The unsettled state of third sector infrastructure: questioning effectiveness, sustainability and configuration
Macmillan, Rob (2007)

By Rob Macmillan, Sheffield Hallam University

Evidence about the early experience of ChangeUp, the UK government’s ten year capacity building and infrastructure framework, is beginning to accumulate. Three years into the programme, research and evaluation studies have sought to address, inter alia, questions about the effectiveness, sustainability, coordination and potential ‘re-configuration’ of infrastructure. Third sector infrastructure is under the spotlight, and seemingly faces an unprecedented set of issues, concerns and debates, each of which has the potential to unsettle and call into question the way it is organised and funded, particularly at local level.

Drawing on evidence from a number of recent studies, this paper assesses the current state of infrastructure by suggesting that:-

  • evidence for the effectiveness of infrastructure interventions remains insubstantial, fragmented and difficult to draw together in any cumulative sense. Given this, judgements of infrastructure in practice tend to rely on confidence and regard, based on proxy assessments about the credibility of key staff
  • the sustainability of infrastructure varies considerably, and for many organisations is likely to remain in severe doubt
  • partly as a result of this, infrastructure providers are coming under increasing pressure to reconsider how they might coordinate and reconfigure what they do.

The evidence is used to develop a theoretical model for understanding how third sector infrastructure, and potentially the sector as a whole, operates in practice, including how the state has intervened to ‘shake up’ infrastructure. It concludes with some reflections about the ‘capacity of the capacity builders’ realistically to achieve the aims of ChangeUp.

Rob Macmillan is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University. His main research interests are around VCS infrastructure, funding, and competition and collaboration between voluntary and community organisations. He has recently completed a number of studies examining VCS infrastructure, including a ‘rapid evidence assessment’ of the benefits of VCS infrastructure, and a study examining the effectiveness and sustainability of local infrastructure organisations. He is part of a team scoping the evaluation of ChangeUp for Capacitybuilders, and is also currently undertaking a review of the configuration of local VCS infrastructure in a rural area in the north of England.

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