Skills for sustainable growth - or protecting the past from the future

I expect to spend most of the week-end ahead drafting responses to the BIS Consultations on which I blogged a couple of days ago. The more I read the consultation papers, especially that on FE funding, the more depressed I become. “Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose”. About five years ago the Council of what is now the Information Society Alliance (EURIM) declined to allow me to spend more time on workforce skills until I could show evidence that major employers were willing to mount the political pressure necessary to overcome the departmental inertia and vested interests that have prevented change for over twenty years.  

In 1978 NEDO did a major study on the skills needs of the 1980s, but action fell by the wayside after the 1979 election. In 1985 the Director of the National Computing Centre pulled me off a job that I enjoyed (growing the London-based NCC Microsystems operations at 80% p.a. compound on positive cash flow to help the NCC break out of its Mancunian mindset), to pull together industry responses to the latest Government consultation on skills – as part of the creation of the “IT Skills Agency”. I protested that it was a waste of time. DfES and DTI would never actually respond to the views of employers, let alone of those used, rather than supplied, computers. He insisted the task was more important to the country than turning round the flagship awareness and technology assessment programmes of the day. We were both right.

I had expected the usual 2% response from the NCC’s 2,000 or so members, with no clear pattern of what they wanted. Instead I had over 15% response and a very clear perspective on what was needed. Over the following years I persuaded three successive Conservative Secretaries of State at DfES of the need to respond positively. Each time their officials dropped the action plan as soon as the SoS had been reshuffled.

I was then privileged, as skills advisor to the West London Training and Enterprise Council, to help organise the only well-funded survey (£150,000 for an add-on to the Local Labour Market Survey) of what employers actually did and valued with regard to training. We used computer assisted telephone interviewing and the results were based on a response rate of over 50% (over 700 interviews) from a fully representative sample of local employers.

The results were so far out-of-line with other surveys (few of which had a response rate of more than 2%)  that they had to be supressed. Only the management summary of the IT skills section, with the headline, “The Users have taken over the system” was published. The summary could be used to help justify the literacy programmes under the guise of basic end-user skills which were becoming fashionable. The other analyses (I still have the draft report and my contract gave me the right to use the results after a lapse of time) showed that almost all the programmes for which we were being funded by Government were nigh on irrelevant to local needs. Similarly, almost all that local employers actually wanted was unacceptable to Moorfoot (the Sheffield office complex from which UK skills policy was run). Ministers might be enthusiastic but Ministers come and Ministers go. Departments must look after themselves and their loyal “clients” and “allies”.  The limitations of the current consultation, including the list of those to be actively consulted, should be seen in that light.

I used some of the results to help the plan the survival (through the 1991 – recession) of the 1988 – 92 Women into IT Campaign, which raised the proportion of girls on University computing courses from 10% and falling to 16% and rising. Then the DfES cuts to the careers advice services for schools and returners resulted in a massive overload on the campaign office – because schools and individuals around the country enquired direct. We no longer had the time to help plan careers events and workshops or to help publicise those courses that actually placed trainees into jobs with local employers. The Women into IT Foundation had to be wound up before the trustees became personally liable for its debts. Nothing took its place. We are back to under 10% girls going on computing courses – and falling. A consequence is all those “toys for boys” interfaces, websites  and applications –  unfit for use by ordinary human beings to do other than waste time browsing the bloatware.

In 1995 I was asked to present my analyses to the then Shadow Chancellor of Exchequer, including why I expected a Millenium/Y2K skills crisis with a boom and bust. I responded to his request for analyses and action plans in the 1996 IT Skills Trends Report (the only skills report to ever make serious money – over £50,000 in report sales and bookings for the launch event). One result was the Millenium Bugbuster programme. This was probably my only unequivocal political success since I was part of the drafting team for the pre-1979 studies which led to the liberalisation (and not just privatisation) of BT and Cable and Wireless (the late Derek Broome was the dynamo behind this), IT Year (Adrian Norman‘s idea) and the Micros in Schools Programme (my idea).

The Bugbusters programme was actually planned by Treasury and presented to DfES as a fait accompli in the budget. The main difference to the other training programmes of the day was the requirement for “industry strength quality control”. It used a panel of former CIOs and former well-respected training providers active in the relevant professional bodies and trade associations to review the applications for accreditation as training providers. They failed most of those from the Department’s favoured suppliersd – to the consternation of officials and the surprise of no-one else. 

Unfortunately the plans for ring-fenced regional pilots to test some of the other proposals in the IMIS 1996 IT Skills Trends Report (in a section drafted specifically to answer Gordon Brown’s request for ring-fenced test-beds) were never implemented – even though they were announced in the small print of the budget. The reason was that they were based on tax incentives to encourage employer-driven training rather than giving DfES money to distribute to its client base. 

In 2002 the responsible minister, then John Denham, attended the IT Skills Summit hosted by the University of Greenwich and promised action. Unfortunately he was being reshuffled even as he spoke. The funding he announced for e-Skills to do what he announced was then put back into the departmental melting put for another year! By that time the momentum had been lost.

During the run-up to the 2005 election the Real Time Club ran a hustings for candidates from the three main parties. Richard Allan (then a LibDem MP, now doing sterling work with Facebook and about to go into the House of Lords) asked if I ever admitted to failure. I said not – it was just than some things took longer than others. Richard and the others were only too well aware of my obsession with skills and professionalism, beginning when my business school MSc project in 1972 was on “Why Computer Systems Fail” – or rather the pre-conditions for success .

I was therefore rather pleased when one of the newly elected Alliance directors, Stephen McPartland (MP for Stevenage) , “firmly but politely” requested, at a meeting of the Alliance Knowledge Economy Group, that we respond to the current BIS consultation and encourage our members to do. I then discovered that no-one else I talked to was even aware of it. Hence my previous blog to drum up interest and responses.

Remember “the silent majority gets what it deserves – ignored”