Decide what you want, decide what you are willing to exchange for it, establish your priorities and go to work!
26 November 2021 by David Bott
I had a variety of meetings scheduled for London Monday so my plan was always to drive down there and miss the “start the week” meeting. On Sunday, I started receiving what turned out to be the first of a stream of cancellations that ended up with most of Monday being decimated. But I was down in Tracy Island by 11 o’clock and met up with various people, took a phone call from FL about various things that had landed up in his inbox or as an incoming text on his triumphant return from the colonies. Then it was a great catch-up with Hadley Beeman, the Queen of Open Data (see – http://linkedgov.org/). The whole issue of open data has become very popular with both this and the last government. They believe that their data has intrinsic value whereas we believe their data has value only once it has been combined to answer specific questions that people have value for. The trouble is that people only really want to know what the crime rate is like in an area when they might be moving into it. Once they are there, they would probably rather not know. Similarly, knowing which hospital is best for treating your child is only really an option in London if you are driving a BMW X5 and people in rural areas would just like a nearer place to get to on public transport! Anyway, LinkedGov has been helping owners of government data using hackdays (see – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hack_Day), appathons (see – http://svc2uk.com/appathon) and suchlike to clean up the data and find the inevitable bad data points so that it can be combined with other data and realise its value.
My final commitment was to talk to a guy who had called me in response to some things I had said in what was supposed to be a TIC interview for the Times the other week (see – http://www.mappingbritishbusiness.co.uk/business-services/management-analysis/). Apparently I struck a chord with him and he wanted to express his relief that people in jobs like ours thought that way. Nice bloke.
The next day, it was down to the Forestry Commission Research Centre at Alice Holt (see – http://www.forestry.gov.uk/fr/INFD-5UWHXL) for a Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) Partners Board Meeting. I spent the first 15 minutes talking to John Selbourne about the area, he is both local and a tree geek, then joined the 22 partners and assorted hangers-on for the meeting. First up was a discussion of the research database (see – http://www.envirobase.info/). It was another example of people believing that “their work” had intrinsic value without thinking through what people might do with it. I could see real value if it was combined with other data and sent the URL to Hadley to see if I was right! Next came Colin Drummond’s always subtly critical report of the work of the Business Advisory Board. He told the wider group that although some partners were interacting with business, many were not and managed (I think) to infer that some that were interacting, were perhaps doing it to simply tick a box. I love that man! Next came another instalment in the Mark Barkham book of how to impose metrics on a group of people who don’t really what them – indeed who perhaps didn’t even know what they wanted as outputs. Andrew Watkinson then talked about how they had learned so much about the projects on flooding strategy and the water industry, but ignored our analysis of the commercial potential, seeing it as another justification for academic work that (as far as we could tell) industry didn’t want. Lunch offered some respite and the change to learn something about the work of the Forestry Commission Research Centre who were hosting us. Their laboratories were rudimentary but were the first I have come across to include a chain saw as part of the equipment. I now know a dangerously small amount about diseases of oak trees and how beetles and bacteria work together to destroy these magnificent trees (sorry, it was that conversation with John Selbourne that did it, I am now a tree fan too!). One of the best moments was when I discovered that LWEC have only just released their 2008-2013 Strategy Document (it is dated 6 September 2011)
I was intending to drive home avoiding London, but FL had stitched us with a meeting with Tim Kelsey, a McKinsey consultant seconded to the Cabinet Office to “sort out” open data (see – http://www.forestry.gov.uk/fr/INFD-5UWHXL). As it was I made the 45 miles from Alice Holt to the Green Park Hilton in 67 minutes. What congestion? FL and I tried to get our story straight before we faced the might of such a powerful being. The back story is that Nigel Shadbolt of Southampton University has been peddling a proposal for the “Institute of Web Studies” since last 2009. The last political dudes agreed to fund it because it had Tim Berners-Lee’s name associated with it, but the incoming Sith immediately cancelled it on the grounds that it wasn’t a good use of taxpayers money. TBL did some schmoozing with David Willetts and it came back on the agenda last Summer. In its raw state it was quite a high level case for an academic institute but the EPSRC disowned it, so they came to us. We tried to get Nigel to move it towards our, more business focused, space, but he stuck to what he wanted to so. The Rohan Silva announced that it was to be located in Shoreditch at the Wired Event last month and FL and I were dragged into Number 10 to explain our lack of compliance. That resulted in a newly rebranded “Open Data Institute” but still an academic proposal. Tuesday evening was a last attempt to find common ground, so Tim turned up with his laptop, he and I argued about every sentence, he told us what wasn’t negotiable and FL played a blinder parking the agreement more on our side of the table. Although Shadbolt was still named as a “director” that it was to be located in Shoreditch meant that his lords and masters in Southampton will assume he sold out and crucify him. FL got so agitated, he threw a glass of wine at Tim and Tim demonstrated why McKinsey people have the respect they do in the commercial world! I then drove home, making the 115 mile journey from Green Park to Inkberrow in 107 minutes – it’s amazing how quick travel goes when there is no-one on the roads!
Wednesday was originally supposed to be an early jaunt down to London, but the curse of meeting cancellations came here too. My first meeting with the Cabinet Office (on another matter) got cancelled – or rather requested to be re-arranged into a packed day (they think we all sit around waiting for them to ask!) and my second meeting had no details. Luckily I checked my texts as I wandered around the house having a leisurely breakfast to discover FL had talked to the people I thought I was having the second meeting with who told him they were really looking forward to it! Cue speeded up trip to London! Once again, going through Tracy Island gave me a chance to catch up on “rumours” and even see FL in passing, but the meeting was at the relocated SMMT, so I wandered down into the political lobbying ghetto that is Great Peter Street. SMMT have both a fully clothed and a naked chassis MP4-12C in their front lobby, so I ogled a bit before the others arrived. I was vaguely expecting another ambush about a low carbon vehicle TIC, but instead got a really interesting meeting about what amounts to branding. The others were Paul Everitt of the SMMT, Jerry Hardcastle of Nissan and the Automotive Council Technology Group and Neville Richardson of Ricardo. At the last meeting (when we had been ambushed) we had talked about the reputational value of a TIC, and discussed the idea of developing a “wrapper” for the various activities which take place in the UK to use as an offering to those considering relocation or inward investment. They had started with a rather clunky idea called Test Bed UK (see – http://www.bis.gov.uk/files/file50539.pdf for early signs of life and http://www.automotivecouncil.co.uk/2010/02/testbed-uk/ for evidence it died slowly!) but what they now recognise is that they have plenty to talk about – the successful evolution of the NAIGT into the Automotive Council, the shared technology roadmap and capability analysis, over 4 years of investment through the LCV Innovation Platform, the low carbon vehicle purchase rebate and the ULCV Demonstrator (technically part of the IP, but they see it differently so we get thanked twice!). We debated how to build the case. I was told by PE that he was a communications professional so my point about engaging designers and brand experts early was dismissed. I was told that we were sitting on information about the projects we were funding and not sharing good stories and threatened with an FoI request (subsequently I discovered Transport Man is already on this case) but that the BIS Press Office and Automotive Unit were definitely against this sort of thing and we should not tell them! We parted as friends with SMMT taking the responsibility for actions.
I rushed back to Tracy Island to meet with FL, but it turns out he had been delayed, so I wandered up to Old Street to a meeting with the Home Office CAST guys. This was our attempt to get them out meeting the sorts of people they rarely meet, but I had dropped the ball and so they only met people from the TSB that they rarely meet and not the pullovers I had been aiming for. As it was, hearing about the Metadata competitions and companies from Alex and about LinkedGov from Hadley did get their attention and we had a good discussion about doing things they don’t usually do.
Afterwards Strategy Man and I had a coffee in Starbucks off the Old Street roundabout in an attempt to raise our Tech City credibility. We talked about the inadequacies of our world and what to do on December 8thwhen the Governing Board descend like locusts on Swindon. He had captured a discussion of the previous week, but we needed to push the go button. I think we did and have had some excellent feedback on tactics.
Thursday was a Swindon day, so I drove down in the morning. First up was an EMT meeting (Operations). We signed off a few PAFs, but I was a little blindsided by some of the ones in my area – unless I have a good case, the system isn’t working! We spent lots of time looking at the finance where we are beginning to get useful management accounts – but they still seem to be riddled with oddness. Allocations of “intervention management” (i.e. the things we do in support of competitions) seem to out of balance with what we know the activities to be, the apparent expense excesses of some groups turn out to be an artefact of a finance driven algorithm that doesn’t stand up to questioning, and so on. We then had a good thrash around risks. We are still struggling to balance a proper discussion about what the risks are, how to prioritise them and what to do to mitigate them. The bottom up system got some criticism and the fact that the auditors criticise us for not applying our own, very thorough system, suggested that we ought to use something simpler that we can stick to!
We ran out of time to do everything but had lunch with Ian Shott and Mike Carr as part of their “TSB Induction” day at Swindon. We forget, having done it for over 4 years, how complicated our remit and track record now are. Although we talk about being “business led”, we have actually carved out a way of working that balances the drive for business relevance and impact with the fact that we are a public agency and need to be accountable to the taxpayers, the government and the auditors (see earlier). Getting that across to new Board members quickly and efficiently so that they can help us deliver is a priority – and possibly one we have still not achieved with some of the last intake! The lunch moved into a smaller discussion about the TIC process and progress with Ian Shott. Because Ian has been relatively deeply involved in the Cell Therapy second stage, he gets it more than most and asked lots of very good questions about our goals, our methods and our results.
I then had a catch-up with Jools about the increasing complexity of the next few weeks – people keep trying to finish things off before Christmas and so want to “meet and discuss /resolve” issues before then – all of them at the same time!!
I got a chance to join the Web Forum meeting for 15 minutes and saw some sign of movement, but still worry about the introspective approach they seem to favour – we all deal with the comments on the web site from outside and all want it to be better.
I had to leave to accompany FL down to London for a dinner I had originally declined. He and Transport Man had promised me that it would be over by 9.15, and FL had agreed to give me a lift back to Swindon, so I stood a chance of being home by midnight! The dinner had been organised by the Transport KTN and was about the potential “transport” TIC. Alec Broers and Neil Ridley had assembled a stellar dinner table – with senior representatives not just of the various segments of the surface transport industries but also from those who would have to be brought into the action to build a integrated transport system. We stood in an ante-room for the best part of an hour to start with getting to know the people before going in to the room with a table! After introductory remarks by Alec and FL, we started to introduce why we were all there and what we wanted. The tour de table was getting a little introspective and self-absorbed, but I was towards the end of the round and so I waited to point out that they didn’t have to convince themselves, they needed to convince our Governing Board and that there were other communities who had similar – and possibly even better articulated – arguments for a TIC in their area. That changed the tone of the discussion and I hope that Transport Man can remember and communicate the ideas that came out because they built to a pretty strong case, and one that has serious and important overlaps with our ideas both in Future Cities and Digital Services. The meeting eventually petered out around 10.45 as people had to leave to catch last trains and FL and I started homewards. We had both got texts from an agitated Fergus during the dinner, so we compared notes an replied – it was all about how much money we get to deliver “growth” in the Autumn Statement. As (bad) luck would have it, there were roadworks on the M4 and I was eventually dropped off at North Star House a good time after midnight. It is amazing how few cars drive the Fosse Way at 1 o’clock in the morning and how many foxes live in Stow. I really excellent trip home though! As I parked the car, I realised I had managed my first 19 hour working day (that didn’t involve time zone changes!). Next time I will stick to my guns on “it won’t work” declinations!
Friday was supposed to be a day of, but various people wanted/needed information that might (or might not) have resided only in my head, so I actually spent some time answering e-mails and texts.