Saturday, 14 May 2011
Only Connect - BT and the cult of Vital Vision
As we know, one of the many curious links between the Tory run local authorities of Broken Barnet and beleaguered Suffolk County Council is the fact that several key players from both authorities have been part of a program run by BT known as 'Vital Vision'. One key player, a BT employee on long term secondment, has, in fact moved from Barnet to Suffolk.
The Vital Vision program identifies certain leading public sector figures, invites them to the US to attend a couple of courses and encourages them to think about new ways of doing business. At the end of this, they are given a certificate -( look Mum, I've got an MBA!) - and sent home, with a head full of bewildering new thoughts, and promises of follow up events in the UK.
There are two ways of looking at this sort of hospitality. Perhaps it is just a harmless sort of entertainment, like sending your kids to football camp in the school holidays, to keep them out of mischief, and collect a few plastic trophies. Alternatively, it might be thought that it is much more than that, and rather less innocuous: more like some sort of cult movement, a training camp, hidden away in the corporate foothills, created to indoctrinate impressionable or easily flattered individuals and replace them as sleeper agents in the public sector, primed and ready to unload a campaign of business friendly strategies wherever they work. Maybe. No doubt, as usual, the truth lies somewhere in between.
And they work in all sorts of areas now, these Vital Vision graduates, or, tellingly, as they are referred to in BT speak, these 'visionaries'. Stop sniggering. Find them now, these prophets of profit, in central government departments, in local government, the NHS, the police, all over the UK. A trawl on the internet readily reveals a number of people, well known and less high profile, who have attended the programme - having asked taxpayers, via their local authorities or employers, to pay thousands of pounds from training budgets in order to cover costs.
And look what else you can find on the internet, relating to Vital Vision. Some rather perplexing documents, in fact.
A BT 'programme sponsor' is quoted in one online editorial (www2.bt.com/application/vitalvision ) as follows:
"Vital Vision brings together a unique mix of senior Government decision-makers, BT research partners, and leading academic institutions including Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford and MIT.
The goal is to explore current business thinking and how it can best be applied to Government. The process is enhanced by the quality of the participants, and the stimulating, interactive environment they create. It is designed to be 'of the participants, by the participants and is most definitely not a sales event." (my emphasis in bold print)
Not a sales event. Note that.
Now then. Mrs Angry has discovered another BT document, a pdf file entitled Vital Vision Final, dating from 2005, a rather revelatory publication. (*Update October 2012: this document disappeared from the web shortly after this post was published, for some reason ... ) Mrs Angry can't help thinking that it was never intended for public access, in view of much of the material. Here are some interesting extracts:
"A typical “Vital Visionary” is a forward thinking chief executive officer (CEO) or someone who is seen as on the “fast track” to CEO. They must be the kind of person who will shape the views of others and contribute their intellect unstintingly. This is key because this ensures that the impact of Vital Vision reaches far beyond those that actually attend. The participants design vital Vision so their contribution is a necessity – this is not a passive experience. The relationship impact is clearly documented here, with various examples from clients involved in the program and from BT senior managers responsible for those relationships. The revenue link is also clearly measured and demonstrated along with some unforeseen bonuses delivered by Vital Vision.The revenue link is also clearly measured and demonstrated along with some unforeseen bonuses delivered by Vital Vision." (again, my emphasis in bold) "
The document goes on to explain how the program works:
"The participant is inducted as a “Vital Visionary” by a personal in-depth interview where we determine the key issues with which they are grappling. This information is amalgamated to ensure that the content of the program is designed to be as relevant as possible for the group. We also explore the individual’s personality profile, learning profile and emotional intelligence to help us to determine the best method for delivery."
(I'm guessing that some of the more intellectually challenged 'Visionaries' we know about here in Broken Barnet may have had to have been sat down in front of a blackboard, with chalk diagrams, and milk and biscuits at playtime, in that case ...)
What is the content of the program itself?
"The programme encompasses visits to BT’s partner business schools in the US, as well as workshops and briefings in the UK to create a strong relationship between BT senior managers and senior clients. The “hot-house” environment successfully recreates a collegiate atmosphere of “work hard - play hard”, encouraging delegates to bond more quickly and to a deeper level than is experienced in usual business, or even hospitality situations."
Frankly, there is nothing on the proposed schedule for that year which could not be read in a 'Public Sector Management for Dummies' manual. One day's heavy MIT/Harvard timetable is - Morning: 'Engaging the Citizen'. Lunch. 'Leadership in the Public Sector'. Dinner in the Aquarium. (wet suits provided, presumably). Another day: 'Morning: 'Change is a Risky Dance' (American Smooth?). Lunch. 'The Digital Divide'. Theatre visit.' And for this you get an MBA? ... But what is clear is what is important is not the message, but the medium: attendees are made to feel important, hand picked, respected for their perceived intellect and leadership qualities. No, no, you cynic, don't laugh behind your hand: and remember, this is not a sales opportunity.
As with any well run cult, the Vital Vision program will pursue its acolytes even unto death, or rather what passes for corporate life in the UK:
"After this initial induction year we run an alumni program of one-day events throughout the year. This ensures that we remain engaged and continue to leverage these relationships on an ongoing basis."
Underneath a graph detailing business won by BT as a result of the program, there is a listing of the all round benefits of the scheme:
"The benefits to BT include: -
• Increasing the perception of BT as the kind of
company that will work with the public sector to use
ICT to address business issues - Ok, if you say so.
• To open debates about business issues from the
CEO perspective - Fair enough.
• Improving the credibility of BT as an innovative
ICT supplier - Yes, alright, and -
• Improvement in win rate on over £1bn of business
(contract value) annuall - Ah ...
• Influencing the thinking of the chief executives to
shape their agenda - Er, why? What business is it of yours, BT?
• The generation of £7m worth of PR including
Channel 4 news and the national press along with
radio and internet coverage." - Really? Channel 4 News? No shit. Class.
Appendix 1 in this document is a listing of nominated attendees to the 2005/6 program, individuals from all parts of the public sector: did they want to be listed in such detail, one wonders? There is also a reference to ... a total opportunity value of £1.7 billion pounds.
Next to the names of the lucky people nominated, are further details of BT's 'opportunities', under columns marked 'Sales Stage' - either 'Create Awareness' or 'Develop Solution', and then the individual issues of each attendee, such as videoconferencing, or data storage, or broadband supply. We then find columns with 'Expected close date', and ah: 'Contract Value' - and even 'Probability'.
Now Mrs Angry is happy to emphasise that in the course of providing this Vital Vision program, BT is acting perfectly legally and above board, and the nominated attendees naturally join the program with perfectly open and honest expectations. I am sure that they leave in the same happy state, with their innocence intact. There is nothing to suggest in this document that any pressure was brought to bear on attendees to give business to BT, or that any business was given as a result of any inducement or hospitality. All contracts in the public sector are, as we know, subject to stringent procurement, tendering and contract regulation. (Except, sshh, in Broken Barnet. MetPro, anyone?)
The details in this document are clearly five or six years old. It may well be that since then sales targeting has been completely abandoned in favour of a totally altruistic, educational program by BT, as some sort of charitable enterprise, working philanthropically with the more academically disadvantaged members of our corporate community. Well, it's always possible, isn't it?
But in Mrs Angry's considered view, it is not possible to feel comfortable with the idea of the largest provider of ICT to the public sector forging such intimate relations with so many well placed executives and leaders and seeking to exert such lasting and profound influence through them in their areas of work. Both in terms of access to the potential clients, and the ability to shape policy decisions, this is surely not in the best interests of transparency and accountability in public office. Why should any one private company, of any size, be in such a powerful and favourable position when so much public investment is at stake?
If there is any evidence supporting doubt about the benefit to tax payers of any outsourced service, whether in terms of value, or safety, or performance, the suspicion might reasonably arise that the contract may not have been awarded entirely on the basis of merit. And can the other bidders in any tender process resort to such priviliged access to potential clients?
Apart from the lack of clarity over the award of contracts, what influence has the Vital Vision program had on the shaping of policy in councils now favourable to massive outsourcing and all the opportunities it brings to the private sector, in the widest sense, not just in terms of BT/ ICT and telecom services? These are all valid questions which someone should be asking. Has anyone actually done this?
Of course the private sector wants to see the advance of outsourcing, and the huge market expansion that will come with it, bringing endless opportunities for profit from the tax payer. All the more reason why, wherever possible, we must be vigilant, and closely scrutinise the processes that deliver huge contracts into the hands of companies, not just the global masters like BT, but of all sizes. And here in Broken Barnet, we have more reason than others to be concerned about how much scrutiny will be necessary, don't we?