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10 June 2010 @ 11:35 am
The British Computing Society (although I learn it is now BCS The Chartered Institute for IT) is having an EGM. I am asked to vote on my lack of confidence (or otherwise) in the BCS trustees, chief executive and multi-million pound transformation programme. I am also asked to vote on a special resolution to change the constitution and make triggering EGMs more difficult. I have been sent a glossy, though somewhat vague, brochure by the BCS which purports to explain why I should have every confidence in its Trustee Board, Chief Executive and modernisation plans.

Up until very, very recently Computer Science in the UK has had no learned society to represent it, the closest equivalent was the BCS which was primarily a professional society representing industry although it had an active network of special interest groups many of which represented academic interests. I'm fortunate enough to be working in a sub-area of Computer Science which does have a learned society (the AISB) although since the BCS also had an AI Special Interest Group this led to its own set of amusing fun and games.

All that has changed in the last year or so with the creation, by the BCS, of the Academy of Computing which will serve as a learned society for Computer Science. A move of which I heartily approve.

Beyond that I have had relatively little association with the BCS although I have had a couple of concerns about it:

Firstly, I was always a little non-plussed, that I was entitled to put the letters MBCS after my name largely because a Professor of Computer Science was prepared to sign off a form saying I was a good egg. Obviously it was a little more involved than that but not a lot. Non-academic computing professionals, until recently, had to go through a far more rigorous vetting process. It should be noted that MBCS doesn't imply I'm a chartered programmer or IT professional.

Secondly, all academic computer scientists encounter, from time to time, industry professionals who complain that university Computer Science courses are dramatically failing to produce graduates with the relevant skills needed by industry. Now obviously there is the old tension between academia and industry surfacing here, but that doesn't mean such complaints are, prima facie, irrelevant or ill-considered. My response has become to point out that there was a professional, chartered, society which ran an accreditation programme for British Computer Science courses. Graduates from accredited courses gain certain exemptions in their progress towards getting relevant chartered qualifications from the BCS. Most of the top universities were, and remain, anxious to obtain and retain BCS accreditation for their Computer Science courses. Therefore the appropriate route for placing pressure on universities to make their degrees more industrially relevant was through the BCS accreditation process and if industry really finds our graduates inappropriate for their needs (and there does seem to be a case to answer there) then there is some problem with the chain that links the universities, via BCS accreditation, with industry. This process seemed to me to be failing partly because chartered status was not as highly regarded in the IT industry as it should have been (I was not aware of any discussion in the dissection of high profile `failed IT' projects for instance on whether chartered IT professionals had been employed nor, when I briefly looked for work outside academia, was I aware of any IT or programming job requiring that I be chartered) and that the BCS therefore didn't truly represent the computing industry and partly because BCS accreditation was, broadly speaking, easy to obtain. I'm saying this by comparing my own experience as a member of academic departments going through the accreditation process with those of colleagues in Psychology and Engineering attempting to get accreditation from their relevant professional bodies. NB. Neither of these problems are purely the BCS's fault, acting at the intersection between industry and academia and operating as a standards body is never easy and involves complex negotiation with many parties.

So much for my interaction with, and opinion of the BCS. The core of the current spat, leading to the AGM, appears to be a remodelling of the BCS. This remodelling has included the foundation of the Academy of Computing (of which I approve) and a revamping of the qualifications offered by the BCS (in principle a good thing given the rapidity with which the IT field has changed over the past decades and my own concerns about the apparent weakness of the BCS supplied link between university education and the needs of industry) and a relaxation of the membership requirements for practitioners (debatably a good thing, since it makes the BCS more representative of industry, but a bad thing since it lowers standards - just because I got in on the nod doesn't mean anyone without the letters `Dr' in front of their name should :/). In the process the special interest and local groups of the BCS, i.e. active grass roots membership, have been generally messed about with (removal of budgets, autonomy, additions of bureaucratic burden) and they are, unsurprisingly irritated (read livid). Communication between the BCS trustees and these grass roots groups would appear to have been, at best, poor. As far as I can tell the vote of no confidence has, primarily, been triggered by dissatisfaction among active members of the local and SI groups.

The helpful letter, accompanying the BCS's glossy but vague brochure on how great they are, was entirely unenlightening about the causes of the complaints against the BCS containing only the sentence `This is because they would prefer `the society [they] joined around 30 years ago'' . This, of course, was an unfortunate thing for someone to have said given the massive changes in the IT industry over the past 30 years, but anyone with a bit of exposure to, say, the American right-wing media's handling of anything to do with Barack Obama, can probably smell a quote taken out of context in order to distort opinion and this sure smells like one of those. It also linked to a website putting the BCS trustees view of the matter which enlightened me no further (I might have been able to learn more by registering and signing in but I suspected that would involve a lot of red tape). Apparently there is also a YouTube video (because, I suppose, that worked so well for Gordon Brown). There was no obvious way to learn more about the issues. I concluded I lacked any information upon which to place my vote and sort of resolved to let those better informed get on with it especially given my status as an academic member of a body intended primarily to serve industrial practitioners (that's not quite what the BCS charter says, but it's how I view the nature and purpose of the society).

I used to be a member of the BCS Special Interest group on Formal Aspects of Computing (I may still be a member, I'm a little vague) who helpfully circulated more (and more balanced) documentation to my email box this week. This counts as a point in favour of the "Vote of No Confidence" group. The information contained a letter from Alan Bundy, my PhD supervisor, pointing out that a successful vote of no confidence would effectively stop any further development of the Academy of Computing. He correctly notes that the successful votes would force the Academy's two representatives among the BCS trustees to resign and would instantly freeze its budget. There is a rebuttal from the head of the BCS AI special interest group describing the Academy as a "grass roots" endeavour which the nay-sayers would support. Unfortunately, although I can well believe that the grass roots are in favour of the academy and would like to see it continue, it is at a fairly critical stage in its development and can probably ill-afford the six months or more disruption that is likely to follow from votes of no confidence. I care about this.

From the information in the email I was also able to find my way to the site of the group proposing the vote of no confidence. This, itself, was actually little more enlightening than the BCS's own site but it at least it contained links to a number of blog posts which actually discussed the matter in more detail.

I don't like the way the BCS trustees have dealt with this situation. I don't like the brochure they have sent me, or the website they have put up to support their case. I do not like the way it has been comparatively difficult to find information from both sides of the story. I'm not particularly impressed by the way either side appears to have handled the situation, but I've seen enough to be convinced that the local and special interest groups within the BCS have been treated poorly. I'm not sure how well members of the local and special interest groups can be seen to represent the viewpoint of the membership as a whole. I suspect the SIGs, at least, skew towards the academic which makes me unsure of the validity of their criticisms of the new professional qualifications and membership criteria being implemented as a part of the transformation programme.

I don't know how I shall vote. I'm fairly sure I will vote against the "Special Resolution" in which the BCS seeks to amend its constitution to effectively prevent anyone registering a vote of no confidence in future (It would go from 50 signature to 2% of the membership which would put the number of signatures required up into the 1000s which would be virtually impossible for grass roots dissatisfaction to organise). Although I think the SI and local groups have been treated very poorly, I don't want the Academy of Computing to die before it starts and, for many of these members, in particular the academic special interest groups, the existence of the Academy may prove a more effective step towards addressing their grievances than dismantling the current management. While I think the BCS management's handling of the local and SI groups has been abysmal I'm not sure that translates into general `no confidence'. So it would seem I've just written a lot of words in order to draw no useful conclusion. I have until 30th June to register my proxy vote, if I decide to do so, so perhaps I should simply sit back and enjoy the show as it plays out and hope that matters will become clearer.

BCS Case
Naysayers Case

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/7688.html.
fredbassettfredbassett on June 10th, 2010 12:14 pm (UTC)
As it is generally in the 'establishments' best interests to make EGMs hard to call, I think I would be against any motion to raise the number of signatories to a % level, as that would make an EGM almost impossible to call, which sounds wrong.

What never ceases to amaze me, however, is how the politics seems to stay the same, no matter what labelled peg it gets hung on.

I was, briefly, in the Avon Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers, and was impressed to discover that the politics was identical that that of caving. *sigh*
MysteriousAliWays: Crabby bitchmysteriousaliwz on June 10th, 2010 12:18 pm (UTC)
Whenever more than two or three human beings gather together in an organisation, politics tends to crawl out of the woodwork eventually.
louisedennis: writinglouisedennis on June 10th, 2010 12:52 pm (UTC)
Opposing the Special Resolution is about the only thing I'm clear on at this moment.

Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers eh? I demand AU fic in which Lester is a medieval cloth baron driven to distraction by his recalcitrant workforce of spinners, weavers and dyers. Bonus points if Becker and Lyle end up falling into a vat of purple dye, while engaged in a brawl.
fredbassettfredbassett on June 10th, 2010 02:28 pm (UTC)
I feel strangely drawn to that premise .....
MysteriousAliWays: Geeky Edge by Echomysteriousaliwz on June 10th, 2010 12:16 pm (UTC)
Having been working in a fairly large IT department (the size has fluctuated between 550 - 900-ish people) for the last twenty years or so, I can only recall the BCS being mentioned twice.
One was an email sent round about a lecture being given at a local BCS meeting, and another time a colleague mentioned being a member. And it's possible it was the same person who sent the email.
Not hugely high-profile in this bit of the industry then.
louisedennis: programminglouisedennis on June 10th, 2010 12:58 pm (UTC)
That's my impression, which is a huge shame because the BCS is ideally placed to negotiate between what universities want to teach and the skills industry wishes graduates to have, but a lot of the communication routes bypass them and are often patchy and inconsistent as a result.

Furthermore the industry is, in general, very poorly regarded, with a reputation for low professional standards and a failure to deliver. Assuming it is possible to address those problems (and I don't see why it shouldn't be, although large complex projects in any field are always difficult), then appropriate qualifications and a high profile body setting and enforcing standards seems like an obvious vehicle to promote change.
bunn: Hiverbunn on June 10th, 2010 01:32 pm (UTC)
Not that I have a view, but I ALWAYS read BCS=BGS=Battlestar Galactica.

This makes news relating to the BCS seem far more interesting... :-D
louisedennis: computinglouisedennis on June 10th, 2010 01:38 pm (UTC)
I wonder which side are the Cylons?