Hubbub at the hubs

Hubbub at the hubs

Hubbub at the hubs

Finance | John Tate | 1 Oct 2006

John Tate has high hopes for the future of the ICT hub.

I have been involved with IT in the charity sector for eighteen years and have seen first hand literally hundreds of charities embark on IT projects. Some succeed, many fail and the majority of projects sit somewhere in the middle.

The Charity Finance IT survey in May this year revealed that only 3 per cent of charities feel they have world class systems. Well over a billion pounds a year is spent by charities on technology. If we could ‘do IT better’ the benefit would be huge. I have encouraged charities to collaborate with each other when reviewing and changing their IT systems and gain from the experience of others. Mistakes can be avoided and lessons learned from success stories. Potentially, resource can be shared when working on projects of common interest. There are hundreds of UK support groups/membership organisations that help promote the better use of IT. If these too could work more closely, a best practice approach to technology would emerge.

Collaboration is easy in theory but hugely challenging in practice. It takes time and money which are always in short supply. Lack of resource, conflicting objectives of participants and the egos of those involved get in the way of progress. All too often people go their own way. Failed collaboration projects can lead to deep mistrust and the creation of barriers to future relationships.

When I first heard about the hubs in 2004 I was excited. Here was an initiative with some actual government money, designed to help the sector address common issues and bring organisations together. In July 2004 Fiona Mactaggart, the government minister in charge of hubs at the time, stated they ‘should not be new institutions’, they should be ‘about bringing institutions together’. She went on to add that while the sector will be in the driving seat the government will expect back hubs to really making a difference; be inclusive and accountable to the sector; have a lead accountable body but be based on partnership working; be beacons of best practice/centres of gravity and expertise; be a signpost/gateway to information and support rather than doing everything themselves; and be accessible so that diverse groups know how to find and get through the gateway.

This sounded a great initiative and the ICT hub potentially had the opportunity to make a step change in how charities developed their use of technology. Through my work with Citra I saw first hand how this ideal translated into practice. Sadly many of the ideals Mactaggart articulated did not translate into practice. The five organisations running the ICT hub allocated the majority of c£4.5 million to their own organisations without a tendering process, recruited teams of new staff and have been accused of using the money to promote their own interests to the detriment of others in the sector. Opponents of the hub argue that existing work has been duplicated and money wasted. Many of those working in the sector feel bruised by their exclusion from the hub.

It was good therefore to see Capacitybuilders, which now oversee the hubs, commissioning an independent report of their progress. The Durning report suggests that the hubs in their current form will never gain the support they need in the sector and makes a number of suggestions as to their future. The likely option is that Capacitybuilders will take a much stronger role including directly overseeing the commissioning work themselves. This will take away the conflict of interest from those running the hubs – ie. not put them in a position where they can bid for money and allocate it to themselves. It could also reallocate a lot of the money to existing organisations at a grassroots level to promote and develop what they already do, rather than reinventing a whole new set of wheels.

Finance directors in the sector may justly criticise those running the ICT hub and the government for this situation. They might also argue that allocating further money to promote and develop collaboration will be wasted via the hub route. Despite the short fallings of the first efforts the government/sector has the opportunity to learn and try again. In the IT world it is often the second or third generation of an idea that succeeds. The early signs are that Capacitybuilders is up for the challenge. The Durning report is frank and well put together. There are some excellent ideas for the next phase of the hubs. Let us hope that they evolve into something that really delivers a model for collaboration. I would encourage finance directors to get involved.

John Tate is a leading IT analyst in the charity sector and chair of Citra


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John Tate

John Tate is a qualified accountant and entrepreneur. He is a columnist for Charity Finance, a visiting lecturer at Cass Business School's Centre for Charity Effectiveness and Trustee of Eduserv. He also non executive chair of Civil Society Media.

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