An online forum, The Stirrer, which is popular with employees of Birmingham City Council, does what it says on the tin.
It’s being used by staff to air views and give information about problems with a SAP-based financial system, Voyager. There have been hundreds of posts about the Voyager system. Contributors have said they cannot express their concerns directly to their managers without affecting their jobs or promotional prospects.
When I investigated an IT project at Haringey council [which was nothing to do with SAP] I was surprised at how easy it was for ruling councillors to keep information from the electorate and even other councillors. So it’s understandable that an online forum such as The Stirrer is being used as an outlet for views and information that may otherwise remain hidden.
Nobody wants Birmingham’s councillors and officers to be embarrassed by backlogs of unpaid invoices and difficulties gaining an overview of financial affairs. But it’s important that the lessons are learned. If other organisations in the public and private sector learn from the mistakes at Birmingham, and take a better-informed, more cautious, approach to SAP implementations, the council’s misfortunes will have had a positive effect on others.
But what are the lessons? I’ve spoken to Birmingham’s lead for the service transformation programme, Glyn Evans, who’s a man who instils confidence. He speaks openly of the lessons; and he doesn’t play them down. Once the problems are in the open it’s easier to deal with them.
But I’ve also spoken to a local councillor who has a senior role and who seems to make light of the difficulties. Like Whitehall officials and ministers who denounce critics of the NHS’s National Programme for IT rather than face up to the scheme’s problems, the councillor seemed more sensitive to criticism of the implementation than the difficulties of the staff and the council’s suppliers.
Criticism should be welcomed, not irascibly dismissed. John Stuart Mill said that opinion should never be compelled to silence.
“Though silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of the truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by a collisions of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.”
But not everyone seems content with the open expression of views and information on The Stirrer. A local Birmingham MP John Hemming seems by all accounts to be an excellent MP. He campaigns against the use of questionable scientific evidence to unjustifiably remove children from their parents. It’s a pity then that such a useful MP should become so irritable at times at criticism of the council’s systems on The Stirrer.
He said on The Stirrer: “People should feel that they can communicate internally. Communicating with me is a backstop that people have if they wish to blow a whistle. It remains, however, that the criticism in this forum is mainly vague hearsay.”
He added in a subsequent post that the vague hearsay was “because there are people who like to whinge.”
The reaction to this on The Stirrer was predictable. This was one of the posts: “Honest, hardworking, conscientious contributors/ employees of the city Council mostly being labelled as whingers. These people who are at the frontline of trying to use the new system and trying to make it work are described as whingers… It really doesn’t do you much credit to dismiss people as whingers, in fact frankly it diminishes your standing in my opinion. However you have every right to feel that way.”
When anything goes wrong – and particularly with IT-based projects – it is always difficult to establish dispassionately exactly what has gone wrong. All informed, well-intentioned views need to be taken into account, if only for the sake for those who come later to a similar implementation. There’s no doubt that some of the more important posts on the The Stirrer about the SAP “Voyager” system have been well-informed.
As Mill suggested, the real morality of public discussion is having the calmness and honesty to understand the arguments of opponents. “Truth in the great practical concerns of life is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites.”