Social Enterprise magazine has been having an interesting chat with the team at the Big Society Network. The Network, which was launched earlier this month by Prime Minister, David Cameron, is planning to become the ‘largest mutual in the UK’.
This is an ambitious target. While it’s not clear whether the ‘largest’ target refers to the number of members or the organisation’s turnover, if Big Society is going to be larger than the Co-operative Group it will need to either attract more than 5,500,000 members (that’s five and a half million) or generate more than £13.7 billion in turnover.
Unsurprisingly, Social Enterprise magazine’s report is primarily concerned with the Network’s lukewarm attitude towards social enterprise, with reporter, Gemma Hampson, noting that while the Network aims to support community initiatives: “there is no plan in place to encourage these initiatives to become sustainable social enterprises.”
Other observers may be interested to ask the Big Society Network team more about what, specifically, the project is intending to bring to the community centre party in a general sense. With a target budget of ‘between £250,000 and £1million’ the organisation is clearly not going to be a national funding body and there’s hardly a shortage of national umbrella organisations for voluntary and community groups, or groups of socially-concerned individuals – many of which have developed organically on the basis of shared values and/or a desire to come together with a practical plan to enable positive social change.
While the Network claims it’s current lack of a plan is due to the fact that it will respond to the community not tell it what to do, this approach seems to be directly contradicted by the fact that it has brought itself existence as a national body without either a membership base or a community-based campaign calling for its formation.
The Network’s director of engagement, Steve Moore, points out that: “If the communities want to form a neighbourhood group, then that’s fine too. We’re relaxed about it. I’m not going to say they have to be social enterprises. An enterprise does not have to wait for government.”
While it’s undoubtedly true that groups of people in communities can form organisations without help from government, we can also do so without the help of a national network with offers no services and has no membership or meaningful plans about what it intends to do beyond a general desire to support community activity in some way. Lots of people are already supporting community activity and do know what they’re trying to do, and how and why they’re trying to do it.
I’m personally keen to work with the Big Society Network and I’m sure that it will have lots to offer but it’s a shame that its high profile launch seems to have preceded the key decisions about what was actually being launched. I’d be delighted if any of the team would like to take this opportunity to tell us more and would also be keen to hear suggestions from others.