Opinion

BCS faces 'plebeian revolt' over business reforms

Gerry Fisher, like the carvings on Mount Rushmore, is a permanent fixture at the British Computer Society. He has held every elected post the society – now known as the Chartered Society for IT – has to offer, and was elected its president in 1976/77. 

The word "doyen" pales when used about Gerry. So when, at the age of 84 and from his perch on the BCS Council, he erupts onto the stage opposing the same council and criticising its governance, he bears listening to.

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What, I ask Gerry, ails the BCS?

“I fear,” he says in that gravelly Scottish accent that has pervaded the BCS for over 45 years, “that we are being asked, at its annual general meeting, to turn the society into a business.”

And not a good business at that, he says. He talks about an organisation that he describes as haemorrhaging money while losing touch with the members who support it financially.

Where is the money going?

What galls him is that the BCS, a registered charity with a Royal Charter, is using its members' money to back a series of companies to commercialise the organisation.

“This is, in my humble opinion, a casual, even despicable, way to treat professionals of any society," he says. "It is one which demonstrates a sad attitude of those who have been elected the trustees of the society by the council members.”

Fisher, whose experience of computing goes back to the days of punch cards and before, recalls the early days of the society created by working computer professionals.

Its members were close enough to each other and to their society to be able to intimately influence its conduct, and keep it rooted in the day-to-day world of programmers and analysts.

"They created the first body in the world which sought to promote ethical and professional standards in our working lives," says Fisher.  

Lacking public credibility

Now he says, the trustees and council which govern the society are changing the BCS from a professional body with ethical standards at the heart of its practice, to a corporation whose resources, assets and staff are dominated by commercial, business concerns.

Doing that robs the society of credibility in the public domain, says Fisher. That, he says, is something the IT profession urgently needs – to have it accepted that "computer professionals are not a collection of technology hucksters, out to get as much of the public's money, and the public spend, into their hands as they can".

Where are the ethical standards?

“They say that no society is really credible until it has expelled some of its members for professional misconduct,” says Fisher.

Over the past 20 years there have been a trail of government IT project catastrophes that have cost not billions, but tens of billions of taxpayers' money.

“They are a total public disgrace. Have we even tried to find out whether any of our members were involved? I don’t think so. And the failures carry on.”

Lack of vigilance over failed IT projects

Look at the BCS’s coat of arms, says Fisher: “Does anyone on the board even know what the logo is meant to mean?”

He explains that it symbolises the major ethical responsibilities of BCS – the leopard’s face, surmounting the whole crest, depicts eternal vigilance over the integrity of the society and its members. 

"Where is that vigilance when public money is going down the pan, in billions, on computer projects that fail?”

Haemorrhaging money

The BCS’s AGM will be held on 12 March. It will discuss the BCS’s report and accounts, but Fisher is acerbic about the changes the BCS faces.

“If we’re going to be involved in business, let us at least be business-like about it. Bluntly put, we are haemorrhaging the members' money on businesses that have failed or are failing. That has to stop,” he says.

The hard facts, says Fisher, are that the governing board has lost £2m of members’ money in the past two years. Over the past five years, the BCS’s reserves have fallen from £16m to less than £8m, he says.

"We are told that it hasn't been spent, it has been "invested", a phrase we might have heard from our politicians in the past,” says Fisher.

Loss-making companies

Fisher points out the company the BCS set up to put it on a business footing has actually made losses. L&D was set up to generate revenue from professional certifications.

The accounts show that of the £20.9m the society spent in 2012/2013, £13.2m went through L&D – equivalent to 63% of the BCS’s staff and other costs. Yet L&D produced only a tiny profit – a sum of  £2,000 – which was gift aided back to the society.

Who is funding the BCS?

Overall, the BCS’s business activities cost us £13.5m and raise just £13.6m, says Fisher.

This means the society has to rely on member subscriptions – £5.6m a year – to keep it running.

The board has lost sight of both what the society is about and where its significant funds come from

Gerry Fisher, BCS

Where is this money going?

Only a small percentage of the member subscriptions goes back to support member activities in the heart of the BCS – the branches and specialist groups, where members meet and discuss issues of importance to the profession.

“I am told that branches are given something between 5% and 10% of the membership subscriptions for their area. Apparently, it’s just a few thousand pounds.

“Maybe this ignoring of the human side of the society explains the near-static membership, from 82,000 in 2009 to 74,000 or so now, according to our website,” he says.

“Here is a shining example of how the board has lost sight of both what the society is about and where its significant funds come from.”

For BCS members only 

Fisher has a few words that are strictly for BCS members themselves.

In the documents you received, he says at the top right hand of the agenda page is a small "Quick Vote" symbol. If you use that you abdicate your responsibility for the society.

“You give the president or chair of the general meeting the right to use your vote to support the motions that the board is putting to the meeting. That box is a simple request to shut your eyes and trust the establishment.”

The establishment you’re supporting is the one that is supervising the decline of the society membership, the run down of its funds and the maintenance of marginal businesses. It’s that simple.

"Thus does the establishment keep the plebs in line. But this pleb is in revolt, even if he remains a minority, for the present," he says.

Computing pioneer

Fisher is not a man who waxes nostalgic much, but it is worth recalling that he was there on the BCS, and personally, when the computer age was being invented.

His colleagues were people like Maurice Wilkes, the pioneer of real-time computing and first BCS president; Sandy Douglas, pioneer of community computing and another BSC president; and Stan Gill, another society president, who promoted and moved the change for the society to become a fully professional body in 1986.

He was a close colleague of Ian Barron, designer of the "all on one chip" transputer and one of the designers of the Elliot 502 and 803 computers. These, and many of his friends, created the industry and the BCS.

To some, Gerry may seem like a figure from another age, engaged in a last grand hurrah from the sidelines. That would be to mistake both his motive and its meaning. Gerry believes in people – and it is people, not bureaucracies, who make societies real and human.     


Kevin Cahill FBCS, CITP (FRSA, FRGS, FRHistS) is a professional fellow of the British Computer Society.

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This was first published in March 2014

 

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