The national press finally picked up on the dodgy goings on around the Big Society Network that Tania Mason from Civil Society Media has been pursuing for some time and which I blogged about last week. Let’s put to one side the Independent’s rather creative use of the term ‘exclusive’ on its front-page coverage on Saturday and instead applaud them for covering the story.
The way the Prime Minister hung his hat on the Big Society stall and invested a great deal of personal political capital in supporting the Big Society Network make this more than just a story of administrative incompetence. The NAO report into three grants awarded to Big Society Network/Society Network Foundation highlighted how the behaviour of the Cabinet Office and the Big Lottery Fund fell well below the standards we should expect from public bodies.
Then, as has been widely reported, former Nesta trustee Liam Black announced on twitter (in response to my blog post) that they had been ‘forced’ to put money into BSN. Nesta was at that time a public body.
But it does not stop there….
As Richard Caulfield highlighted in his blog the Department for Communities and Local Government were also in on the act, almost immediately after the 2010 general election, seconding staff to support BSN. Five staff from the Department were lent to help establish BSN without any ‘formal secondment arrangement’– that sounds a lot like civil-service-speak for cronyism to me – at a cost of £25,000 to the taxpayer.
“The BSN is independent from government and has not received any direct financial support from it” the DCLG went on to say in response to an FOI request.
Maybe they did not know about the £80,000 funding from Nesta (which was followed soon after with a further £400,000).
I remember at the time receiving emails purportedly from BSN but sent from DCLG email accounts. I was confused whether the email was from someone within the government or from an independent organisation. Clearly independence is something that I understand in a different way to some civil servants.
It is not yet clear who was calling the shots here. We should know who was doing the ‘forcing’ of Nesta. Nor is it clear who at the Cabinet Office demanded that the eligibility criteria for the Social Action Fund be changed after the closing date for applications.
The NAO report’s scope was quite narrow and looked solely at the process of awarding these three grants but it is essential that questions to these broader questions are now asked – and answered.
Shadow Charities Minister Lisa Nandy is pressing for answers and I hope we will start to get some answers.
Among other things I would like to know is what role did the Prime Minister and Cabinet Office Ministers Nick Hurd and Francis Maude play in decisions relating to the Big Society Network?
The Charity Commission are investigating whether public money was misappropriated by the Charity (though I’m not clear whether they have any jurisdiction over the non-charitable companies through which public money was channelled).
However I am more concerned by the behaviour of Ministers and officials than I am about the Big Society Network itself. If BSN was asking for public money for some half-baked proposal that’s their business, but for those in public office to sanction vast amounts of money to be pumped into it, that’s something different.
I hope that Parliament will look very carefully at what’s been going on. I hope the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) will investigate what appears to be a serious breach of the quality and standards of administration within the Civil Service.
And once we’ve had answers to the questions surrounding the funding of BSN, then I suggest we turn our attention to the National Citizens Service, the scheme designed to offer volunteering opportunities to 16 and 17 year olds. The Office for Civil Society (the bit of the Cabinet Office which was so keen to support BSN) has been spending around half of its budget on this programme – £62m in 2012-13.
That’s a lot of money and I would be very interested to have a spotlight shone on that too…as I’m sure there are some equally interesting issues to see there. Though perhaps, first things first, we should finish what has been started with the funding for Big Society Network fiasco.