Nat Wei has stepped down from his role as an unpaid adviser to the Government on the Big Society at the Cabinet Office. A remarkably gifted social entrepreneur, it is likely that Wei’s talents will perhaps be better used in his new role at the Community Foundation Network.
There was always a significant question mark over whether the Cabinet Office could ever be the beating heart of a civil society renaissance. As a Department it is a curious animal. Often silent and stealthy, its officials are some of the brightest and sharpest minds dedicated to making the art of governing a refined, and efficient, science. It’s bread and butter is strategy, and long term planning. Occasionally the Cabinet Office breaks the surface – hosting the 2010 Coalition negotiations, for example, thrust it into the limelight – and its present Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, has much more name recognition than his predecessors. Yet there are obvious limits to what central government can achieve through strategy papers (however clever) and bold ideas. The power to really change things which will impact the Big Society lies in the hands of spending Ministers at other departments. For example, Eric Pickles and the DCLG team are driving the localism agenda, not the Cabinet Office. It is little wonder on one level then that Nat Wei might be of more direct use, and have more obvious impact, working at a grass roots level where change is more immediate, impact more measureable, and action favoured over strategy.
His departure prompts an observation however. David Cameron shows no sign of disowning the Big Society brand despite growing calls for him to do so even by those that support its aims. And it is important to note that Nat Wei is not going to be replaced. It may be simply the case that no-one else willing or able to do the job for free could be found. But it is not insigificant that the role is being taken out of the Cabinet Office and given to the No 10 Policy Unit.
Far from distancing himself from the Big Society, Cameron is taking it closer under his wing. It remains to be seen, though, whether this results in greater attention to it. A more likely option, given recent developments, is it becomes lost in the sea of more pressing problems the No 10 team are preoccupied with, such as NHS reform. Cameron’s promise to cut the costs of government have led to serious problems in not having enough special advisers (SpAds) to provide sufficient political support for his objectives, and those of his ministers. Their time and energy is already spread too thin. Using civil servants instead has been the favoured option, though this may help explain some of the political mistakes of the past year which more seasoned partisan operators might have avoided. Civil servants have not shown themselves natural supporters of the Big Society vision. Let’s hope that they are not given responsibility for it in No 10.
Lord Wei will no doubt continue to add to the richness of civil society. His track record as a social entrepreneur speaks for itself. But the impact of his time in the Cabinet Office is not yet clear. And what will happen next, now that his role has been taken into No 10, remains to be seen.
By Josh Harris