Sketch: Don't panic, it's the hitchhiker's guide to the BCS AGM

Kevin Cahill gives his (mostly harmless) take on the struggles facing the Chartered Institute for IT

It is a truth universally accepted that all possible steps must be taken to make annual general meetings as dull as possible.

In that respect, the Chartered Institute for IT (BCS)'s AGM on 12 March was surpassingly successful.

Just 0.1% of the 74,000 members attended and less than 8% of the membership voted on the various motions, all of them procedurally detailed and none remotely relevant to the broader issues affecting the industry and the society as a whole.

Perhaps the best way to describe the atmosphere at 5 Southampton Row, the society's London HQ, was semi-detached, with reality a remote irrelevance drifting past the windows outside.

Tippy-toeing through falling reserves

It was an atmosphere perfectly conducive to tippy-toeing through a report that showed the society's reserves had halved, from £16m to under £7m, in five years.

Adrift, detached and bogged down in AGM rituals invented by the Victorians

The PA system let down outgoing president Roger Marshall. The hard of hearing, including this reporter and any number of others, stoically waved and signalled him to move closer to the microphone. We just about managed to work out that he wanted the society – formerly known as the British Computer Society – to be more commercial.

Yet the accounts showed losses of over £2m on commercial ventures. I figured that if the losses continue at £2m a year and with only £7m in the reserves, the society has about three years before it goes bust.

Society is not in trouble 

No one except Gerry Fisher, former president and recently outspoken member of the BCS Council, seemed to notice this.

The octogenarian tried to wake the board, but it must have felt like trying to wake the dead. He told them the society was in trouble, but the man standing three feet from the microphone politely said it wasn't.

CEO David Clarke, who is soon to retire, said the losses had stopped, but didn’t produce anything to explain how. In any case, the losses were not losses but investments, he said.

Vision for the future?

Between elderly rebels, a low turnout and worse polls, what seemed missing was a rescue plan, and a clear vision for the future.

If the losses continue at £2m a year and with only £7m in the reserves, the society has about three years before it goes bust

There was something odd, eerie almost, about seeing the professional society devoted to the technology that is changing the planet looking adrift, detached and bogged down in AGM rituals invented by the Victorians.

The implications of the Snowden revelations affect  80% of BCS members. Yet we discovered that the BCS has buried the issue in a remote and unknown sub-committee.

As for the BCS raising its profile by talking to the press, Marshall said journalists want answers far too quickly.

Don't panic

For a society whose membership is only 14% female, it was a relief to see that the next president is a woman. Will Professor Liz Bacon grasp the nettle and get a once-great society back on the move again?

Will she continue to subscribe to the fantasy that a virtually static membership, which accounts for about 3.7% of those working professionally in the IT sector, is progress?

Will she come up with a plan that has something to offer the hundreds of thousands of IT professionals who currently ignore the society?

There was a hint of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, as the Earth awaits its demolition to make way for a hyperspace bypass, about the air of detachment at the BSC AGM.

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

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