In the week leading up to the general election, Nat Wei, executive chair of the Big Society Network, was calling around to gather signatures for a letter to be sent to the Daily Telegraph.
The launch of the Conservatives’ Big Society manifesto had not been well received and various politicians and commentators claimed there was little appetite for greater citizen involvement in Britain.
The letter - urging commentators not to undermine “the notion that civil society should play a role in public life” - was published the day before the election and was signed by some 40-odd social entrepreneurs.
Mr Wei needn’t have worried. Within days of the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government forming, the Big Society was put at the heart of the domestic agenda and he was appointed the government’s Big Society adviser.
So who is he? Nicknamed “Seven Brains”, Mr Wei, 33, was a joint founder of the Teach First initiative, which puts top graduates into schools in disadvantaged areas.
Speaking at the Big Society Network’s launch in March, Mr Wei made clear he bought into David Cameron’s diagnosis of a broken society and was clear about the prescription needed.
“It is my conviction that the reason why we are where we are is that in aggregate we do not operate in committed groups any more,” he said.
“In a society full of groups whose members cut across social divides are health benefits, crime can be lower, education can improve, the environment benefits and happiness can be greater.”
So what exactly is the Big Society? Steve Moore, one of Mr Wei’s co-founders of the Big Society Network, told LGC it could take three forms - a range of specific policies such as a Big Society bank to invest in social enterprises, a Big Society day and of course, Mr Cameron’s national citizenship service.
It could also be the cutting edge where innovative and collaborative work with new media and technology is undertaken in a manner that is not possible for the government. But more than that, Mr Moore claimed, it is a “political narrative” that runs through the coalition government.
“It is a leitmotif, you can see it in police, education, environment, energy,” he said. “It is also undeniably the case that it has been formed by the economic circumstances of the time - there was no-one standing on a platform of bigger government at the election.”
Mr Moore claimed there was a role for councils in testing the nature and strength of the relationships that exist between civil society and the state and that Eric Pickles would be driving forward this work at the Department for Communities & Local Government.
Ben Lee, who runs the National Association for Neighbourhood Management and was one of the signatories of the Daily Telegraph letter, said there needed to be some serious thinking around how value is placed on volunteering.
“If you are going to be transferring assets from a council to a community organisation, how do you put a value on the ‘cash equivalent’ element of the payment, the payment in kind?” he asked.
“And do you fund organisations out of taxpayer money or is it other sources of voluntary giving, like having ‘chuggers’ in the street? Could you set up a form of voluntary local payment like you have with Business Improvement Districts? This stuff doesn’t just happen on the oxygen of enthusiasm.”
Mr Lee also pointed out that if we are to rely on the enthusiasm and ingenuity of service users and amateurs to deliver ‘hyperlocal’ services, a new way of defining skills and knowledge must be created.
“It will be different from bureaucratic expertise but it will still be expertise and you will need a framework for that,” he said.