this performance indicator as "wholly inappropriate".

It says: "It is not the role of independent voluntary sector infrastructure bodies to promote government policy priorities."

It also argues that Destination 2014 smuggles in a significantly altered role for the arm's length government agency. Capacitybuilders, it says, is not content with implementing the Government's ChangeUp infrastructure plan and is developing its own concept of where the sector should be in seven years. It also takes exception to Capacitybuilders' plans to improve the "landscape for the third sector" by working with government departments and agencies and engaging directly with local authorities.

Its briefing notes continue: "We are concerned that these proposed activities would duplicate roles and activities where representative organisations within the voluntary sector are better placed to take a lead."

Herein lies the tension that has beset Capacitybuilders since before its inception. Back in 2005, the Government was forced to amend its original blueprint for the organisation after objections on the grounds that its model represented a rival to existing umbrella bodies.

The NCVO's latest intervention shows those misgivings have not gone away.

"It's fine for Capacitybuilders to be working with government and sharing its expertise on infrastructure," says Ben Kernighan, deputy chief executive of the NCVO. "But there are other organisations - not just within the voluntary sector - better placed to do it. The Compact Commissioner is one example."

However, Kevin Curley, chief executive of infrastructure umbrella body Navca, sees the 40 per cent indicator as a legitimate target.

"At a local level, voluntary organisations have their vision, but they always have to temper their vision with the money that's available," he says. "It would be foolish to suggest that government funding priorities won't shape the local voluntary sector. The task of local infrastructure is to walk that delicate line, promoting independence but helping voluntary organisations to take advantage of any new funding that comes along."

Where the NCVO and Navca agree is that Capacitybuilders might not have the capacity itself to do all it wants to. Aspirations such as lobbying local authorities might have to be sacrificed.

Kernighan says: "Trying to ensure that voluntary organisations are supported is a very demanding task because of the sector's size and diversity. It's not easy. Capacitybuilders should not spread its resources too thinly."

Capacitybuilders has gone to great lengths to emphasise its independence from government, but it is still a quango with a statutory duty to implement government strategy.

It also has a chair who, until the 2005 General Election, was a Labour minister, and Destination 2014 has been published at a time of growing sensitivity about the co-option of the sector into a government-dominated agenda.

Simon Hebditch, chief executive of Capacitybuilders, last week told Third Sector he was happy for the debate on Capacitybuilders' future to evolve.

Well, it's certainly hotting up.

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