The Best of the Blogs: Part 1 of 3 – Toby Blume

Adam O'Boyle1 Apr 2015Sector Debates

Three blogs that I’ve particularly enjoyed over the past year are Toby Blume’s, David Floyd’s and Dan Gregory’s. They’re quite active bloggers though so it’s hard to go through their back catalogue. So for those keen to dive into current social sector debates, I’ve pulled out some highlights.


Toby Blume’s blog has varied content – given its title Random Musings from Civil Society – but has been particularly excellent in the past year covering the sad tale of funding that surrounded the Big Society Network.

With a new government of whatever hue on the way, it is worth reflecting a little on what happened those five long years ago when the Big Society agenda was getting off the ground.


I remember well the launch of the Big Society Network. Fresh out of university, witnessing the first actions of a new government for the first time in my working life, I was intrigued by how a new government’s flagship project might play out. The launch was at Somerset House, the Prime Minister was late and John Bird from the Big Issue got up and started singing to the assembled audience to keep us entertained. It was surreal.

However, I realised that much of it was a farce on a visit to Milton Keynes for a Big Society Network event to see the Prime Minister relaunch (perhaps for the third or fourth time?) the Big Society vision. At it he announced the launch of a new social sector technology startup, laudable in its ambition but probably turning over no more than £30,000, and I got my first whiff of the way in which innovation is often dealt with. I wondered what was to be made of a government proclaiming as a success an idea that had barely gotten out of the starting blocks. I thought surely the Prime Minister has bigger projects to get animated about? Parkinson’s Law of Triviality came to mind.

The workings of the Big Society Network though made for by far the most interesting tracking, covered superbly by Toby Blume on his blog. A story of how, through very untransparent means, various public funders gave the now-defunct Big Society Network £3m to achieve pretty much nothing. Two reports from the National Audit Office are particularly damning. The story is well worth following in full, at least in highlighting how parts of government do, unfortunately work. Going into the election, my optimism of 2010 is sadly dashed – “naive youth” I hear any older readers sigh.

This piece kicks off the analysis and makes for particularly depressing reading for anyone who spends their time competing in grant rounds. One doesn’t imagine the BSN affair is a one-off occurrence. This is the best/worst line: “The Lottery, for its part, didn’t think to question the business model for Your Square Mile which relied on recruiting 1m paying subscribers to sustain the project going forward. The actual number of paying subscribers that were recruited was somewhat short of that figure….999,936 short in fact. They had just 64.”

This then is the simplest summary of the whole affair:

And two articles to conclude the analysis and report on the final findings of the National Audit Office:

With Liam Black’s article in question


  • That were the Cabinet Office an actual investor, held accountable for the results of its investments, it would have gone out of business a long time ago or be regarded as one of the least well performing investors in the market.
  • However well other parts of government perform, this part of the government is not very good at innovation. Should they really be trusted with £millions of funding, which is perhaps highly distortive?
  • We should keep a close eye on any new government’s ‘marketing budget’ which is what the Big Society Network turns out to have been.
  • The mania of a new government is all too easily forgotten, but this shows just how chaotic it really is.

I don’t really believe in small government, do I? I certainly no longer believe in government facilitated civil society…

Author: Adam O'Boyle

Adam O'Boyle is Executive Director of Hub Ventures. Adam co-founded Student Hubs in September 2007 during a sabbatical from his History and Economics degree and rejoined as Executive Director upon graduating in July 2009. During that time Adam also worked as a part-time analyst for New Philanthropy Capital where he co-authored a research report entitled: ‘Critical masses: Social campaigning, a guide for donors and funders’.