Analysis: The Big Society Network

The organisation is trying to shrug off the perception that it's a Tory body

David Cameron with Kids company founder Camila Batmangelidjh
David Cameron with Kids company founder Camila Batmangelidjh

Since the Prime Minister, David Cameron, launched the Big Society Network in March, it has struggled to shake off the perception that it is a Conservative organisation.

Cameron announced the initiative when he presented his big society vision, describing it as "a national campaign for social change" that was "run by the people, for the people".

The network insists it is independent: it receives no state funding and is applying for charitable status. Yet the view lingers that an organisation launched by Cameron, co-founded by his big society adviser, Lord Wei, and housed in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, belongs more to the Tories than to the third sector.

The network's distance from some key voluntary organisations has not helped. "I've had no contact from them at all," says Stephen Bubb, leader of chief executives body Acevo. He fears the network is an example of 'we know best' ministers trying to co-opt charities to their agenda rather than enabling them to do what they do best.

Paul Twivy, the network's chief executive, insists this is not the case. He says the group's role is to "complement, not supplement" existing social action and that he has met more than 50 voluntary organisations to find out how it can help. "Our role is quite humble and challenging - to make the big society simple and practical," he says.

Local workshops

Its flagship project for achieving this is Your Square Mile, an attempt to create Britain's largest mutual organisation of 15 million people by connecting local volunteers and helping them with issues such as technology. The workshops that are replacing the town hall tours will promote this initiative.

Martyn Rose, chair of the network, has worked alongside prominent Tories Michael Gove and Theresa May. Twivy says he supports the government's vision of a big society but is at pains to point out that the network has links with Labour too. Twivy sat for two years on Gordon Brown's Council on Social Action.

Civil servants from CLG have given the network time, estimated to be worth £24,000, but Twivy says his group "doesn't want government funding" because that would compromise its independence.

He does, however, think it would be naive to shun all links with Westminster. "Anything that's successful is top-down and bottom-up," he says. "That's the only way you will get significant change."

Empowering communities is his motivation for establishing the network, which he says is taking up 100 hours of his time each week. But with no public money, funding is fragile. Twivy won't reveal its income, other than to say it has some funding from private individuals and is applying for grants from trusts, foundations, the Big Lottery Fund and businesses. He admits, however, that it is "lightly resourced".

He is the only paid employee and would like to build an eight-strong team. Oliver Henman, a campaigns manager at the NCVO, has joined the network for eight months with a grant from the funding body Nesta.

 

LEADING LIGHTS OF THE BIG SOCIETY NETWORK

 

PAUL TWIVY, Chief executive

Paul Twivy, Big Society NetworkTwivy has enjoyed a successful 30-year career in advertising and marketing, but has also been heavily involved with charities and community action. He co-founded two communications companies, was a marketing adviser to the BBC and has run some of Europe's largest advertising agencies. An adviser to Comic Relief, he helped to establish Pilotlight and TimeBank, and co-founded the Big Lunch and We Are What We Do, the organisation behind the book Change the World for a Fiver.

 

MARTYN ROSE, Chair

Martyn Rose, Big Society NetworkRose is a trustee of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust and Orwell Park School Educational Trust, but is primarily a businessman. He chaired his first listed company at 34 and has since chaired numerous others. In 2007 he was appointed co-chair, with Michael Gove, of the National Citizen Service programme for 16-year-olds. He has also co-chaired, with Theresa May, the Get Britain Working group. In a newspaper interview three years ago, he said he owned paintings by Utrillo, Chagall and Picasso, and owned seven cars.

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