Got those out-of-touch, pre-Budget, nihilistic blues!!
08 March 2018 by David Bott
It was about 8.13 am on Monday when my phone stopped telling me about e-mails. I have been getting the usual ones from the larks in the TSB when it just stopped. I rebooted the phone but still nothing. As the week progressed, I learned that nearly every other Technology Strategy Board member in London had similar problems but that we were okay because Vodafone had classed our problem as high priority and would deal with it within 5 working days. It has been a revelation to go back to pre-Blackberry days. No longer do I feel the need to sneakily look at my phone during meetings, but then I have truckloads to deal with when I can get to Kingsgate House, the hotel, Starbucks, or (once) home. It also means that responses to “URGENT” messages have been delayed – and yet the world hasn’t stopped turning. It also led to the bizarre event of being invited to a meeting 4 hours ago!!
But what of the real world? The week started well with a couple of presentation to the Materials and Structures National Advisory Committee. This is – despite its generic title – a Defence and Aerospace body and has met in various guises since 2000 to my knowledge. It is currently chaired by Steve Garwood of Rolls-Royce (submarines!!). He originally invited me to go along and talk about the work of Materials UK, but then amended the invite to get a twofer of me on the Technology Strategy Board as well (readers will be glad to know that I am more persuasive on this second topic!). It is obvious that the message of the Technology Strategy Board is not going very far into the community. The level of ignorance about what we are and what we do was impressive – and these are volunteers from the businesses involved in Defence and Aerospace, so they are our targets!! As well as my piece, which lasted 90 minutes with questions, I saw presentations on Team MAST, the new way the MoD is outsourcing fundamental research, a confused picture of Europe and a wonderful presentation on the “Wing Project” by one of Fearless Leader’s ex-colleagues. After the various times (in my Technology Strategy Board role) I have seen presentations on this subject by “government liaison officers” and the like, it was refreshing to hear a techno-commercial evaluation of the potential and challenges that must be overcome. Maybe we should be more selective in who we let talk to us?
Tuesday saw Brain, Walter and I visit the Department for International Development – in particular the Chief Scientific Advisor, Gordon Conway. Along with his colleagues William Kingsmill and Chris Hillier, we had an interesting and amusing, if somewhat rambling, discussion on areas of potential overlap. DfID had a new Perm Sec starting that day, so Gordon and William had to go and “show their faces” as the Minister welcomed her. When they returned, Gordon mentioned that he had trodden on Douglas Alexanders’ toe so that he could be noticed and then sneak off to continue our meeting!! Their role is to help the less developed countries develop, so there is no obvious overlap with our goals, but as we talked, we all realised that starting something in the UK, initially selling and then franchising a new technology mean that there is a real potential for working together in the future.
This led on to a Thales hosted lunch at the Royal Society. I sat next to Jonathan Williams of DSTL and had a great conversation about potential future working. They (again) don’t know much about what we do and how we do it these days, so getting our message out to business once again was a theme of the conversation. I guess I was invited to the lunch because that afternoon was a series of meetings with the Department for Transport and a consortium led by Thales that had been supported to develop a National Automotive Information Incubator. This is yet another data mash-up, albeit a good one. The money runs out at the end of March and we had been invited by DfT to consider whether we might be interested in supporting the project through its next phase. Actually, the DfT advised not to, so the full meeting with Thales was an interesting event where they breezed in expecting to be funded for more time – despite not having delivered their final report and missed a couple of milestones – and told us we were wrong. I find the negotiating technique of telling Government that they need to support this very commercially competitive project a little odd.
Wednesday was the final assessment panel for the Ensuring Privacy and Consent competition under the Network Security Innovation Platform. Three very strong projects have gone through and there are components of those who did not that the panel recommended should be funded through a short feasibility study to feed back into the overall programme at a later date. While I had him there, I asked Brian Collins about quantum computing and the sense of a UK initiative in the area. Telling only what he could without having the kill me afterwards (apparently there is a strong “Cheltenham connection” and we need to make sure we have it all covered) he thought the idea basically sound, but was worried that the US shareholding in Qinetiq would put them out of contention for Government support. Unfortunately, the meeting ran on (a lot – and I was chairman!) so I missed the launch of the Assistive Living Design and Development Centre (with no Design Centre logo!!)
Thursday was a day out. I went to Roke Manor under the ITSS banner. Roke is a Siemens owned research laboratory which operates at “arm’s length” from Siemens and has to bid for work wherever they can get it. As well as the marketing pitch, we got to see things!! :-) The system that extracted “corner” information from picture and then looked for patterns of movement and “anomalies” to sensitise those with loads of CCTVs to watch was funded and relevant to Friday. And the low cost, passive radar system also used technology in a thoughtful and efficient manner. Finally, they showed us their part in congestion charging. I wish I did this more often.
A diary screw-up by DfT meant that I had to get up at 5 o’clock on Friday to take part in their Demonstrations Project Board meeting. This is the one that manages with whole Road User Pricing work (which they coyly call Time, Distance Place). It is wonderful to watch a capable civil servant deal with people who miss deadlines and prevaricate at every opportunity. The bottom line is that the Invitation to Tender will be issued next week, get mentioned in the budget document and then be out in the real world – having been announced on May 23rd last year. They were about to commission a private company to survey those taking part in the trials and working out how many millions it would cost, when I offered to introduce them to the ESRC, who fund a lot of sociologists and psychologists who would kill to get access to such an experimental group.
Next up was the next stage in sorting out the MNT KTN debacle. David and Heidi have been trying to get CENAMPS, who started running this 7 months ago (a decision made by an earlier regime) to understand that being 5 months behind schedule at this point wasn’t acceptable. Following some behind the scenes phone calls, they fielded a One North East person to provide high cover for CENAMPS. I thought the bit when we exposed our idea that they should work more closely with the Institute for Nanotechnology (an established and effective organisation with a impressive CEO) and the ONE guy suggested that this might just perpetuate the problem was almost risible – the initial recommendation had been to scrap the failing organisation and start from scratch. Once again, the conversations showed that there are many who see us as an unquestioning source of money for legacy projects and have to be hit over the head with pointed sticks before they get that we are investing taxpayers money and expect a reasonable rate of return – starting with delivering that they promised. If they (and IoN) deliver on their promised, then David and Heidi will have achieved a notable first. Being me, I wonder what we will do when they fail to deliver next month!!!
The (supposedly) final piece of the week was a visit to the Transport for London Control Centre. Organised as a showcase for project Freeflow, this evolved into a fascinating discussion about how services interoperate. The police guy who liaises with TfL was a source of useful and relevant ideas and bought into the plan wholeheartedly. For example, at major incidents, the different services all know what they have to do, and the central controls don’t interfere with local liaison – see http://www.leslp.gov.uk/docs/Major_incident_procedure_manual_7th_ed.pdf – a sort of statistical process control for people!! It turns out that Freeflow is getting noticed and may well turn into a good exemplar of our way of working. The downside of the lack of e-mails came home to roost when I got home. The nice people at the Treasury have discovered Innovation Platforms and are wanting to start them, finish them and publicise them. What was really depressing from the various uncorrelated e-mail threads was that no-one in the Treasury seems to understand what we do and how we do it (where have I heard that before) and that legends of civil servants seem happy to duck and pass the e-mail on – until it arrives at an “arms-length, business-led” body who would really like to get on with their day-job.
C’est la vie!!