Third Voice: Hubs are a good thing, but they must mind the gaps

James Sinclair Taylor, head of the charity team at Russell-Cooke solicitors

The Government's approach to the performance improvement hubs, examined by Stephen Lee in his article 'The hub of the matter' (Third Sector, 11 January), is one we see right across the sector.

It consists of selecting outputs, then precipitating the creation of a partnership to achieve these with a pot of money that existing players have to bid for.

We have seen this in Sure Start and City Challenge. It allows the Government to set the agenda and creates the specious feeling that it is a competitive and business-like way of doing things. This time, at least, it has got a slightly longer timescale and the usual dreadful short-termism is not so apparent.

There are good things about it. However, I share Lee's concern that neither the Government nor the hubs have sufficiently sophisticated understanding of how and where the sector receives its support, where that support is adequate and where there are gaps. For example, councils of voluntary service provide key local hub-like support for smaller organisations, but they vary widely in terms of competence and size, and there are many areas with no cover at all. Hubs generating good practice will help CVSs get better, but will not fill the gaps where the CVSs do not exist.

There is another gap, this one in terms of understanding the nature of the shortcomings in practice and skills that stand between organisations and their objectives. My guess is that, apart from money, the gap lies in the effective management of staff. Without such an understanding, will hub energies be properly focused?

The larger and better organised will plug in to this new help. The Government probably does not mind this failure to serve the small, because it hopes the larger charities will reduce service delivery costs.

One unexpected consequence is that each of these hubs is creating new standards, which charities will be expected to achieve. Internal auditors have already picked up on the governance hub's code of governance as something with which charities must now comply - and which, of course, adds to the list of things to be monitored. How long before funders add evidence of compliance to an ever-growing list of hub-generated 'standards' to the pre-requirements of funding?

Yes, the hubs are a good thing, but not an unmitigated blessing.

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