Analysis: Big society adviser decides to move on

Lord Wei leaves the stage after a harsh year in the spotlight

Lord Wei
Lord Wei

Lord Nat Wei's brief and controversial spell in the limelight came to an end last week with the announcement that he would step down as an adviser to the government on its big society agenda.

Wei, who was appointed to the House of Lords and to his advisory role soon after last year's general election, made the announcement the day after David Cameron launched the Giving White Paper, casting a shadow on what was widely seen as an attempt by the government to reinvigorate the big society.

One insider says Wei had little choice about the timing of his announcement: "He realised people were starting to speculate, so he announced it as quickly as possible."

The news has elicited critical remarks from some in the sector. "When you look back over the past year, it was almost a mockery," says Peter Kyle, acting chief executive of the chief executives body Acevo, who has called for Wei to stand down from the House of Lords. "This guy was imposed on the sector as being our voice in the House of Lords, but he couldn't stick a year of representing us.

"It was clear that he was never entirely happy with the job and that civil society was never completely comfortable with him. It was an uncomfortable relationship from the start."

Wei has suffered a series of setbacks since he took the role. Last November, Roberta Blackman-Woods, the shadow civil society minister, questioned the government's decision to give £4.2m to the Challenge Network, a charity created by the Shaftesbury Partnership, of which Wei is a founding partner.

In February, it emerged that Wei would reduce his voluntary hours at the Cabinet Office, reportedly because he wanted "more of a life" - a pronouncement that seemed to devalue his role as a champion of voluntary action.

Wei also struggled to establish a good relationship with the voluntary sector. He got off on the wrong foot by criticising a "big charity mindset" in which, he said, charities were "frustrating citizens or donors through overly competitive, bureaucratic or unresponsive behaviours".

He continued to frustrate those working in the sector with speeches criticised as too academic and almost impossible to understand. One sector figure told Third Sector after a meeting with Wei: "You don't have a conversation with him; you get a brain-dump."

Wei was, however, credited with developing the government's flagship big society policies. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, said on his departure: "He has played an important role in delivering key initiatives like community organisers, the National Citizen Service and the Big Society Bank." A final assessment of Wei's role might depend on how well these policies work.

Earlier this year, a spokesman for the Office for Civil Society said Wei's role had been widely misunderstood. "His job is to work on policy and to advise ministers, not to promote public understanding of the big society," he said.

In that case, Wei's error might well have been his willingness to take the spotlight. His speeches at a long string of conferences and panel discussions were regarded by many in the sector as well-intentioned but naive, requiring a better understanding of practical realities - and some of the criticism of him was inevitably attached to the government as well.

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