When former Nesta trustee Liam Black responded to my blog on funding of the Big Society Network by saying that Nesta had been ‘forced’ to fund David Cameron’s favourite charity, there were shockwaves. What had been a sector specific story was suddenly propelled into the mainstream media, with the Independent on Sunday claiming an ‘exclusive’ on its headline. What followed was a chain reaction of investigations, internal inquiries, parliamentary questions and, errr, the odd blog post. Among these was Nesta’s own internal inquiry conducted by their CEO and former No.10 policy head, Geoff Mulgan.
The findings, which were subsequently published on Nesta’s website, found no evidence of any wrong-doing. Now Liam has blow open the whole affair by posting his recollections of events surrounding the awarding of nearly £500,000. Liam makes it abundantly clear that Nesta’s trustees were told in no uncertain terms that funding BSN would make their life considerably easier.
Geoff, who wasn’t at Nesta at the time, has been in and around government long enough to know that no Minister, Special Advisor or civil servant would be foolish enough to put anything into writing ‘telling’ an independent body what to do. He should also know that just because there’s no evidence of something it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Recent events surrounding the absence of documents relating to child abuse at the highest level tell us that.
The murky ways in which government exerts influence over independent bodies, charities and others is too rarely put into the spotlight. Liam is to be applauded for putting his head above the parapet and shining a light on the affair. Whilst I utterly reject the sort of thinking espoused by the Institute for Economic Affairs in describing charities as ‘sock puppets’, I do think that the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in which government leans on those it funds is utterly unacceptable. Sure they want their ‘pound of flesh’ but as any good grant maker knows, when you give the money you should step back and allow the organisation you are funding to get on with what they do best.
The role of public-funded grant makers is something I have recently suggested needs to be debated by the public. We also need to take a look at the composition of the boards of these organisations to ensure they reflect the communities they are intended to serve and are not simply a resting home for the great and the good. At the moment the appointments to public bodies and boards is like a merry-go-round for the already powerful.
‘Non-exec directorship Mr ex-Minister?’
‘Don’t mind if I do’
This government has been a strong advocate for transparency and open government. Wouldn’t it be nice if they extended this enthusiasm to their own murky practice?