Reading the Big Society Tea Leaves

Tuesday saw the first fruits of Prime Minister David Cameron’s big election idea, the Big Society, with the launch of a rather modest reprise of some of proposals in the Conservative Manifesto, glammed up with a conversation and photo-op with a group of Britain’s top social entrepreneurs.

We are sympathetic to the Big Society because it points towards some of the fundamental changes that are required in how government works with private actors to solve social problems. It is still too early to tell what this is going to mean in practice under Britain’s new Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government but, having sifted through the tealeaves, we see a couple of dangers and one big opportunity.

We were a little saddened to see that the new government has gone ahead with changing the awfully-named ‘Minister for the Third Sector’ to the equally ghastly moniker ‘Minister for Civil Society’ (no disrespect to the incumbent of the new post, Nick Hurd MP). OK, so the ‘White House Office for Social Innovation’ is not going to win any prizes for elegance of expression but at least you know it is there to achieve an outcome that (sort-of) means something, whereas its British counterpart sounds all too much like it is there to glad-hand the non-profit sector, as its predecessor did.

Titles aside, our bigger worry is the ‘blueprint for David Cameron’s Big Society’ published a few days earlier by Res Publica, the think-tank of Conservative philosopher-in-chief Philip ‘Red Tory’ Blond (and commissioned by UnLtd, a charity endowed with £100 million from the National Lottery to promote social enterprise). The report, called ‘The Venture Society’, calls for the creation of ‘community lablets’ to nurture new social enterprises, a network of ‘social hubs’ to support the lablets, a Bureaucracy Task Force (anti- rather than pro-) to cut back the stifling red tape, and ‘pilot virtual advisory boards’ to raise money.

Jargon aside, there are some reasonable ideas here to stimulate more grassroots social enterprise. Yet whilst grassroots is great, it is simply not enough. One of the most exciting trends in philanthrocapitalism has been the growing interest in taking great ideas and growing them to scale through venture philanthropy and new forms of grant-financing and social investment. Sadly, ‘The Venture Society’ has little to say about being tough-minded on outcomes (a crucial issue where change is much needed, as New Philanthropy Capital has pointed out to the new Minister) and kicks the question of financing for scale into the long grass.

It is also striking that a report about rolling back the state places responsibility for making this happen with the Cabinet Office, the very centre of the central bureaucracy of this extremely centralised country. This goes to the heart of the problem with the ‘Red Tory’ vision of the Big Society –  its innate suspicion of capitalism means that the responsibility for funding and facilitating the planned great empowerment rests, paradoxically, with the state. As we have argued before, meaningful social change will require a partnership not just between government and the nonpofit sector but also the private sector. We will not build a Big Society by treating capitalism as the enemy.

Reports by think-tanks are not the same as government policy, so we will have to wait and see whether the Big Society vision will embrace philanthrocapitalism. One encouraging sign has been the appointment of the ferociously clever Nat Wei as the government’s lead adviser on taking this forward. (Known by some of his colleagues as ‘Seven Brains’, his elevation to the peerage presumably means that he will now have to be called ‘Lord Seven Brains’.) With a background at McKinsey before embarking on a career in social enterprise, Wei has a good understanding of the world of business and finance, which he will hopefully bring to his new role. If he can harness the tools of capitalism to the mission of social change embodied in the Big Society then David Cameron’s big idea might achieve its potential.