External Review of Alcohol Focus Scotland

The review was part of a rolling programme of reviews of voluntary sector agencies that receive more than £100k / year in grant funding from the Scottish Government. The main aim was to assess whether the Scottish Government is receiving value for money in relation to the grant it provides to AFS.

Executive Summary

1. The Scottish Government commissioned Griesbach & Associates (Dawn Griesbach and Audrey Mistry) to carry out an independent review of Alcohol Focus Scotland (AFS). AFS is a national non-governmental alcohol agency that works in partnership with the Scottish Government and with other agencies in the voluntary and statutory sectors to reduce the harm caused by alcohol.

2. This review was part of a rolling programme of reviews (carried out every six years) of voluntary sector agencies that receive more than £100k / year in grant funding from the Scottish Government. The main aim was to assess whether the Scottish Government is receiving value for money in relation to the grant it provides to AFS. In particular, the review was asked to:

  • assess AFS's short- and long-term strategic planning processes, and the organisation's performance in, and contribution to, the delivery of the Scottish Government's Framework for Action on alcohol;
  • carry out a basic "health check" of AFS's internal procedures in relation to human resources; standing financial instructions and internal / external audit; and
  • identify AFS's key strengths, which can be built upon, and propose solutions to any weaknesses which need to be addressed.

3. The study involved an extensive documentary review; interviews and focus groups with AFS staff and other internal stakeholders; interviews with external stakeholders; and observations of two meetings.

About AFS (section 2)

4. The appointment of a new Chief Executive in May 2010 was followed by a comprehensive internal review of all areas of AFS's work. This has led to a clearer articulation of the organisation's core functions and strategic priorities, and a more direct focus on outcomes as demonstrated through logic modelling.

AFS's contribution to the delivery of the Framework for Action (section 3)

5. AFS has made a positive and significant contribution to Scottish Government policy on tackling over-consumption of alcohol. It has done this by gathering and disseminating evidence, gaining political and professional support for its messages and supporting licensing boards and forums to becoming more effective in relation to their public health objective. In relation to future grant funding, it may be helpful if the Scottish Government could set out, in general terms, its expectations of AFS.

Strategic planning (section 4)

6. AFS has a clear strategy in place, and this was developed through consultation with stakeholders. In the past 12-18 months, the organisation's activities and staffing have been restructured to align with its strategic direction, and programmes of work have been developed with timescales attached. This process was still ongoing at the time of this review, but it was clear that the organisation had made substantial progress and was continuing to move in a positive direction.

7. Like many organisations in the voluntary sector, AFS has faced significant financial pressures in the past two years. However, the development of a formal income generation strategy and a move to align financial planning with strategic planning is beginning to bear fruit. AFS is currently working at capacity, and additional resources will be required to enable the organisation to progress with particular objectives. At the same time, an internal review of AFS's income-generating training function may lead to further restructuring.

8. Future strategic planning should involve a wider range of stakeholders, while partnership working would benefit from agreeing expectations with partner agencies. AFS has recently established an Advisory Board, and the role of this group needs to be clarified and formalised.

Human resources (section 5)

9. AFS has a stable and highly committed staff group who fully supported the new strategic vision for the organisation and who understood their role in contributing to key objectives. A new staff appraisal system was put in place in 2011 and an overhaul of staff policies and procedures in 2010 has produced a policy set in which individual policies are fit for purpose. However AFS may benefit from comparing their policy set with that of other similar organisations to identify areas for further development.

10. This review highlighted a need for additional skills in the areas of finance and human resources. Further work should also be undertaken to develop a workforce plan and a training and development programme, as well as carrying out an ongoing analysis of equalities monitoring data.

Financial management (section 6)

11. AFS has good financial procedures in place and new procedures have been developed to more accurately monitor the organisation's financial status. AFS receives income from a variety of sources, including from grants, trusts and individual donors. Most of its self-generated income comes from the delivery of training, workshops or consultancy. An internal review of AFS's training function (ongoing at the time of this project), and a move towards full cost recovery, was expected to result in a clearer understanding of the cost-benefits of this aspect of AFS's work.

12. A projected substantial deficit identified in 2010-11 was tacked robustly, and by September 2011, the situation had been turned around. However, further work is needed to fully align financial planning with strategic planning. It is likely that there will be an ongoing need for fundraising in the future. This is a very resource intensive activity, and AFS will need to carefully monitor the cost-effectiveness of current fundraising arrangements.

Quality assurance (section 7)

13. This review identified a commitment within AFS to continuous improvement. The appointment of the new Chief Executive has led to positive developments in strategic planning, finance, HR and internal / external monitoring and evaluation. There was some evidence of the use of benchmarking in AFS, and further use of this in areas of HR would be beneficial. The organisation is currently developing a formal monitoring and evaluation framework which should be in place by March 2012.

Strengths and areas for development (section 8)

14. AFS has positioned itself as the leading independent voice on alcohol in Scotland. It has had an influence on the current direction of alcohol policy in Scotland, and is beginning to have an influence across the UK and internationally.

15. Areas for development relate to obtaining funding for specific areas of work such as "third party harm" and projecting young people from alcohol marketing. AFS also require to clarify its role in relation to supporting front-line services.


16. On the basis of evidence gathered in this review, it is concluded that AFS is providing good value for money. The organisation is now more directly focused on achieving outcomes, and these outcomes align with the Scottish Government's own national outcomes.

17. The complexity of the alcohol message as compared with, for example, the smoking message, is an important reason for the Scottish Government to continue to invest funding in AFS. AFS plays an important role not only in gathering evidence, but in translating the complexity of that evidence into straight-forward messages for policy / decision-makers.


Email: Iain MacAllister

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