Big Society Brouhaha: Silly old me and my middle-aged memory

As the National Audit Office runs its second investigation into the funding of the Big Society Network, Liam Black recalls his time as a Nesta trustee asked to fund the network at a critical time in Nesta's own history. 

Dear Jude –

Middle age is terrible isn’t it? Hair loss, aching joints, good looks fading fast, performance, er, dropping in all departments. And don't start me on my memory. Do you know what? Sometimes I really believe I have a clear memory of something only to be told by someone else that I’m quite wrong.

So, there I was on Twitter in the summer and up pops a link to a blog by Toby Blume about the National Audit Office finding that the Cabinet Office and the Big Lottery Fund had failed to follow some of their own procedures and guidelines in the management of more than £2m of grants awarded to the Big Society Network and the Society Network Foundation, the charity that owned it.

The BS Network was launched four years ago at Number 10 by Prime Minister David Cameron himself with much hype about the visionary, transformative powers of the Big Society idea. I have no idea if the BS Network funders are visionaries but there is now plenty of evidence that – at actually executing their plans to transform the country – they are some way short of genius. They promised, for example, that they'd recruit a million people to one of their projects. Have a guess, Jude, how many they actually recruited? 64. Not 64,000 or even 6,400. Sixty. Four. Anyway I tweeted bravo to Toby and said that Nesta – on whose board I sat for a couple of years – had been, like the other funders, "forced" to fund BS Network.

I left Nesta in April 2012 and – like at least 999,936 of my fellow citizens – I hadn't given the Big Society a second's thought since until I saw Toby’s blog...


3 monkeys


Anyway, I switched to Facebook to peruse the knee surgery and Viagra ads and thought no more of it.  But, Jude, stamp me vitals, if it didn't all kick off. Within minutes journalists popped up in my Twitter stream wanting interviews. Over the next couple of days the BBC wanted me and my tweet was quoted on the front of the Sunday national press. It seems I am the first decision maker who had handed cash over to the BS Network who has broken ranks from behind carefully worded minutes.

After a few days the furore subsided and we all went back to being fabulously innovative and socially impactful. I was intent on leaving it there. It was in my past, no-one died and who cares about the Big Society any more (even the Bullingdon Boys don’t mention it these days)? And then lo! What's this quietly uploaded to the Nesta website? Geoff Mulgan – who wasn’t at Nesta at the time but is now Nesta CEO – has had a good long look at the paperwork and talked to a few people and come to the conclusion that Nesta wasn't in any way compelled to give money and it was all tickety-boo. Nothing to see here. Move on.

Well, you can imagine how relieved I was to read all that in a report by a man who wasn't in the room when the decisions were made. Dearie me, it seems my rickety memory has let me down.

I could have sworn that during Nesta’s confused and complex transition from semi-quango status to independent foundation (involving loads of shuttle diplomacy, urgent, quickly-organised conference calls and really hard graft by Nesta execs like Philip Colligan) that it had been made crystal clear to we trustees that funding the BS Network was one way we could smooth the transition and avoid being tossed onto the bonfire of the quangos.      

But it seems my memory is clearly faulty on this too.

I thought I remembered a very grown up and robust conversation amongst the trustees. I thought we had decided that we would hold our noses and make a grant to the BS Network – which did fall well within our funding criteria – and keep our eyes on the big prize of getting free of just this kind of bullshit government interference.

But obviously again my memory must be faulty on this point.

We were not “forced” by written diktat or a minister standing in the room holding a gun at our heads. That’s not how the establishment exerts its influence and exercises its political patronage is it Jude? I thought I remembered clearly it was obvious that the government believed – in the heady flush of being back in power ­– that they had us – a New Labour creation in 1998 – by the balls and were squeezing.

I was so sure that our negotiating team debriefed us that a complex and tricky transition would get a hell of a lot more complex and tricky if the new government's flavour-of-the-month Big Society superstars didn’t get the money they needed.  

But, no, it seems that clearly my memory is faulty on this point. Again.

The intentions of everyone around that board table were honourable. We wanted to break free of interference from all governments – Labour were an equal pain – and protect the long term ability of Nesta to do good innovative things. But I  remember no-one being in any doubt what had happened when we – completely above board and within our legal requirements – chose to fund the BS Network. It was part of making it easier for us to pick our way through the thicket of bureaucracy and the snake pit of Whitehall politics.

But obviously, having read the internal review, none of that happened.

Silly old me and my middle-aged memory.