Big Society, Big Idea?

If government isn’t the answer to all society’s ills, how can citizens take control and find real solutions to problems as diverse as loneliness and youth crime? Well, the Big Society Network that launched in London on Thursday thinks it has the answer – half public awareness campaign, half social networking site, half thinktank, half old-fashioned mutual society, the Network wants to knit together 15 million social entrepreneurs, community activists, philanthropists, volunteers and ordinary Joes into a national do-gooding community that together can fix ‘broken Britain’.

The Network is the brainchild of ex-McKinsey consultant (they’re everywhere) and serial social entrepreneur Nat Wei and former ad man Paul Twivy, who was behind campaigns to get Brits to ‘change the world for a fiver’ and even to talk to their neighbours over a big lunch. The Network’s launch came with the personal endorsement of David Cameron, Conservative Party leader and would-be Prime Minister. (While the ‘big society’ is a Conservative slogan, Wei and Twivy – and Cameron – took great pains to say that the new Network is non-partisan. Hmmm.)

So what does the big talk of a big society mean? It’s a bit hard to tell, since the launch was all about raising the money to get the thing started. Yet it is fair to say that they are taking on a real challenge – how to mobilise Brits to start giving back more  – since the tax breaks for philanthropy and exhortations to volunteer of recent years have not caused much of a change to public attitudes so far.

The power of the Big Society Network, as Twivy explained, will depend on its ability (or not) to show how thousands or millions of individual ‘micro’ actions can have a real macro impact. This, indeed, is the thrust of the mass philanthrocapitalism that we discuss in a new chapter in the paperback edition of Philanthrocapitalism. Online giving sites such as Kiva and Donorschoose, as well as Facebook causes, are opening up new opportunities for engaged giving and activism, so that many people acting together can have the same demonstrable impact and leverage as rich philanthropists. These tools are evolving and changing rapidly, making new connections and meeting new needs all the time, mobilising a new generation of givers and activists.

Indeed, one sceptical thought about the Big Society Network is that it feels a bit too top-down. Back in 1993 US Vice-President Al Gore famously set out his vision for building an ‘information superhighway’, just as the internet was taking off without the billions of dollars of public investment that he was calling for. Could the Big Society Network turn out to be an equivalent civil society superhighway that is over-taken by grass-roots networks of changemakers? If so, as with the emergence of the privately-funded internet, that would be a cause for celebration.