Interview: Paul Twivy

The big society has been under attack recently, but one of its key champions remains optimistic

Big Society Network co-founder Paul Twivy
Big Society Network co-founder Paul Twivy

As one of the main advocates of the big society, Paul Twivy has probably not had a comfortable couple of weeks. Liverpool has pulled out of the big society vanguard project, the sector luminary Dame Elisabeth Hoodless has said the whole thing lacks strategy and there have been sharp exchanges on the subject at Prime Minister's Questions.

But he sees such things as par for the course and is not downhearted. "If you believe in a concept, then sometimes you have to walk through fire in terms of seeing it misinterpreted, misunderstood, not properly explained and becoming controversial," he says.

What about his own remark at a conference, reported by Third Sector and quoted at the despatch box by the Labour leader Ed Miliband, that the big society was "divisive within the Cabinet and increasingly loathed by the public"? Why did he intervene in the debate like this?

He says he was not intending his comment to be controversial. "It's a platitude," he says. "Tony Blair's policies were divisive within the Cabinet and so were those of Margaret Thatcher. There has not been a strong ideology articulated by a Prime Minister that has not divided people. Any idea that is this pervasive will have its critics. Anything worthwhile will be fought for."

Twivy co-founded the charity Big Society Network with Lord Nat Wei, now the government's big society adviser, early in 2010. He stepped down as its chief executive in November and now runs Your Square Mile, a project that encourages citizens to play a more active part in their local communities. His current work includes negotiating better value public liability insurance for community groups, finding ways of reforming Criminal Records Bureau checks and encouraging the expansion of social investment.

He stresses that he is not as close to the government as some people assume: "Except for the brief, part-time use of a couple of people from the Communities and Local Government department, which stopped in November, the Big Society Network has not received a penny of government funding. No favours have been bestowed on us."

He says he has a good working relationship with the civil society minister Nick Hurd and with the CLG ministers Greg Clark and Eric Pickles. But he points out that he also advised Tony Blair and Gordon Brown on social action.

Twivy acknowledges that the big society faces obstacles, especially funding cuts for local authorities. "They are in what one might describe as a perfect storm of challenging situations," he says. "They've got rapidly falling budgets, diminishing numbers of staff, difficult decisions about how much to cut funding for the voluntary sector versus elsewhere, and they've got to deal with citizens who are becoming more demanding and have more rights.

"Some are doing brilliantly and they are very much behind the big society. But it's difficult for them to have a view on how they should evolve in what is a massive movement when they are trying to work out how the money adds up."

Another obstacle for the big society, he says, is that the phrase itself does not always make it easy for people to get involved in community action - indeed, it could be off-putting. "When you do something that is described as 'big', individuals then wonder how they can influence something like that. That's why we need to bring it back to asking what we as individuals can do in our local areas that will be rewarding."

He cites examples from overseas as evidence for optimism. "During the depression of the 1930s in the US, people gave more of their money away, so it's not impossible that a similar thing could happen here in the UK if people are given the means to do it. In South America, participatory budgeting has strengthened communities and improved civic participation."

The media could play a more positive role in explaining the big society to the wider public, he says. "There needs to be more generosity of spirit from the media," he says. "Unless we stop the usual political horse trading about all of this, we won't make progress. The press could provide practical information about how the policies brought in as part of the big society will make a difference."

Twivy declines to give his personal opinion on the scale and speed of the government's spending cuts. "It would of course be much easier to make the big society happen if it wasn't taking place against the background of cuts," he says. "But what I can try to do is aggregate the voices of millions of citizens and thousands of voluntary groups around the country, to help them make a difference in their local communities."

CV

2010: Chief executive, Your Square Mile
2010: Co-founder, Big Society Network
2009: Chief executive, the Big Lunch
2006: Board director, the Partners
2002: Chief strategic planning officer, McCann-Erickson
1997: Marketing adviser, BBC

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