I know the voices in my head aren’t real, but they say such interesting things
21 April 2022 by David Bott
I was, of course, looking forward to the “start the week” meeting, but fate cruelly intervened and instead I had to go down to London. It didn’t get any better when I missed the fast train and ended up on the one that stopped at every station between Warwick and London – which meant that I arrived in London almost 40 minutes later than planned. The meeting was the second of the Interim Advisory Group for the Cell Therapy Catapult – those with long memories might recall that the first was one of the most effective meetings I had attended in a long while – so I was looking forward to this one. We had lots to do. We had, by now, appointed a CEO. We had looked at and prioritised locations. The Blueprint document (or “owners manual” as it got christened last time) had developed, although there were still some outstanding issues, both of content and language. However, the co-chairman chose to tackle the workload from a different direction, splitting the task into vision, principles and programmes (thus repeating some of the work done at the last meeting he had not attended!). What he did do was put the external members through the ringer on what they actually thought about what we were doing, which unearthed some interesting points. Feedback from the other external members was that he came across as a bit of a control freak, and at least one semi-internal person was red with frustration. It was an interesting and productive meeting, but I prefer the other co-chair!
It was then upstairs in Tracy Island for a variety of discussions, including a nominal PDR with Sustainability Man and a discussion with the Foresight dudes about the next joint meeting – we used to have them quarterly but they have fallen into disuse and we both wanted to resurrect them!
Then I joined FL for a meeting with GLA. They had been very interested in “hosting” the Cell Therapy Catapult as the “anchor tenant” of a life sciences park out in the Royal Albert Docks, but we quickly discovered their timescales (opening in 2014/5) were incommensurate with ours, so we started looking (and think we have found) a short/medium term alternative. Put simply, they still wanted to know our intentions, so we went through the “there’s no such thing as certainty in this world” caveats, but told them we still shared their (long term) dream. They then went on to address the location of the Connected Digital Economy and Future Cities Catapults, where we could tell them honestly that we were developing the selection criteria and would then apply them! Their final piece was about joint working and FL played his trump card. In the run-up to the Budget, Boris (the London one) had written to George suggesting that some of our money went directly to GLA. Mark Kleinman had sensibly warned us this was coming (to minimise our possible reaction), but it still gave FL a chance to say (at least three times á la Beetlejuice) that that letter didn’t feel like joint working. I was smiling all the way home!
Tuesday started off as a Swindon day, with a review of the competitions pilot scheme. From my perspective, it has been slow and been slightly stymied by the fact that some bits of the organisation were still applying the old process – and missing the whole point. The back-story is that our PAF process had evolved to a point that anyone and everyone could slow down or stop a competition or other activity if they didn’t have the time to read or ask questions and/or wanted to maintain the status quo. This led to frustration among those responsible for delivery and remarkably inventive ways of getting around the system – which made the problem worse! The (proposed) new process was to separate out the strategic intent and the project development aspects of competitions (and other activity) development. I hope to God we can deliver this and the other improvement projects but almost a year on from their start I cannot escape the feeling that the sitting tenants are all resisting change!
Then it was on to a strained meeting with another victim of InterimGate, before (what felt like) a very action oriented catch up with David Way, and a debrief from Strategy Man’s new process enforcer – who is beginning to be able to describe our systems (or lack of them) in an overall process map.
Then it was over the Polaris House where I (thought I) had been called to give evidence to the RCUK Research Group meeting about alignment of activities. Given that I thought the Strategic Partnership Group had (eventually) made some relatively clear decisions about alignment the week before, I was totally bemused by this event. I had been assured that I needn’t prepare a presentation – but the first thing I was asked for was a presentation. I thought I was being asked to explain to them what we were doing as part of an overall programme of aligning effort, but they thought I had asked to talk to them because I had a proposal. It was obvious that some members of this group think that we (the Technology Strategy board) are trying to muscle in on their territory and tell them what to do. In short, it was a mess. I explained that we had many bilateral and trilateral relationships with research councils on specific projects that worked well. I averred that some of the cross-council programmes were easy for us to engage in (with our role and approach) but that others seemed vague and too academic. I am really not sure what they decided because I then had to leave, but these 2 meetings with RCUK have left me with the feeling that we and they have no idea how to organise collaboration so have formed a number of poorly specified committees so we can tell BIS we’re doing something – but we really are not! I hope I’m wrong!
Then it was back to North Star to interview a potential person for Development. They had an impeccable public sector and OECD background, but we didn’t think they were good enough for us. Then it was down to London to join the DALLAS crew for the final assessments.
Actually, Wednesday morning started with another in the series of Tech City Breakfasts at Number 10. In these days of austerity there is no actual food but the range and quality of people present make up for it. Rohan (who swears rumours of his departure were exaggerated) was in the lead, marshalling people who would say nice things about the absolute importance of Number 10 in the Tech City story. The networking was, of course, why everyone was there and I chatted to Russell the Cisco dude, Sherry, Judith, Jude, Glenn and Baron Eric. Towards the end, a breathless David Halpern turned up, made a beeline for me and suggested we needed to meet again soon because he had been thinking about our Assisted Living programme and wanted to learn more!
A short walk took me to the Institute of Directors for a meeting of the Emerging Technologies and Industries Steering Group. This was an important meeting, partly because we were explaining what we were doing as a result of the analysis they guided, and partly because it was time for a personnel refresh of the Group. Development Man had brought in some friends to explain our planned activities in Synthetic Biology, Energy Harvesting and Energy Efficient Computing and it mainly went well – the only sticky moment was when Andy Hopper decided to take a pop at EPSRC for only listening to the feedback they wanted. The presenters made the basic mistake (which I am sensitised to from the Governing Board interactions) of forgetting to check and set the expectations and knowledge level of the audience before presenting.
Then I got a chance to get back to the DALLAS assessment – missing lunch on the way! I heard the Scottish proposal (workmanlike and spotted with neat ideas) and the Torbay proposal (curiously uninspiring and with a suspiciously large amount of money spent on technology!). It is worthy of note that the addition of the “co-“ prefix has now reached epidemic proportions, with much co-design, co-creation and so on. I am beginning to wonder if it is co-jones or co-ndescension!
Then it was back into the more central bits of London to “be” FL at the reception for the UK-India Science Council. I was walking past Tracy Island and noticed Socrates Wife in reception so I went in to say hello. It turned out that she was waiting for FL, so I decided to wait and see what had been agreed at the Council that afternoon. As I sat there I got a long text from FL – who was upstairs in Tracy Island. Who says we’re not on top of all the modern forms of communication!!
The reception itself was a bit of a wash-out. Most of the Indian delegation had gone back to freshen up before the dinner (that I hadn’t been invited to) so I missed the guy I needed to talk to about the Bangalore Mission but instead had a nice chat with John Dodds (about FourSquare) and Martyn Poliakoff and one of his Royal Society colleagues about engagement with industry!!
Thursday started with a meeting set up by Finger Man with a potential “enforcer” for the Connected Digital Economy Catapult. We met in the Starbucks down the road because by now I had learned quite how dreadful the service at the Hyde Park Hilton was, and were joined by Finger Man after 15 minutes. It is nice to meet people who know our history, our culture and our goals and understand the restrictions put on us by being “public sector”. He had apparently contributed to the Innovation Review of 2003 and been trying for years to find a way to work with us but got little feedback from his main contact. We made a verbal offer and he went away to sleep on it.
Then it was back into the DALLAs melee to hear the “back office” proposal (thorough and grounded) and the Welsh proposal (nice re-branding and example videos but (for me) unsatisfying). I got a text from Healthcare Man and broke out to talk to him. It appears that there are a couple of “issues” with the Biomedical Catalyst, one of which we knew about and thought we had a work-around and the other of which had just surfaced (I think). The first is the intervention rates. As I understand it, we discussed this at the EMT the other week on the back of a query from the Catapults. Under our old state aids exemption, we capped the total project costs contribution at 50%. That means that if a university worked with a company, the university got 100% of their costs and so the company had to get less than 50% to make the overall total fit. We have lived with this for years, but it does grind the SMEs and rather inhibit the idea of hooking up the research base to SMEs. The new idea is to cap individual member support to 100% for universities, RTOs and Catapults, 60% for SMEs and 50% for large companies and ignore the overall project cap. I think we agreed to do this subject to a review of what difference it would have made to cost on historical projects. The new issue is that under our old state aids regulations (we are told by Competitions) we can only pay single companies a maximum of around £250k. Given that we have released details of the Biomedical Catalyst saying we would fund up to £3m for either consortia or single companies, this is a small embarrassment. I spent some time trying to understand why this has just “become” an issue, but couldn’t – other than we still have poor internal communications and a mixed view of what regulations and exemptions we are working under and – since the rules changed in January – I am at a loss to understand why we still haven’t decided to embrace the new opportunities the changes in state aids rules apparently offer us.
One way and another, I went home depressed and confused!
Friday was a total Swindon HR day – with wall-to-wall moderation. First up was a chance for the EMT to learn to speak with one voice, then came the directorate level moderating meeting. Despite unchanging but moderately confusing instructions, every year we seem to make a mess of this activity and everyone wanted to do it right this year. We therefore ignored the competence stuff and focused on whether we had achieved our objectives. Since we anticipate that Remuneration Committee will decide that the organisation as a whole managed to deliver 85% of its objectives, the logic is that, on average, every individual must have delivered no more than that. I made the mistake of following instructions and we had – as a directorate – discussed the principles a week or so ago. Even so, we found time to come at it another way of deriving the answers, effectively playing the boat game in each team and then discussing the relative merits of the most important people and so on. Anyway, I think we had more productive discussions at the this level – people actually knew nearly all the people we were talking about on we weren’t driving off single point or second hand data. After a break to catch up with things, it was then into the EMT group to discuss and agree the final ratings. I had been instructed not to let anyone go down but to accept praise (and an upgrade) on behalf of individuals, and we got some – so I was content that the process had worked better this year.
At the end of the afternoon, I made what I thought would be a perfunctory check on the progress of the Open Data Institute. I was disappointed to learn that no-one had told Nigel the outcome of the deliberations. The leads in Innovation Programmes (Zoe and Nick) had assumed that the Competitions Team would issue a customised e-mail with the basic details, but somewhere along the road the Competitions Team had decided that we should tell Nigel – I cannot comment on this because I wasn’t in at the end of the Assessment Panel. I also understood that the contract was “in an early stage of development” because it is not a standard contract. Zoe was on holiday and the e-mails Nick sent me were unclear on responsibility but the outcome is that we have wasted at least a couple of days not telling Nigel the result. Given his connections, I assume this will result in some criticism from the Cabinet Office, but I am more concerned about yet another apparent breakdown in internal communications. I also got caught up in a discussion about the joint UKTI-Technology Strategy Board event that will replace Innovate this year. As I understood the conversation, although UKTI have previously spent about £1m on Technology World in past years (the overall cost and the revenue return seem to be different depending on who tells me) they have only allocated £500k for this joint event. I am not sure why we don’t just accept the costs and have first claim on the income – we might even lower our overall costs! Anyway, FL seemed to be on top of the discussion with the Communications Posse so I went home.