Can the BDUK framework survive Birmingham and Cumbria on top of Westminster?

Ian Grant’s latest Broken Telegraph post indicates that the BDUK framework has finally run its course, having delayed the roll out of rural broadband until after Olympics. Whether or not that was the real objective, the cost of that delay will come out soon enough as Britain divides into Broadband haves and have-nots over the summer. Meanwhile the Leveson enquiry puts DCMS in weak position to delay revealing the cost of BDUK itself. Whether it does so by responding to a Freedom of Information Request or Parliamentary Question or waits until the National Audit Office investigates and reports, time is running out – albeit those responsible will have retired before DCMS is dismantled after the Olympics.

The ease with which Westminster and Kensington handled the procurement complexities with which BDUK was supposedly going to assist local authorities and the speed with which the Commission approved the Birmingham network plans and final Cumbrian loss of patience has, however wider implications. It reveals, all too clearly, that Whitehall does not know best when it comes to planning and procurement (and not just of communications). If one were to be to mark UK agencies in order of competance, the best and worst of practice would almost certainly be in Local Government, with Central Government consistantly below average, with some of its worse failures resulting from botched attempts to bring in private sector “expertise” (from BDUK to the Health Service NPfIT and PFI programmes).

This has significant implications as Ministers finally try to take control of spending before the next round of cuts. Now that those who were resisting change until they had got their inflation-proofed pensions have gone, we are left with those who would like to think they still have a career in public service ahead of them, helping the UK recover from economic and fiscal collapse. Most are significantly brighter than the average Special Advisor or Management Consultant but are seriously under-trained in the competancies needed for effective policy
formation and implementation.

I believe in the need to reprofessionalise the Civil Service (a belated implementation of the Fulton report) because we have outsourced too much over the two decades since we lost sight of the objectives behind the 1979 privatisation and liberalisation agenda on which I am still proud to have worked. The recentralisation of Communications policy under New Labour has been every bit as disastrous as that in other areas (e.g. Health) albeit it has not yet been seen to be as spectacularly wasteful. Current ministers are similarly carrying the blame for their inheritance, including of civil servants ingrained with New Labour attitudes of mind.

I fear things will get worse before they get better. Ministers need to seize the opportunity of the Olympic lockdown to set Local Government free to make progress while their officials are at home wrestling with trying to domestic quality broadband for business tele-conferencing or watching Beach Volleyball next to Whitehall. If not, broadband roll-out and economic recovery (which across much of the UK now depends world-class access to global business networks) on will be delayed another six months – with little sign of recovery before the next election.

Can we still afford to leave this to BT if their bid against Sky for sporting rights shows their true investment priorities – as an integrated provider of entertainment rather than as an
infratructure utility. The stock market reaction, marking down BT as well as Sky , shows their 
view of the deal: “investing” in fruther subsidising the salaries and transfer fees of Premier League footballers instead of improving and extending broadband infra-structure to sell to Sky before the latter does a Vodafone, buying into a terrestrial network to cut its payments to BT.

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