Compact Voice continues its happy-clappy approach to the disaster that is the Compact in welcoming the National Audit Office report on its (non) implementation in central government. “We are delighted that the Compact is supported by government departments and that the NAO have found good examples of it being applied” says Compact Voice’s Simon Blake, when the report in fact paints a depressing picture of minimal leadership, inadequate resourcing, poor co-ordination and no performance monitoring. Here Meta Zimmeck unpacks the sorry story.
Drawing peacefully to a close: The NAO’s review of the Compact suggests that the end is nigh
The National Audit Office has finally released its long-awaited review of the implementation of the Compact by central government departments. This review was mandated by the coalition government in the Compact Accountability and Transparency Guide published alongside its “revised” Compact in December 2010. This review had a limited remit. It was about implementation of the Compact at national level and not at local level. It was about the implementation of the Compact by departments engaged in relations with the civil society sector for “domestic” and not for “foreign” purposes (and therefore excluded the Department for International Development, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Ministry of Defence). It was about implementation after December 2010 and not before. It was about implementation as viewed from inside and not as judged from outside. It was about practical matters and not principles: “A critique of the Compact is not within the scope of this review”. And it was a one-off not the first of a series: it “will not be repeated in subsequent years”.
Given this precise remit what did NAO do? It interviewed civil society liaison officers in nine departments it deemed to be the most important on the basis of their funding of the voluntary and community sector as well as staff in the Office for Civil Society (in the Cabinet Office) with direct responsibility for the Compact. It carried out a document review of activities in these departments. It carried out a “short consultation exercise” on paper with another five departments. It met with the Board of Compact Voice. It conducted a consultation with the sector (with a timetable of six weeks: too short to be Compact-compliant). Finally it hosted a workshop for participating departments to discuss emerging findings and recommendations.
It is clear that NAO did not have an easy time with this review (as indicated by the replacement of the original review team, the late completion of its work and the studied ambiguity of its findings – see below). It is also clear that its greatest difficulty was the absence of the sort of information usually deemed necessary for its scrupulous and hard-headed reviews and its consequent need to take an “assurance-based approach”: “we looked to see how departments themselves gained assurance as to how they were implementing the Compact”.
As noted above, NAO’s findings are curiously ambiguous. They are upbeat on the top line: “departments were supportive of the Compact and its principles and there were good examples of it being applied”. But they are damning on the bottom line: in reality implementation was notional – characterised by minimal leadership, inadequate resourcing, poor co-ordination and no monitoring of performance.
• The role of OCS as the responsible body for the Compact was “unclear”, and the relationship between the Cabinet Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government, which also had a lead role in delivering the Big Society agenda, was “confusing”.
• OCS employed one member of staff who was responsible for the Compact part-time (0.2 FTE).
• All departments had senior representative officers or champions for the Compact, but these had varying access to top decision-makers.
• Six departments employed one member of staff who was responsible for a portfolio of work including the Compact (civil society liaison officer); three departments employed a team of three or four, including a civil society liaison officer, which was responsible for a portfolio of work including the Compact.
• Funding of the Compact Advocacy Programme, “the only central repository of information on potential instances where the Compact has not been followed”, by the Big Lottery/OCS ended in November 2011.
• The Ministerial Group for the Big Society and Localism, which had a watching brief on the Compact, met three times after May 2010 but was disbanded. It discussed the Compact before its revision but not afterwards.
• Departments “were unclear about who their most appropriate contact was in other departments”.
• Five departments carried out some cross-departmental working, but there was “no systematic approach to learning from others”: links were “ad hoc and relied on the personal networks of individual staff”.
• Quarterly meetings of champions, held since 2002, were cancelled.
• Quarterly meetings of civil service liaison officers, held since 2001, were cancelled in early 2011.
Monitoring and accountability:
• Nine departments “did not have specific mechanisms for monitoring and reporting on their implementation of the Compact. Nor had departments completed internal or external reviews of Compact implementation.”
• Two of nine departments were “not aware” of the requirement to include statements on the implementation of the Compact in their business plans for 2012-13 and subsequently. None of the departments had taken steps to prepare these statements.
• There were no arrangements for central collection and analysis of information on non-compliance.
• The last Compact Annual Report (the tenth) was published in January 2010, and OCS decided not to fund further reports.
• The last Compact Annual meeting (the tenth) was held in February 2010, and no further meeting was scheduled.
NAO’s findings and recommendations are, sadly, consistent with those of David Carrington, who reviewed the implementation of the Compact in 2002. Carrington too recommended a sensible list of practical measures to support the implementation of the Compact: a higher profile across government, more energetic leadership from OCS’s administrative predecessor, increased resources, better cross-departmental co-ordination, and greater transparency, including the Compact annual meeting and annual reports.
What then has changed? Time and tide. Ten years on from Carrington’s evaluation NAO has documented a state of play which shows not progress but regression. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this regression is so severe – with a high political profile reduced to grudging lip service, enthusiasm replaced by indifference all round (including a disgraceful three responses from the sector to NAO’s consultation) and a hollowing out of the necessary administrative arrangements for oversight and co-ordination – that it demands not just diplomacy as expressed by NAO but an honest willingness to face facts. The Compact as an instrument of policy and as an honourable aspiration for partnership working is drawing peacefully to a close, and it is time to recognise this unhappy truth and move on.
Meta Zimmeck is a partner in the research consultancy, Practical Wisdom R2Z (http://www.practicalwisdomr2z.co.uk) and is the author, with Colin Rochester and Bill Rushbrooke, of Use it or lose it: a summative evaluation of the Compact (Commission for the Compact, April 2011).
(If you want the full version of this article with references email me – firstname.lastname@example.org – and I’ll send you a copy…)