Immediately after the Conservatives presented their vision of the Big Society, David Cameron walked down the road and helped launch the Big Society Network. However, he was at pains to emphasise it was a non-partisan initiative, and he hoped Labour would support the idea if they won the election.
What’s it all about? I went along to the launch, and was able to interview the two key people behind the network, as well as shoot David Cameron’s speech, so you can make some judgements for yourself.
Certainly the structure of the Big Society Network is different, and designed for independence: neighbourhood groups seeking support for social action can become shareholders in what is a mutual organisation. The aim is to have over 15 million members by 2020.
The chair, Nat Wei, is a former McKinsey consultant with experience in venture philanthropy, venture capital and social enterprise. He is founder of Teach First, former CEO of Future Leaders, working with several other charities.
The chief executive, Paul Twivy has started and run communication and advertising agencies, worked at the BBC, and been involved with Comic Relief for 20 years. He’s also worked with Pilotlight and TimeBank, Change the World for a Fiver, and was CEO of The Big Lunch. That led to 8000 events and 730,000 people meeting their neighbours.
The Big Society is a society in which we as individuals don’t feel small. Does our society pass this test at the moment? Well, only 4 out of 10 of us believe that we can influence local decisions. Only 1 in 33 of us attend public meetings. We feel anger and frustration at the recent behaviour of both the City and Westminster and relatively powerless to change them. We are often anonymous tax-payers without a real sense of how our money gets spent. Most of us try to be reasonably good citizens but our influence seems very small.
The Big Society Network is an organisation being set up by frustrated citizens for frustrated citizens, to help everyone achieve change in their local area. Our aim is to create a new relationship between Citizens and Government in which both are genuine partners in getting things done: real democracy using all the human and technological tools we now have available. This partnership will also add a third and fourth leg to its sturdy chair by involving business and the voluntary sector.
… and adds:
Our aim is to not only create the largest co-operative or mutual in Britain, but to create a mutual that is Britain. Every citizen can be a shareholder, contribute, receive help and rewards.
The Network is, above all, practical. It’s an enormous tool-box of advice, case histories, links to people and resources, using the power of the Internet, Mobiles and face-to-face action.
There’s been little online reaction to the network from people involved in social action, because the launch was aimed more at potential supporters and funders. Julian Dobson ponders One network to rule them all??, noting we have quite a few already, and remarking:
The Big Society wants to offer breadth, but it has to do more than simply aggregate everyone else’s efforts. What’s difficult to see at the moment is how and where it will offer depth – and what support it will offer to those who are already doing the groundwork.
Still, it’s clearly fronted by some very bright people. Let’s hope more will be revealed soon.
I’m optimistic about the network, because of what I heard, and because – I should also declare - one of the other people involved is Steve Moore, who I’ve worked with on 2gether08 and other events. He’s done more than anyone I know in London over the past few years to connect an extraordinary range of people involved in social innovation with policy people, politicians, funders and anyone likely to help you get things done.
Anyway, I’ve signed up. I’m not yet quite sure where it’s going, but it’s going to be fun. And it’s our network, our society … so it’s up to us.