More about The Big Society Network

As I wrote the other day, the Big Society Network was launched immediately after the Conservative Big Society seminar … both with speeches from Tory leader David Cameron.

At the seminar Mr Cameron promised “a neighbourhood army” of 5000 professional community organisers “that would give communities the help they need to work together and tackle their problems”. This produced some approving noises from activists and disapproval from right of centre Tory organisations, as I wrote here. The Conservativehome blog has followed up with a challenge to the critics and powerful support for the idea of providing a “voice for the voiceless”.

Some individuals are so broken that they need intervention to help them stand on their own two feet. That certainly was the lesson of US welfare reform where the long-term unemployed needed all sorts of help with transport and self-esteem in order to leave welfare and the culture of welfare behind. Can we expect children who’ve never been properly parented to become good parents automatically? Can we expect communities that have only lived under the dead hand of the state to become vibrant centres of voluntarism without all sorts of supportive advice?

There’s been rather less coverage of the Big Society Network, that was launched by Nat Wei and Paul Twivy (see my piece with video interview here). There was a launch document, but I don’t think it is online anywhere yet, so I thought it worth doing a scan and making it available here, below.

The launch was aimed at potential funders and supporters, so there’s not much detail about how the network will collaborate with existing civil society organisations and networks … though Nat and Paul did emphasise that in the interview I recorded. I’m hoping to find out more about that, and the way that the network relates to David Cameron “army”, and the proposed Big Society Day. Both Cameron and the network founders were anxious to emphasise its independence, but with a similar brand there’s bound to be some confusion. The Conservativehome blog category is Big Society Network.

The tone – if not yet the substance – of Nat and Paul’s presentations and interview gave me hope that they’ll bring something different to social action. Inevitably existing network organisations supporting neighbourhood action will be concerned about whether the the new network will bring new money or compete with funders for theirs. I’ve some sympathy – although a bit of competition won’t hurt if it is based on a more appealing proposition to potentially active citizens.

I gather from my chat at and after the launch that guest blogging will be welcome on the Big Society Networking site. I’m wondering whether to pitch in. What do you think? Or maybe we can come up with a set of questions for Nat and Paul to get things started?

We won’t really know the substance of the Conservative Big Society plans unless Mr Cameron wins the election, and these proposals have been fed into new departments. Whatever comes out the other end may look rather different.

On the other hand, the Network plans to operate under any Government, so it’s fair enough explore their plans in more detail while the civil servants have their heads down in pre-election purdah. Could be a good opportunity to tell any government what’s really needed at neighbourhood level, and what it might take to support social action.

Here’s the Network launch document, by Nat Wei & Paul Twivy. It’s certainly bold.


The Challenge
Despite many local and laudable successes, Britain’s social fabric is fraying.

Fewer than 2 in 5 people feel able to influence local decisions, a decline of over 10% since 2001, and 97% of communities are more fragmented than 30 years ago, while volunteering levels have not gone up since 2001.

Our Objective
We will create the UK’s biggest mutual, with over 15 million members by 2020. We will provide support so “everyone is able to be an active citizen”, and champion social action so “everyone wants to be an active citizen.”

Our Approach
We want to redefine citizenship, making being a citizen and contributing to the community part of daily life for the many, rather than a something that happens infrequently for a few. In doing so, we will help foster Big Society: a new relationship between citizens, business, the voluntary sector, and the state, in which all are active and willing co-participants in social change.

Every citizen in England and Wales will be able to use the Network to achieve their goals and, by registering their activity, become a shareholder in the network and receive non-financial dividends. These dividends will be sourced from local councils, national Government, charitable partners and private sponsors, and will be graduated so that more involvement and activity reaps greater rewards.

Our Program
The Network will seek to:

  • Promote civic action, especially among people who do not currently contribute, by building popular awareness and introduCing new advisory services.
  • Empower civic action by providing new tools to make social action easier and new powers to give community groups greater control of their local environment.
  • Catalyse civic action by encouraging and incentivising people to identify shared problems, and develop innovative community solutions.

Our Implementation Plan
Once launched, we will begin by focusing on generating interest in social action, tackling the idea that you need to be an “activist” to get involved in your community. Through heartfelt, fun, intelligent and honest marketing, we will seek to increase involvement in social action for all people, no matter how much or how little time they have.

Building on this awareness, we will identify and market the opportunities to create The Big Society. Many people need to start with “baby steps,” a visceral, uplifting experience of social action, and we will provide easy starting points that create a ladder toward more involved and high-commitment projects.

We will support these activities with three main tools, developed with technology partners on an open source basis:

  • A contact platform to help citizens find ways to get involved based on their location, skills, availability, mobility, interests and other key criteria.
  • A campaign platform to enable people to register groups, enlist members, fundraise, gain recognition, organise meetings, and, ultimately, access statutory rights and public resources.
  • A feedback platform to enable people to give quick feedback on participants inside and outside the big society community, from groups and public bodies to businesses and voluntary bodies.

These operational details will be developed over the course of 2010-11.

The piloting, testing and implementation of Big Society Network technology platforms will occur over 18 months, beginning in the Q3 2010. We expect to have key programs in each of the three focus areas underway in the first half of 2011, and a full roll-out by the start of 2012.

Team and Governance
The Big Society Network will be developed as an industrial and provident society, forming what will be the largest co-operative in Britain. The Network will work with leading social enterprise organizations, associations, businesses and strategic partners such as the government of the day to help build a broad-based movement. The initial leadership team includes:

  • Nat Wei, Executive Chair: a founder of Teach First and other high profile social enterprises.
  • Paul Twivy, CEO: a long-term adviser to Comic Relief, and co-founder of We Are What We Do and The Big Lunch.
  • Other activists, opinion-formers, and social entrepreneurs with strong track records from the field of campaigning, social media, broadcasting, and policy-making.

Over time, a Board will be formed with representatives from citizens, government, business, and the voluntary sector to help ensure that it truly represents British civil society. The Network will also seek to establish local democratic governance arrangement harnessing the principle of “one member, one vote.”

Measuring our Impact
Ultimately, we will judge our impact based on how many members we have our to become the UK’s biggest mutual by 2020. Along the way, measures of success will include:

  • High levels of participation from community groups, as measured both by registration with the network and activity through the network (e.g. via its communication platforms).
  • Significant increases in levels of individual civic engagement (e.g., volunteering rates, giving levels), and participation in formal civic institutions as surveyed by Network volunteers .
  • Strong, increasing income from the Network’s revenue-generating activities, indicating sustainable demand for its citizen support services to individuals and organisations.

Finances and Funding
The Big Society Network start-up budget will be £2-2.5m in the first 18 months, and we expect the long-term operational budget to be ~£3m per year. Funding will be split between three revenue streams: Individual donations, sponsorships, and revenue-generating activities. In the first six months, we plan to raise £300k through donations from individuals, and another £lm from trusts and foundations over the first year. This will provide for the up-front costs of the network. We will raise the remainder of budget for the first 18 months from sponsorships.

From 2012, we will establish a sustainable business model based on income from revenue-generating activities, including advisory services (hotline, premium users), memberships, and user data-based consulting services (e.g., for polling and predictive services). We expect to complement these revenues with ongoing sponsorships, individual donations, and foundation funding. The aim will be for activity-generated income to allow the Network to be self-sustaining by 2015, with any surpluses ploughed back into the movement.

Founders’ Circle
Supporters of the Network in its first six months will be invited to join the Founders’ Circle in recognition of their contribution. The Circle will serve as an informal advisory panel to the Network, helping shape its implementation through quarterly meetings with Network’s leadership team, and members will be invited to private update and appreciation events with interested political and social stakeholders.

David Cameron seminar speech – The Conservative Party
Activists approve Tory Big Society, taxpayers object. Must be interesting – Socialreporter
Launching the Big Society Network – Socialreporter
The Big Society Network – official site
The IEA and TPA condemn Cameron’s plan to train 5,000 community workers – Conservative Home


  • April 8, 2010 - 12:15 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this – very helpful. I’ve posted some more thoughts here:

  • Pingback: "Big Society": Bottom up or arse down? | Jock's Place

  • April 8, 2010 - 8:43 am | Permalink

    Thanks Julian – tried posting this comment to your blog, but couldn’t get a profile. Anyway ….
    I posted the Big Society Network launch document to see if we could spark some discussion pre-election on what’s needed at neighbourhood and national level to support social action, so we are a bit more warmed up for whatever government we get. I think there’s some good ideas in the Conservative proposals … and the Network … and some potential problems.
    Without more discussion there’s a danger, if the Tories win, that the unexamined package is handed to someone in Cabinet Office with instructions to come up with some quick announcements.
    If Labour is back the good will be binned with the less-good.
    I can understand social entrepreneurs being a little cautious about engaging too heavily one way or the other with the Tory plans, but the Network is billed as independent and so could provide a neutral space to develop more thought-out ideas.
    Thanks for getting us started.

  • April 8, 2010 - 8:56 am | Permalink

    I think you’re right to engage with this, and I think the network needs both critical friends and friendly critics. I’ve probably blown my chance to join the Founders’ Circle so it might be a good idea for you to stay involved and use your guest blogging privileges!

  • April 8, 2010 - 9:03 am | Permalink

    Thanks Julian – that critical friends/friendly critics point is useful in figuring out a role. I hope that’s something a social reporter can do, along with other things. Who pays is another issue, of course …

  • April 8, 2010 - 11:04 am | Permalink

    My experience of Paul Twivy in the build up to the launch of The Big Lunch was that he talks partnership but actually just wants people to join in his BIG idea, as good as it may seem or be.
    If his approach is similar, The Big Society will very marketing led but with little substance behind it. What about the blocks to volunteering such as CRB checks, risk aversion and insurance, mobility in society resulting in people having fewer connections with their community. And with street parties, councils requiring road closure charges and insurance stop at least half of the country joining in. I welcome his fresh approach but the plain human relations behind communities cannot be branded.

  • April 9, 2010 - 5:04 pm | Permalink

    The Big Society Network blog is inviting more ideas so I’ve added some in critical friend mode

  • Pingback: The Big Scary Network we are powerless to resist? | Jock's Place

  • Comments are closed.