Sunday, 15 June 2014

Chief Evangelist

Do you remember those far off school days. Do you remember that old kiddies question that you first heard in the primary school playground. When someone asked 'when is a door not a door' after a short pause it was announced 'when its ajar'. Oh how we laughed. Even today the same thing is going on. Only this time its not in the playground its on the towpath and the question is, 'when is a consultation not a consultation' and everyone shouts 'when its done by CaRT'.

Wikipedia says: Public consultation, a process by which the public's input on matters affecting them is sought.

There are many kinds of consultation that can be undertaken. The more usual ones are either a private consultation such as you might have with your doctor. Alternatively it could be a public consultation where you come together with others and express opinions. But in most consultations you gather together peoples views and using that information come up with a set of proposals. Which is then put out once more for final consultation before implementation.

It seems to me that CaRT have a different view on what forms a meaningful consultation. In CaRT's case a set of proposals in the form of outcomes are 'consulted' upon. This is little more than a rubber stamping exercise where the outcome is already preordained. So why consult in the first place if the outcome is decided.

Its because CaRT need to have a more genial public face. After all there are certain expectations by the government and the general public placed upon the charitable trust. There will be a set of performance criteria which the government have set. These criteria will be associated with funding penalties if they are not met.

But in the change from British Waterways to the new charitable trust a golden opportunity was lost to start with a clean sheet. The transfer of undertakings came complete with the old management structure and the old management ethos and an apparent continuation of the well known lack of ideas. Everyone was well aware that any meaningful consultation would mean talking directly to the primary users of the inland waterways. Be it businesses, boaters, fishermen and other recreational users. 

Any business today has to be a slick operation, if it is to be cost effective. It has to be slim in numbers it has to be proactive in methodology and reactive in capability. More than anything else it has to have the confidence of its supporters and it also has to be fit for purpose. The trust has many detractors who quite happily highlight any short comings. Often done through frustration at what they see as being senseless costly mistakes. There is a second group of 'critical friends,' the more mellow detractors who realise that the trust has to succeed. Their frustrations come from being ignored with platitudes such as the promised openness and accountability falling flat on its face.

The easiest way to collect together a group of people with a genuine interest and commitment is through a paid membership structure. This was an idea floated by experts and ministers during the public and political 'consultations' about the move to becoming a charitable trust. The problem with that scenario is that the membership would rightfully expect that all the senior officers of the trust would be answerable to the membership.

So rather than put membership subscription money into the coffers and gain at the same time a group of real supporters with a genuine interest in the future of the inland waterway. Built from a cohort many of whom already pay significant amounts of money into preserving and enhancing the infrastructure through various types of licence and mooring fees. People who were prepared to put their money where their mouth is and invest money, time and effort in the inland waterways.

So what did we get in place of a paid membership. A hotchpotch and botch made up of numerous and expensive to maintain 'waterway partnerships.' Instead of slimming down - CaRT fattened the structure. It did however, slim down the actual bank side workforce. With the best will in the world, I can't see how the partnerships are ever going to be the proactive fund raisers we were promised. There is, in my opinion, little likelihood of the partnerships becoming anything more than a disjointed talking shop. Already distaste for the partnerships is being expressed on-line amongst some of the more vocal. I can't see any proactive or reactive element in their make up. I can't see a meaningful way of consulting or communicating with them. For me, I put the waterways partnerships into the same realm as poetry on lock gates, growing forests in boats and investing in pubs. There is another huge, home grown Elephant now lumbering into the room.

In an endeavour to find something positive to end on. I see that Richard Parry has continued in the role of 'chief evangelist.' Just like any good politician he has gone out on the hustings to 'consult' with the electorate which in his case are the waterways users. I know that he has been given an uncomfortable ride in some places, but that comes with the job. I am looking forward to a positive outcome when he eventually shares his experiences. 

Ask yourself a few questions:
  • Would you expect the previous incumbent in the CEO role to have had the intestinal fortitude to front up?
  • Do you think any of the other directors have plans to face the public in regional open meetings any time soon?
  • How about the Trustees doing a couple of open meetings and facing the public?
I expect that the silence from the directors and the trustees will, just like our IWA elected representatives - be deafening.

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