Nat Wei is David Cameron's Mr Big Society, charged with turning an election slogan – not a very popular one, it must be said – into reality. He is an unassuming 33-year-old, keen to stay rooted in east London. And, despite his impending elevation to the House of Lords as Baron Wei of Shoreditch, he was treated as a commoner by the reception desk at the Cabinet Office, where I met him last week. We both had to surrender our mobile phones.
The scale of his ambition, however, is anything but modest. He compared the plan for a National Citizen Service for 16-year-olds to the creation of the NHS and to Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" programme in America. He set out a target of 300,000 places on the voluntary work scheme within five years, and "saturation" coverage of the 650,000 post-GCSE age group in eight years.
He accepted that it might cost £1bn a year at a time of austerity, but said: "It's a bit like before the NHS existed. People would have asked the same question, especially given it was after the war: 'Do we have the money to universalise health care?'" He stressed that it had been "a priority of the Prime Minister" and would "continue to be", as it was in the coalition document. And he pointed to the hidden costs of an alienated generation of youngsters: "You've got to see the impact this has on other costs, the costs that would be incurred by not doing it."
The Conservative Party's pilot scheme, known as the Challenge, had 150 places last year and 500 this summer. Next year Mr Wei hopes to have 6,000 to 10,000 places. "The aspiration is that, within about eight years you can get close to saturation point. Then it would be established that this is something that you generally do."
Mr Wei was a joint founder of Teach First, which puts top graduates straight into schools in disadvantaged areas. Last week he was hired by Mr Cameron and joined him and Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, at a "Big Society" event at 10 Downing Street to launch a new Office for Civil Society and a Big Society Bank.
The National Citizen Service was proposed by Mr Cameron in his Tory leadership campaign five years ago, and has been modified as a result of the pilot scheme. It will now be voluntary rather than compulsory, and consist of two weeks' residential "challenge" in places such as the Lake District, a third week at home and then 50 hours of service on projects designed and "pitched" by the teenagers themselves to community leaders – "Apprentice-style", said Mr Wei.
He admitted that people had been sceptical about the Big Society "soundbite". But he compared it US President Lyndon Johnson's reforms launched in 1964 to expand federal schools funding and to create Medicare and Medicaid: "If you look at other periods of history when politicians have wanted to bring about social renewal – you've got the Great Society under Johnson, and you've got Bush, who did a similar thing when he first started – there are a number of challenges."
One is how to motivate teenagers to enrol for a voluntary scheme. For the pilot, setting youngsters a challenge has worked: "If you want to be a leader in society, and you want to inspire, lead and have the skills to interact with people from very different backgrounds, this is a great way to do it.... Not everybody's thinking that they might end up being prime minister, but you would be surprised at the number of young people, whether from wealthy or non-wealthy backgrounds, who are interested in building their experience, their CV and skills."
The plan is that once it reaches a critical mass, teenagers will feel that "most of the kids their age are doing it – there's that sense potentially that it's a bit like missing the prom; you only get one shot at it".
Read a longer version of the interview at www.independent.co.uk/jrentoulReuse content