Banking on the Big Society

15 February 2011

Is the Big Society a growth stock? Banks, investors and the Prime Minister seem to think so.

There’s a lot being invested in the Big Society. The banks are dipping into their pockets to help capitalise a ‘Big Society Bank’. The investment community is being invited to support emerging social investment vehicles such as social impact bonds. And individuals are being encouraged to invest in ‘Society ISAs’.

But one person has more invested in the idea than anyone else – the Prime Minister.

After three torrid weeks for the Big Society, the PM made a speech yesterday designed to inject some much needed momentum into the idea. I understand that this is actually week one of a three week offensive linked to the core Big Society themes, which will involve the PM making high profile speeches and visits. They are:

  • encouraging social action
  • reforming public services
  • empowering communities

Social investment

This week the emphasis is on encouraging social action including the launch of a strategy designed to encourage social investment. We learned some more details about how the Big Society Bank would operate (it will be a wholesale bank working with ‘social finance intermediaries’) but also some of the complications that are already cropping up (the bank will require approval from the European Commission before it can launch).

I was at the launch of the Government’s social investment strategy last night and there was a veritable who’s who of the social investment world in attendance. Sir Ronald Cohen, ‘the father of British venture capital’ and the widely respected social finance campaigner, made a great speech about the potential of social investment and there was a genuine sense of excitement in the room about the possibilities over the next few years.

Even Sir Stephen Bubb, Chief Executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO), who has been a vocal critic of the effects of the cuts on the voluntary sector, warmly commended the government for its vision.

This all sounds a million miles from the drubbing the Big Society has been receiving lately and highlights an interesting conundrum for the government. When presented with specific, tangible policies people tend to be supportive, but in totality the Big Society still encourages cynicism, especially when juxtaposed with the cuts.

Political capital

The PM’s strategy is to keep reinvesting large amounts of his own political capital into the Big Society. His hope is that, although times are tough at the moment, given time enough ‘green shoots’ will start to peak through to turn cynics into supporters.

This is the equivalent of playing the Martingale strategy in roulette where you continually double your bets until you win. Theoretically you can’t lose, but this does rely on the crucial (and unrealistic) assumption that you have infinite wealth.

Even the Prime Minister doesn’t have infinite political capital so he’ll be hoping to see a lot more green shoots for the Big Society over the next few weeks.

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