Third Sector Interface network model and Voluntary Action Scotland: evaluation

Independent evaluation of Scotland’s Third Sector Interface (TSI) network model and Voluntary Action Scotland (VAS).

6. Conclusions and considerations for the future

It is clear from this evaluation that the Third Sector Interface model currently in place is complex - comprising of 32 Third Sector Interfaces which have significant variations in the local context within which they work, the ways in which they deliver the core functions prescribed by Scottish Government, and the extent to which they have done so effectively.

In this chapter we draw together conclusions from the evaluation, and consider the implications of our findings for the future model of local Third Sector support in Scotland. In addition, we draw conclusions in relation to the effectiveness of VAS currently, and the role of any future intermediary body representing the TSIs.

Structure of the current Third Sector Interface network model

The structure and the purpose of the TSIs has been defined in relation to the four core functions. The structure was focused on bringing together local CVSs/Volunteer Centres, and sometimes SENs, to create a delivery body in local areas which could deliver the four core functions specified by Scottish Government.

We were tasked with conducting an evaluation of the model - however structures and functions are diverse and while integration has helped to develop a more strategic approach to supporting the Third Sector in most areas, there remain some challenges over partnership structures.

There are currently 22 TSIs operating as single organisations and 10 partnership structures. History, resourcing and local context has shaped the TSIs and resulted in this mix of single entities and partnership bodies.

Our research suggests that there are benefits where the TSI operates as a single entity, for example in providing clarity for partners and Third Sector organisations, better integration of services and planning, greater strategic direction and efficiencies. Critically, the single organisations have provided a single point of contact for partners.

While some areas have made the partnership model work, some stakeholders and partnership TSIs expressed concern over specific challenges that are primarily concerned with governance, relationships and lack of cohesion and leadership at a strategic level. However, there are issues which at least for some partnerships may predicate against a formal merger (pensions liabilities, ownership of assets) as well as historic structures.


Weaknesses in governance within individual TSIs has emerged as a significant issue and has had an impact on the reputation of TSIs and on the confidence of some stakeholders in the effectiveness of these TSIs. This has impacted on the reputation of the network as a whole.

Good governance must be a higher priority going forward and there is currently no mechanism for ensuring that governance structures are strong. The critical factors moving forward are therefore how governance can be improved where it is weak and who is responsible for supporting improvement, scrutiny and intervening when problems become evident.

VAS currently has no mandate to intervene and efforts to support improvements in this area have not been sufficiently intensive to date. However, the logical place for this scrutiny role rests with the TSI intermediary body with the option for recourse to Scottish Government as funder where necessary and appropriate. We have noted that as a membership body, any re-focussing of VAS and additional responsibilities in terms of scrutiny must be supported by the membership.

There are practical approaches that can and should be taken towards improving governance, for example in relation to board recruitment, training and development, and strengthening board structures. In considering the need for better governance, it is also important to recognise the importance of strong and effective leadership in the network - within governing bodies and among TSI Chief Executives and senior managers.

Effectiveness of the Third Sector Interface network model in delivering across the four core functions

The brief for the study required us to assess the effectiveness of the TSI network in the delivery of the four core functions (and associated outcomes) to explore what works and what does not, in order to inform the future approach to support for the sector.

The aspiration of the TSI network as outlined in the Common Services Framework was to 'offer a portfolio of Common Services in every area around the country'. The Common Services Framework recognises that 'These services may be offered in different ways to suit the needs of the local communities, but our clients and stakeholders should expect to be able to access a quality service regardless of which of Scotland's 32 Local Authority areas they operate in'.

In reality, the differences in the level of resources, skills and expertise of TSI staff, and local need mean that the portfolio of services looks very different in each area.

The variation in size, scope, and quality of service being delivered by individual TSIs makes it difficult to assess the effectiveness of the TSI 'model' overall as the level of capacity and quality varies considerably across the network. However, a number of issues and challenges have been identified which should inform the approach to support for the sector in future.

Increasing demand for services across each of the functions is a key issue for any future model as is how local infrastructure can best target its resources to meet local need and contribute to local outcomes:

Volunteering development

There are strategic challenges for volunteering development due to:

  • different demands on volunteering (for example, as a vehicle for supporting employability, recovery, therapeutic volunteering);
  • frequently additional resources are required to support volunteers with additional support needs; and
  • increasing expectations on volunteers in the delivery of services and as board members.

This has resulted in a tension for TSIs between a focus on 'increasing volunteering' and increasing the impact of volunteering on more disengaged communities/equalities groups.

There are some operational challenges due to:

  • demand for services exceeding supply of resources, which limits the capacity of TSIs to engage with more disadvantaged groups, for example those marginalised by poverty, rurality, and additional support needs;
  • some tensions at the local level over the role of the national infrastructure organisation; and,
  • on-going challenges in using the MILO database system.

Social enterprise

There are diverse models of delivery and different approaches reflecting local issues (historic arrangements for social enterprise support), as well as different perceptions of the role of the TSI in supporting social enterprise - some see this as a dedicated function and others deliver it as part of more generic organisational development support.

This is the function that is most contested as a core function of the TSI. Stakeholder perceptions of the TSI network are that it has struggled to engage effectively in social enterprise support, but that the picture is improving over time. It is a 'new' function for some TSIs and recognised as 'challenging' by many.

There are also a number of regional and national providers delivering support to social enterprise. As a result it is not always clear what the TSI's role is in relation to social enterprise support. Some TSIs have been effective in co-ordinating the range of support around social enterprises - but there are also examples of duplication and very poor 'joining up' of resources.

Far greater clarity and agreement in relation to the TSI network's role in relation to social enterprise support is required going forward, but there is a strong sense from the research that solutions must be tailored to take account of local circumstances - including levels of need, and the range of other social enterprise support services already in place. Where social enterprise support is already being delivered well by other organisations in an area, then it makes sense for the TSI's role to focus on sign-posting and connecting organisations. Where good social enterprise support is lacking the TSI may have a role to play in provision of this support, or in sub-contracting with others to provide this support.

Supporting and developing a strong Third Sector

The range and scope of services offered under this function are broad. Service availability differs across the network as a result of different needs, levels of resources, and skills and expertise in the TSIs, and in most areas there are other providers who also deliver services to the sector.

Most TSIs identified a tension in managing demand whilst maintaining high quality support.

Although TSIs work towards EFQM, there is no recognised quality standard for network service delivery, and quality of delivery is variable across the network.

Where TSIs are working well, they are levering resources in to the area from other providers, although some challenges exist around duplication of roles in some areas with Community Learning and Development departments.

It has also been highlighted that Third Sector organisations are not good at self-identifying organisational development needs and often do not engage in services at the right stage, only seeking help when it is too late. This increases the demand for time-intensive 'crisis interventions'.

Building the relationship with Community Planning; engaging and connecting the Third Sector

External circumstances are key to the successful delivery of this core function. Where there exist well-functioning Community Planning Partnerships and partners who have a commitment to the Third Sector, TSIs have been better able to engage as a strategic partner. In areas where there is a poor performing Community Planning Partnerships, and little understanding of where the Third Sector can contribute, the opportunity for the TSI to develop meaningful engagement is limited, irrespective of how 'good' the TSI is.

A further key issue is the increasing demand for TSIs to support Third Sector engagement in a range of planning structures. The role of TSIs in supporting Third Sector engagement in Integrated Health and Social Care bodies has had major resource implications and the implementation of the Community Empowerment Act will also have implications for the sector and the TSI. The increasing resource requirement to service this 'function' has implications on the level of resources available to deliver the other functions.

Implications for a future approach

The evaluation of the TSI network model and VAS is being carried out at a time when public policy has again highlighted the role of the Third Sector at the heart of community planning.

In the developing policy context (as outlined in Appendix 3) the Third Sector plays a critical role in achieving the Scottish Government vision of a more successful country with opportunities for all to flourish, through achieving sustainable economic growth [12] . Now, more than ever, there is a need to connect the Third Sector to Community Planning Partners to work in partnership to reconfigure services towards prevention and to tackle inequalities.

The Community Empowerment Act is the major driver for increased involvement of community-based organisations in making a direct impact on the growth of Scotland's economy, the wellbeing of its citizens and the improvement of its public services. The Act will drive a much greater level of demand for development support from communities at the local level.

In some areas, Local Authorities have 'geared up' their CLD resources to focus on Community Empowerment, but in the majority of areas it is recognised that there is a huge unmet need. The development of locality planning, which makes decision making structures more accessible to communities, will make a further demand on TSIs to support community/Third Sector involvement in these structures. Stakeholders expressed an aspiration for TSIs to be able to support the development of community involvement in locality planning

The enormity of the changes in the health and social care structures through the creation of Integrated Joint Boards presents opportunities for strategic repositioning of the Third Sector in the emerging landscape, and an opportunity for TSIs to further consolidate their position as strategic partners in this area.

Contributing to Scottish Government's vision and policy commitments

The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that the Third Sector is able to play a full role in public service reform through greater involvement in service design and delivery.

As Community Planning Partnerships are the focus for local decision making, this would suggest a need for a local body which acts as an advocate for the sector and provides conduit and brokerage to engage Third Sector with partners in the design and delivery of services and support the voice of people who use services. The 2012 Statement of Ambition set a new direction for outcome-based partnership working in Scotland and the Statement of Ambition places the Third Sector as a strategic partner in Community Planning.


Across the depth study areas, public sector partners repeated the message that they were 'looking to the Third Sector' because cuts in public sector spending were affecting their capacity to meet needs. While there is a need to challenge the notion that the Third Sector is 'cheap' or that the 'voluntary sector' means that services are delivered by volunteers (and therefore free), austerity is also one of the most powerful levers for the involvement of the Third Sector in the delivery of services.

Recommendations for a future model of local infrastructure in Scotland

Limitations to the recommendations

The purpose of this study was to review the current TSI network model and make recommendations on the future strategic direction and approach to Third Sector support in Scotland at the local level. The Scottish Government also funds a range of support for the sector through national and thematic intermediaries. A review of the wider voluntary sector infrastructure is out-with the scope of this study, and as a result our recommendations are based on assumptions that the current national and thematic infrastructure remains as is. Our recommendations relate therefore to the future of local infrastructure, rather than strategic options for wider Third Sector support in Scotland.

"Do nothing" option

During the evaluation process it became evident that there was no appetite for a wholesale change in the model and many of the national and local stakeholders reported that there had been considerable improvements in the network and TSIs in the recent past.

National and local stakeholders also emphasised that:

  • Support for communities is best delivered at the local level.
  • Support must be responsive to local need (one size does not fit all).

However, the evaluation has highlighted serious concerns over the effectiveness of some TSI structures, and significant variation in the quality of services delivered across the network. To retain the status quo would risk some TSIs continuing to fail to deliver on the original vision for support for the Third Sector locally.

The challenges highlighted through this evaluation must be addressed to create a network which is fit for purpose and which can contribute to the Scottish Government's vision for Scotland.


To date the structure and the role of the TSIs has been defined in relation to the four core functions:

  • The development of local structures have focused on bringing together existing organisations ( CVS/ VC and sometime SENS) or creating a new body which could deliver the four functions.
  • The focus on the functional capacity of the TSIs structures has lost sight of capacity of the structure to deliver the overall purpose of the TSI.
  • The focus on the delivery of functions, and the aspirations to provide a common set of services that could be delivered across the country has resulted in TSIs 'stretching their resources' to deliver the four functions. There is a tension between the pressure to deliver 'similar services' and the local needs/priorities.
  • However, there is a clear message from stakeholders that support must be responsive to local need (one size does not fit all).

A number of national stakeholders reported that the focus on the 'four functions' and associated tasks and activities has driven TSIs to be operationally focused, and undermined their capacity as strategic partners:

"We need a smarter way of defining what the Scottish Government funding is for - it's about achieving that vision [Third Sector as a strategic partner] at the local level - not about the functions they deliver" (National Stakeholder)

TSIs also report that the focus on the functions has reduced the emphasis on the more strategic role they have:

"The four functions seem increasingly dated and out of place in the new world we are all trying to create - they feel operational and task focused - we need to move towards TSIs being real strategic partners and leaders of the Third Sector" ( TSI Survey)

It would appear that attention on the 'functions' has resulted in a loss of sight on the core purpose of the TSI. The statement of ambition places the Third Sector as a strategic partner in Community Planning. The core purpose of the TSI is therefore to be a strategic leader to facilitate that change in relationship. This can only be achieved if the Third Sector can engage strategically with partners. Therefore the critical role of local infrastructure is to facilitate this engagement - and it has to happen at the level of the key decision making structure (Community Planning Partnerships, Integrated Joint Boards, locality planning). This is the unique contribution that local infrastructure can make - and is the 'function' that cannot be delivered by a national organisation.

Consequently, the approach for the future should remove the focus on functions and redefine the TSI in terms of its strategic purpose and the outcomes that it delivers at the local level.

What is required for the future?

Recommendation 1: TSIs' core purpose should focus on becoming a strategic vehicle for Third Sector involvement in Community Planning and integration.

The backdrop of the policy drivers which support the concept of more Third Sector participation in decision making, combined with the research findings, lead us to conclude that there is a need for a strategic vehicle for Third Sector involvement in Community Planning and integration and that this should be the core purpose of the TSI model in future.

There is a need for the TSIs' role to be redefined in terms of its strategic focus, and to clarify what is required of a strategic partner (rather than the functions it should deliver). The operational issues that have been identified elsewhere in the report must also be addressed for the TSI network to be fit for purpose and have the credibility to operate as a strategic partner.

As a strategic partner, the driver for the TSI would be the delivery of local outcomes. Outcomes would be agreed at the local level and would respond to local priorities which in turn would feed into the achievement of national outcomes.

This re-positions the TSI in relation to partners and the sector, and would result in the TSI work plan fully reflecting local priorities.

What is the role of the strategic partner?

Developing a vision and strategy for the Third Sector in each area (with the sector and partners) so that there is a shared understanding of the role of the sector, and clear priorities for the development of the sector.

The vision developed would be more explicitly aligned with Community Plan/locality plan priorities, and integration, creating greater understanding among partners of the value of the TSI and the sector to the delivery of local outcomes.

In moving forward in this way, TSI resources would be better aligned with Community Planning Partnerships priorities. As such, it is reasonable to expect that Community Planning Partnerships move towards a position of providing financial support for these strategic partners, recognising that some already do so. This would be in addition to rather than instead of what is currently provided by Scottish Government.

What does that mean for the four core functions?

As a strategic partner, a TSI could continue to deliver similar functions, but it could also deliver functions differently, for example by contracting services. The functions become the tools which support the delivery of the purpose and the achievement of local outcomes. The TSI as strategic partner would be responsible for identifying need and co-ordinating local (and national) resources to meet those priorities rather than, necessarily, a deliverer of services that they currently provide. What they do and how they do it would be defined by local need and outcomes.

Would this reduce the level of services available to the Third Sector? The evaluation identified that there are resources available through regional and national intermediaries (and other TSIs). Some TSIs have been good at co-ordinating resources from other providers, others less so. As a strategic partner, we would expect the TSI role to focus on:

  • levering resources into the area by linking to and collaborating with national and thematic intermediaries who deliver services (reducing duplication, better use of resources); and
  • better collaboration between TSIs to reduce costs and share resources, expertise, and best practice.

What else needs to change to deliver a successful infrastructure model that meets local need across the country?

In exploring how best to deliver the proposed model we would suggest that the Scottish Government, the TSIs and VAS take into account the following factors:

Third Sector Interface organisational structure

The organisational structure must be effective for the purpose (rather than for effective delivery of four functions).

The challenge for the future is to build a local organisation which has strategic capacity rather than delivery capacity.

Recommendation 2: The development of Third Sector Interface structures should focus on building the capacity of the organisation for strategic engagement.

The evidence from the evaluation suggests that while there are examples of effective partnership models, the 'single organisation' model has proved to be most effective as a vehicle for strategic engagement. However, there continue to exist structural barriers to mergers and in some cases sound organisational reasons for partnership models.

Recommendation 3: Scottish Government to fund a Third Sector Interface intermediary body to support the TSIs to deliver their core purpose.

The evaluation has highlighted weaknesses in effectiveness of VAS, but concludes that the TSI network requires an intermediary body.

What does the Third Sector Interface network need from an intermediary?

The role of a TSI intermediary body should be to focus its activity around three key functions:

  • Improving the governance of the TSI network
  • Supporting and developing good governance in the TSI network
    • Providing scrutiny of the network
  • Supporting the network to develop the skills and competencies to deliver as effective strategic partners
    • Supporting improvements in performance
    • Monitoring of TSI performance
  • Influencing the external environment
    • Advocating at the national level to raise awareness of the purpose and impact of TSI
    • Influencing at the national level to create the 'enabling environment' necessary so that TSIs can fulfil their role as strategic partners.

Critical to the success of any future intermediary body representing the TSI network is the following:

  • A clearer purpose and focus so that limited resources are targeted on a small number of key outcomes.
  • Having an organisational structure that is fit for purpose, and the skills, leadership and credibility to meet the needs of a very diverse network of organisations and to represent it at a national level.
  • Clarity of purpose and definition of its unique role in relation to other national intermediary organisations.
  • A clear mandate in relation to quality assurance and intervention in "failing" TSIs.
  • A strategic partnership with the Scottish Government that is based on 'more than money'. Currently the relationship is transactional - the Scottish Government funds VAS to deliver services. The relationship with Government needs to be strategic, based on an understanding of the shared purpose and the shared outcomes that VAS will deliver for the Scottish Government.
  • Credibility with national stakeholders.

The research has identified a number of issues in relation to the governance and operation of VAS which bring into question the organisation's ability to fulfil the role required of it going forward. However VAS is going through a change process and there is a strong message coming from stakeholders that it has the potential to deliver on its purpose.

During our process of consultation, VAS board members undertook a process of reflection in relation to their current role and provided us with a position statement. This position statement includes constructive suggestions for development of the organisation and these have been carefully considered by us in constructing our recommendations.

The research has identified a need for an organisation such as VAS, the question is whether VAS itself can rise to the challenge and be supported by Scottish Government to do so, or whether a new organisation or alternative contracting arrangement is needed.

Our recommendation recognises the continued need for a TSI intermediary body. We have assumed that VAS will continue on the basis that the organisation takes steps to address the issues that have been identified but we recognise that the Scottish Government may require further assurances from the VAS board that these can and will be addressed.

Recommendation 4: Scottish Government, Third Sector Interface network and the intermediary body to work together to draw up partnership agreements which set out the purpose of and the expectations of each partner.

These partnership agreements should include:

  • A description of the purpose of the funding of the TSI
  • A commitment to comply with Scottish Government requirements in relation to quality of governance and management.

Recommendation 5: Voluntary Action Scotland to draw up proposals to improve its own governance including consolidation of recent moves to broaden board membership.

Operational recommendations for Voluntary Action Scotland ( VAS) and the Third Sector Interface ( TSI) network

Recommendation 6: VAS and the TSI network need to ensure quality standards for the delivery of services are put in place and implemented.

Recommendation 7: A programme of leadership development is put in place for TSI Chief Executive Officers and senior staff as well as a development programme for TSI board members.

Recommendation 8: VAS to develop stronger links to national intermediary bodies, to determine opportunities for more extensive collaboration and closer working relationships.

Recommendation 9: VAS to work with national intermediaries to ensure that databases hosted by them (including MILO ) respond to the needs of TSIs and evolve to respond to needs arising from TSIs' enhanced new role.

Recommendation 10: VAS, through the Services, Quality, Impact Group, together with the TSI network and Scottish Government, to support the work on developing an outcomes framework for the TSI network. This could include a menu of common outcomes which TSIs could be expected to deliver at the local level (although recognising that actual outcomes will be co-produced at the local level).

Recommendation 11: VAS and the TSIs undertake a review of their own governance arrangements to ensure that they are fit for purpose.

This is likely to include:

  • A review and update where necessary of their constitution and/or memorandum and articles.
  • Organisation membership.
  • Board composition including the number of external trustees and the role/status of the chair and duration of appointments.
  • Governing structures such as sub-committees and working groups.
  • Trustee recruitment and appointment processes.
  • Trustee skills audit.

Resourcing the network

The development of the TSI network must be financed within the existing level of resources. We suggest that the re-focussing of their role takes place through a re-alignment of existing budgets, but this may have implications for infrastructure funding more widely.

Recommendation 12: It is out of the scope of this study to consider the funding which the Scottish Government invests in the Third Sector infrastructure. However, the Scottish Government should consider its total investment in Third Sector intermediaries and infrastructure at a national level to reduce duplication and ensure best value.

Recommendation 13: TSIs to consider opportunities for increased efficiencies, including through exploring the potential for cross-boundary cost-sharing; sharing back-office functions; and sharing key staff posts.

Recommendation 14: Scottish Government should pursue strategic dialogue with other key funders to explore new opportunities for funding engagement and support of the sector at the local level.

There are resources in the system focused on supporting communities to engage in decision making structures, but they are focused on different decision making structures, including:

  • Community Learning and Development ( CLD) resources:
    • In some areas, CLD departments are driving the development of locality plans.
  • NHS Pubic Involvement:
    • NHS Boards have a statutory responsibility to communicate with and involve the communities they serve in decisions around the provision of care and has resources dedicated to this function.
  • Integrated Joint Boards:
    • are resourcing separate engagement structures for public and Third Sector and carer engagement.

As the Community Empowerment Act comes into force, the development of locality planning will increase the demand for engagement at the local level. The Community Empowerment Act 'requires Community Planning Partnerships to consider which community bodies could contribute to community planning, and make all reasonable efforts to get these bodies involved. Statutory partners must contribute money, staff or other resources to secure this participation.'

At the moment, there are a number of decision making structures which require community engagement, and different structures to service each of these. Looking forward, the public sector needs to consider how it can better harness the resources required for 'community engagement' across all of these structures.

The Scottish Government should require Community Planning Partnership partners to explore new models which could lever efficiencies for the public sector by 'pooling' resources for community engagement. For example, Community Planning Partnerships and Integrated Joint Boards could explore models where existing 'community engagement' staff from different agencies are seconded to a central 'engagement team' delivered centrally by the TSI.

Influencing the external environment

Recommendation 15: Scottish Government to take further steps to reinforce the recommendations outlined in the Audit Commission report on community planning and host round table discussions with the National Community Planning Group and with national stakeholders to build awareness of purpose of the TSI Network.

Recommendation 16: The role of the TSI intermediary organisation to be defined in relation to that of other national intermediaries.

Recommendation 17: Scottish Government to endorse the role of the network and promote and advocate on its behalf to consolidate its position among local partners and national intermediaries.

Recommendation 18: Scottish Government, the TSIs and their intermediary body to consider how best to raise awareness and understanding about the role of the TSIs moving forward to build a better understanding of the TSIs, of the sector and of the challenges at the local level. This could take the form of learning exchanges within the network and between the network and others.


Jacqueline Rae:

Back to top