Why is it the climb always gets steeper as you get higher, and it's always a surprise?
31 May 2018 by David Bott
Luckily, starting on Tuesday saved me from the ignominy of attending two “start the week” meetings in a row, but we made up for it with an extended, two-part Executive meeting. We did get a respite in the middle with the lunch and learn by E S R I Inc.. I took two things from their visit. One was the fact that they saw an opportunity to describe what they do to the Technology Strategy Board as an opportunity worth 4 of their fairly senior guys time and the other was the pervasive, but often unseen, nature of their products and services. They have invited us back to their place to reciprocate and Steve and I are discussing how best to organise.
The next day was the Monitoring Officers meeting in Church House. We had discussed the monitoring of our grants at the Executive meeting and started the process of understanding that what we currently do might not be entirely appropriate. Any niggling doubts I harboured that we were being too hawkish were quickly dispelled by the morning session. The room was full of white, Anglo-Saxon men nearly all close to, or past, retirement. Some of the conversations over coffee were the stuff of (our) nightmares, with high levels of ignorance about our goals and no idea of the responsibility they undertook along with the money. Heidi made a good job of the strategy talk, although the absence of a lapel mike constrained her usual “energy” of presentation. She was followed by Steve Deeley, who continues to impress. He delivered some “firm” messages about the grant recipients and the monitoring of them that should have unsettled the assembled throng. Whatever impact we, as an organisation, might have had was quickly undermined by a display of ineptitude by TUV-NEL that was breathtaking in its scope. Attempting a 60 minute brainstorm on best practice with over 200 people in the room could perhaps be described as “brave”, but with good facilitation and strong chairmanship it might just have worked. Instead we got an eyeful of the worse sides of both the monitoring officers and TUV-NEL. Many of the answers to their questions had been contained in the presentations, but a lot was about them not really understanding their roles and responsibilities. What is worse is that, over lunch, it transpired that many confused the Technology Strategy Board with TUV-NEL and so we got the bad rap for the failure of the session from the better end of the MO cohort. At lunch, Cyrus and Paul Whittemore turned up – not for the free lunch, they claimed. They got to sit through a more closed and therefore less embarrassing couple of sessions, although Cyrus did find enough reason in the briefing session for new Monitoring Officers to need a drink afterwards before he could face going home!!! He was also quite bemused to find that the MO/MLOs have a traffic light system already. I had an interesting discussion with a couple of the tribe about whether, if we used sequential “reds” to precipitate a project close, their professional indemnity covered them. Risk adverse or what? Add project monitoring to the list of things we need to fix.
Dinner with John Wood. Apparently, Imperial were planning to tell us what we ought to be doing in our upcoming meeting. I hoped I persuaded John that if they took a “we have read your strategy and would like to work together in the following areas” tack they might make more progress.
Thursday was a blur of “government” meetings. We started with Fearless Leader, Brain and I meeting Mike Kelly (CSA at DCLG). The notes of the last meeting read like an unfocused brainstorm and Mike sometimes drifted close to that style but he has done some nice analysis of the problem of retro-fit and quickly worked out that we might be his best friends. He obviously hadn’t read anything about us, but Fearless Leader seems to have taken to carrying a small library in his briefcase, so Mike was presented with homework before we left. That led on to a series of agreed actions and the need for better co-ordination of our efforts.
Next came the Design Council. We have had a series of meetings with them over the past 6 months, but things seem to have gone quiet since our last meeting on April 2nd, where we thought we had agreed a path forward. However, the arrival, the evening before, of a programme of work costing £325k that they expected us to fund had thrown a spanner in the “partnership” ethic. Iain drew a firm line with David Kester, who was at his unctuous best. I think we agreed that they would come up with a plan to support the Low Impact Buildings programme by supplying design mentoring to projects, who would add that charge to the grant proposal, rather than charging us directly for an unproven service. In return, we agreed to take their “strategic lead” in Cornwall as part of DOTT09. FL agreed that Ellie and I would sort it, but they seem to have gone off message already by ducking meetings with me early next week.
Finally came another in the series of amazingly effective meetings with Bill Maton-Howarth of DoH R&D about the development of the Detection and Identification of infectious Diseases (although the name is apparently about the evolve) Innovation Platform. We were joined by Ken O'Callaghan of DEFRA who had been avoiding earlier meetings because he thought that DEFRA would have to come up with short term money to participate – they don’t have any!! Along with Brain and the alternating presence of Merlin and Zahid we have got close to finalising a “town meeting” on 27th June to bring together the various “stakeholders” in the area to validate the goals, check for omissions and sketch out a path forward.
Friday saw me once more amid the dreaming spires of Swindon – soon to be nexus of government activity in innovation (it says that in the adverts!). A teleconference with BECTA moved our ideas for this potential Innovation Platform forward as well, although there is still the need for some serious grunt-work on our part – reading 128 page “summaries” and meeting people takes time and resource.
This was followed by our dog and pony show to the assembled Research Councils. Talking to some of them over lunch, it felt like we were at the lower and middle ranks rather that the more senior guys we need to inculcate, so perhaps we could have fielded the B team and achieved more on the day.