Saturday, 9 October 2010

Letting the mushrooms see the light?

It may surprise my regulars but I'm going to say something (almost) positive about British Waterways today.

Along held grumble at local user group meetings has been how on too many occasions local staff leading those meetings have been not been briefed over national policy discussions. The phrase "you seem to know more about this than us", has been heard from their lips more than a few times! (= mushroom theory)

It seems after many years of asking, both personally and nationally through NABO's good offices, someone has finally decided to do something about this one. Accordingly all local user group meetings have been issued with a national briefing on boating issues. (As soon as I find one posted on the web I'll add a link.)

I have to acknowledge this as progress at last!

Many of us who go to local user groups meeting are members or activists in our various representative organisations and it is noticeable that over many years, information on BW operational policy filters down through our organisations faster than than it flows down through BW's internal structures to their own staff.

Another (consequent) phenomenon has been that important issues of national policy often do not get reported to local meetings, let alone discussed in any detail. BW have in the past stated that they assume that people will hear what is going on through the national user groups and feed back through the national structures. (Sounds like a closed shop approach to me?)

Certainly at the last West London User Group meeting a few of us had a right go on this one, (with due sympathy for the BW officers present). Certainly it seemed that the local staff attending were sympathetic to the notion that all of us (including them) should get the same info at roughly the same time.

I've long advocated that BW should do more decision making from the 'bottom up' than 'top down' and that there appears to be very poor linkage between local and national consultation meetings. It can't be to anyone's advantage that national user group reps and activists are coming to meetings better briefed than some BW staff. I don't blame the front line staff for too often finding themselves in that situation: rather blame their masters' (lack of) communication skills.

Some of us live in cautious hope that the structural changes that look increasingly imminent will be the catalyst that makes BW realise that to be a truly strong organisation, regardless of how it is structured, BW needs to be much more closely connected to the people who use the waterways. This seem fundamental to matters if BW are serious about using greater voluntary support from people like me and you.

It's not just the usual suspects like me saying this, but this is one of the conclusions that IWAC has recently offered on the subject:

BW should move as quickly as possible to change its culture and to move closer to its partners, its users and to local communities. This change in culture is not dependent on a move to the third sector and should be implemented whether or not the move to the third sector takes place.

As part of the change in culture BW should consider involving users and relevant third sector bodies more directly in the management of particular waterways and visitor attractions, expanding the Board of BW to include more people with direct waterways community engagement and set up a new Advisory Council with a defined place in BW’s decision making process. The membership of the new Council should include local authorities, third sector organisations and volunteering groups,

(Underline is my emphasis)

(Source: Conclusion Page 11 ff, "IWAC position paper: British Waterways: the proposed move into the third sector" - cc from NABO web site).

I commend the full report to you if you have the reading time.

Sadly IWAC, which has given so much positive advice on the waterways over the years, looks like being one of the bodies to be thrown on the Quango bonfire.

1 comment:

  1. Great post Simon, bang on the nail.

    This summer was on the Leeds & Liverpool during the local water shortage and spoke to many lock keepers. One told me - just slightly tongue in cheek - that they find out what is going on by reading narrowboatworld!