As the National Audit Office (NAO) launches a second investigation into government funding of the Big Society Network, I decided to offer up a simple guide to what’s what and who’s who in the rise and fall and fall again of David Cameron’s ‘big idea’…
David Cameron launches ‘the Big Society’ as his ‘big idea’ in the run-up to the 2010 General Election. Communities will be given the opportunity to step up and realise their ambitions for their areas. Met by general bemusement and confusion by the general public, commentators and policy geeks offer up their own views on what it means. My own take, at the time, was to describe it as ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue’. The jury remains out over whether Big Society is anything more than a way to bring about massive cuts to public services.
Big Society Network (a for-profit company) is established as an independent organisation with the aim of realising the Government’s Big Society aims. BSN’s independence doesn’t prevent the Prime Minister hosting their launch. The Society Network Foundation is set up as a charity and the parent body of the BSN.
Ministers and their advisors, such as Big Society ambassador, Nat Wei (who is soon made a Lord for his trouble) go into overdrive with public bodies and funders to ‘encourage’ them to put money into the ‘independent’ organisation. An offer that’s simply ‘too good to refuse’ a number of funders including the Big Lottery Fund, the Cabinet Office and Nesta oblige with grants of more than £2m.
Despite the huge investment to an organisation with no track record of doing anything, Big Society Network’s flagship project – Your Square Mile – fails short of the 1 million volunteers they said they would recruit, by some 999,936.
Prompted by questions from the Shadow Charities Minister, Gareth Thomas MP and constant murmurings within the not for profit sector, the National Audit Office launch an investigation into whether grants made by the Big Lottery Fund (BIG) and the Cabinet Office breached their own rules and procedures.
They find that although procedures had been followed (though one wonders whether these procedures were actually fit for purpose) the Cabinet Office had interfered in the administration of the Social Action Fund that it had out-sourced to Social Investment Business (SIB). The Cabinet Office had instructed SIB to ‘look again’ at the BSN’s funding proposal – until they got the ‘right answer’ – and even changed the eligibility criteria, to make sure they weren’t excluded.
Clearly advocating the Samuel Beckett school of grant making – Try again, fail again, fail better. BIG managed to completely overlook the fact that BSN had failed spectacularly to deliver on the first project they had funded, and unperturbed they decided to award them another grant.
Both the Cabinet Office and BIG deny any wrong-doing and remain bullish in defending their actions.
In response to my blog on the NAO report, former Nesta trustee Liam Black announced on twitter that they had been ‘forced’ to fund the Big Society Network. Nesta deny any wrong doing (are you sensing a pattern here?)…but there’s no disputing the money they put in.
New Shadow Charities Minister Lisa Nandy continues to ask questions and presses the government over the affair and the national press picks up the story (offering up an ‘exclusive’ which stretches the term somewhat, since the story had been covered not just by me, but by Civil Society magazine and others…but hey ho). The Charity Commission confirms that they are looking into the dealings of the Society Network Foundation.
The government announces that they are seeking to recoup £34,000 of funds given to Big Society Network – that’s less than 1.5% of the money they’d been given! Questions are asked whether this grand gesture is more than a not-so-subtle diversion from their own role in the affair.
The trustees of Society Network Foundation issue a statement on their website defending themselves over accusations of impropriety. Two weeks later they decide to throw in the towel and trustees initiate proceedings to wind up the beleaguered charity.
Nesta chief executive Geoff Mulgan (who was not at the organisation at the time of their awards to BSN) launches an investigation into their own conduct in the affair. His report makes clear that Government Ministers and Special Advisors did ask Nesta to support BSN but found no evidence that they were ‘forced’ to do so. But he does acknowledge that “NESTA clearly did not want to antagonise a recently elected government by refusing any involvement in projects linked to its flagship Big Society programme”. You can interpret that as you like.
Later, after Geoff had joined Nesta as CEO, the Big Society Network came knocking again. This time they were not given any money.
Meanwhile Ministers remain quiet on the subject. David Cameron appears to have lost the appetite for talking about his big idea (despite former Tory speech writer Danny Kruger’s suggestion he should ‘start proclaiming’ about it again).
And that is the story of the rise and fall and fall again of the Big Society and its leading advocates.