Big Society or Bijou Society? Francis Maude’s muddle over a “Good” idea for Business
The nightmare commission: do a report on the Big Society in 8 hours, with almost no previous preparation. The immediate response from Twittersphere to my quandary was amusing and elegant: “Get someone else to do it for free”.
We decided to focus our attentions on the Big society Business deficit. This is, if you did not know, the Government’s anointed “year of corporate giving”. But corporate donations are down. In fact, hailing from Manchester, I’ve always been intrigued by the contribution of the great Victorian philanthropists (Whitworth, John Rylands etc) so we decided to film similar buildings in London.
Sir Henry Tate is obviously for the Tate art gallery built on the grounds of the Millbank prison. But he funded hospitals in Liverpool and Manchester, and libraries alongside inventing the sugar cube. There are Tate-founded libraries in south Lambeth and Brixton. So where are the modern day philanthropists?
(I also got the best voxpop ever outside South Lambeth Tate library: I ask bright young woman “What is the Big society?” She says: “Is it obesity?”)
So today yet another relaunch for the Big society project – far from running scared of the scorn, the Prime Minister redoubled his commitment with missionary zeal. The People’s Supermarket hosting today the would-be people’s Prime Minister.
But it strikes me that some tactical errors have been made with trying to get Big Business on board.
The failing attempt to engage the advertising industry in the Big Society is a case in point. An American style fund for a series of free public service ads for health army recruitment was the plan put by the Cabinet Office to Britain’s media industry. The modern day Mad Men politely declined, not just because they already offer free work to charities. But also because right now, the same government departments are also drastically cutting back their paid-for advertising spend.
It probably doesn’t help that the same Cabinet minister behind a push to cut billions out of the bills of public sector contractors, is also the same one trying to get Corporations to sign up to Big Society inititiatives: Francis Maude. There appears to have been a muddying of these waters.
And then there is the banking industry. Francis Maude was visiting JP Morgan today to make the case for financiers to divert some of their hot money towards social projects. As part of last week’s much-hyped peace deal with the government, Banks will provide £200m of funding for a Big Society Bank alongside hundreds of millions from customers’ unused bank accounts. But the Project Merlin deal showed that this funding would be on a “commercial basis”.
As the New Economics foundation wrote in a report today, it doesn’t seem like a great deal versus the hundreds of billions that were made available on a non-commercial basis to keep our friends in the banking afloat and rolling their bonuses. It seems more like the Bijou society than the Big society.
Clearly whatever the good intentions of the Social Investment fund, and the push on volunteering, it is inescapable that libraries and council cuts undercut huge planks of the idea. I sense among some businesses that the Big Society brand is contaminated. They would rather not associate their existing corporate social schemes with a government effort that rightly or wrongly is now entangled with the austerity plan, particularly in the aggrieved key 18-24 year old advertising demographic.
Indeed it was an unexpected irony that as we were filming outside Sir Henry Tate’s South Lambeth library, a symbol of a previous Big Society, most of the locals assumed we were reporting about threats for its closure.