The National Audit Office’s second investigation into funding awarded to the Big Society Network, and its parent body the Society Network Foundation, was published last week. It is peppered with descriptions of Big Society Network’s activity by those who funded it as ‘disappointing’ ‘weak’ ‘concerns’ and ‘performed poorly’. And yet, despite all the disappointment those funders obviously felt the money continued to roll in. Over £3 million pounds of public money in total.
I don’t know about you, but if I see someone wasting £3 million pounds of public money ‘disappointing’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. I would be incandescent with rage. I would be fuming. Completely and utterly livid.
What is disappointing is that those holding the purse strings on trust for all of us can be so blasé about such a scandalous waste of public money. That is certainly disappointing.
What is also disappointing is the lack of responsibility the Prime Minister is taking over this whole sorry affair.
Consider the facts as the NAO present them:
The Prime Minister’s Office “asked the Minister for Civil Society to renew funding” – this after the Cabinet Office had withdrawn funding for one Big Society Network project and been judged to be performing poorly in its wider contribution to the Big Society. As a result BSN were awarded further funds.
Officials at the Cabinet Office advised that it “would not be appropriate to grant fund an organisation that is in financial difficulty or that is struggling to appropriately manage its financial affairs”.
When Society Network Foundation eventually filed their statutory accounts (several months late) they showed a deficit of £181,000. Clearly someone with the authority to do so decided to ignore the advice.
The Prime Minister’s Big Society advisor, Lord (Nat) Wei – and a founder of the Big Society Network, who had stood down as its Chair to take up his governmental role – had asked Nesta to fund BSN. Nesta was an Non Departmental Public Body at this time (now it is a charity) and reported to the Department for Business. Liam Black, who was a trustee of Nesta at the time, has stated very clearly that the request may not have come as a diktat in a written memo, but he still described it as being ‘forced’ to fund them.
The PM launched Big Society Network at Downing Street.
He has though been (un)surprisingly quiet on its fall from grace or his own role in the affair.
Steve Moore, the former CEO of the Big Society Network, has published his own take on the affair – having been somewhat quiet over recent months. He suggests Shadow Charities Minister Lisa Nandy and publications such as Civil Society News are wrong to focus on the role of the Prime Minister in decisions about funding for BSN. Moore suggests that their claims of the PM being involved are ‘absurd’ and concludes that “Politics may have contributed…more to the demise of Society Network Foundation than they ever did to its life”.
Certainly the questions surrounding the Big Society Network have become political, but I would suggest things became politicised the day David Cameron chose to personally launch it at No.10, having appointed one of its founders as his Big Society Advisor and giving him a Peerage.
BSN’s CEO at the time, Paul Twivy, is quoted in the No. 10 official press release as saying:
“The Big Society network will be an independently-funded and run voice of the citizen, enabler of the citizen and partner to government.”
That description sounds rather ridiculous in hindsight.
At its launch, the Prime Minister said BSN would be “an organisation that brings all the elements of the Big Society together”. Ironically in light of its demise, I suspect that statement might be something that even Big Society’s fiercest critics might find themselves agreeing with.