Here you'll find a resource for keeping up-to-date on the highlights of the ideas, programs and controversies surrounding British Prime Minister David Cameron's "Big Society" agenda. His plan to de-centralize services to the local level of government and supplement government service provision with citizen engagement activities is ambitious. Can it also be successful? What does the success or failure of the Big Society in Great Britain imply for civic engagement efforts and local government programs in the USA?

These questions are of particular interest to the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership as we seek to help solve public problems by promoting self governance.

New to Big Society? Check out our foundational documents »

Big Society Award: Youth Action

A youth aid charity from Blackburn has received the Prime Minister’s Big Society Award:

‘Youth Action’ has been praised by Prime Minister David Cameron as it received one of his ‘Big Society’ awards.

The 12-year-old organisation, based at Gateway House on James Street, has helped more thaner 7,800 young people across the North West.

Its team of 120 volunteers delivers mentoring, employability train- ing, careers guidance and rehabilitation support projects in over 40 schools It aims to equip eight to 24-year-olds with the skills they need to for life and the support they need to find paid work.

You can read more here.

Society Network Foundation Defense

The Society Network Foundation, which has been accused of securing Big Society Network awards of funding through political pressure, issued a statement denying all accusations:

“There have been unsubstantiated claims that SNF and BSN used political pressure to secure awards of funding and that money has been misused,” the trustees of the foundation said in the statementtoday. “The SNF trustees unequivocally reject all such suggestions for which there is no evidence whatsoever.”

The trustees rejected claims that their charity was under investigation by the Charity Commission, which is looking into allegations the foundation used a restricted grant to fund the deficit at the Big Society Network, and is also looking into consultancy fees paid by the charity to its directors. 

The Commission said in February this year that it intended to “carry out some further scrutiny” of the charity’s accounts, and confirmed this week that it has opened an operational compliance case – a form of regulatory inquiry. It has also met with the charity’s trustees this week. However it said these actions did not constitute an investigation.

You can read more here.

Big Society Network investigation

The Big Society Network – one of the most visible products of the Big Society agenda, has come under criticism for possible misuse of funding.  From The Guardian:

The Charity Commission was examining whether funding for a childhood obesity project was used to pay the debts of a linked company, the Independent reported on Saturday. The commission was also seeking more information on payments allegedly made for consultancy services to two directors of the Big Society Network (BSN) and its chair, Martyn Rose, a Conservative Party donor.

News of the investigation comes days after a public spending watchdog issued a critical report about how National Lottery and government funds were handed over to and used by the BSN.

In a separate incident, a former trustee of one grants body has claimed it was “forced” to award a total of £480,000 to the BSN without undertaking the usual checks.

Opponents of the Big Society idea, of course, immediately point to this as a failure of the whole project.  It could be argued however, that given the national scale of the Big Society Network, the organization is itself not really representative of the ideas of localism and community that are at least as much a part of the philosophy as privatization. You can read more from The Guardian here.

Good Review for Nick Hurd

David Ainsworth notes that despite frequent criticism and even ridicule of the Big Society Program, Nick Hurd has been a popular and effective minister for civil society:

Well, for a start, anyone who lasts four years in a ministerial job – six if you include his time as shadow – is doing pretty well. For a junior minister, that may be some kind of a record. It’s been so long we’ve almost forgotten how it used to be. 

Ainsworth is not a fan of the Big Society, but he notes that the policy has played a role in what will be Hurd’s legacy:

Hurd’s most enduring legacy, perhaps, is also his most controversial. He’s overseen a massive growth in social investment, in particular the growth of Big Society Capital and an explosion of social impact bonds. At base, it’s a good idea which hasn’t yet fulfilled the hype, and which is now being viewed with some suspicion by the sector it’s supposed to help.

Elsewhere, he’s attempted to make the best of the situation. He has pushed the rhetoric that the cuts will help us find smarter ways to do things, and has highlighted the big plays that his bosses have made. He has responded to sector concerns with consistent understanding, has listened and lobbied on charities’ behalf, and has generally been effective at representing charities in a way previous ministers have frankly not been.

You can read more of Ainsworth’s praise – and criticism – here.

Unexpected Faces of Big Society?

Nice (the Nonjudgmental, Integrity, Compassion, and Equality group) is challenging stereotypes around benefits recipients, by highlighting those who are contributing to the Big Society even while they’re waiting to get their own feet back on the ground:

Carl Havern is a model Big Society citizen. He volunteers for three different causes every week and cares passionately about improving his community. He is also a recovering heroin addict on benefits, who has spent much of the past decade in prison.

Mr Havern is a member of a community group in Salford starting a quiet revolution against the prevailing stereotype of some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens. It has been meeting every Thursday since October, plotting ways to challenge the increasingly incendiary rhetoric about people on benefits. This month the group launched to the public in the hope that others who are fed up of being labelled as scroungers will follow suit.

Perhaps their efforts will also inspire others who aren’t sure what to do with themselves during a time between jobs by demonstrating the value and encouraging appreciation for volunteer work. You can read more about their stories here.