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Friday, 16 August 2013

New Scandal at the BBC

A few calls to Bush House have confirmed that a scandal of international significance is about to burst from under the heavy lid that BBC executives have been ganging together to sit upon for the last few months. It seems that without taking advice from me, or from any other expert who could have foreseen their folly, the BBC had launched a foolishly ambitious IT project to replace the trusted Rollodex system that for many decades had underpinned the use of pundits on Radio 4's 'Today' programme.

Looking back through the archives I see that the project was launched with the usual fanfares. Kim Lawrance, then the overpaid 'Director of Punditry' for the BBC, had pompously declared that 'The acquisition, development and retention of punditry talent is an important capability for the BBC. Today we are launching an exciting new project to develop a world class system for the management of punditry talent.'

Then began the feeding frenzy for the 'Big 5' consultancies. Partners in those organisations, who had for months been speculatively lunching senior BBC managers, now began their insidious work. It would have started with a few tentative nibbles, a design study here, a feasibility study there, an options appraisal maybe, or a proof of concept; perhaps a health check on the readiness of the BBC's project management office.  Those initial tasters would spawn recommendations for more substantial pieces of work, a menu of larger courses for the Big 5 to guzzle on; and those in turn would generate even more opportunities, so that eventually the project had bloated to an obscene consulting banquet of Hogarthian excess. Cohorts of young, clever, but inexperienced and poorly guided analysts and programmers were allocated to the work, booking hour after hour of expensive but unproductive time to the under-managed budget for the project.

The estimates for the work rose from an initial £230,000 to £90million, causing the project to be classed as ‘strategic’ within the BBC, and all those involved in its (mis-) management to be promoted by an average of 3.7 salary increments. Kim Lawrance, by then the even-more-overpaid 'Director of Punditry' for the BBC, declared pompously 'The acquisition, development and retention of punditry talent is a strategic capability for the BBC’. As the project grew larger and larger, its purpose grew less and less clear, and more and more effort was absorbed by pointless pseudo-work. It’s a depressing story, and one that some of us have heard countless times before: the more people you put on a project, the more time they waste. I remember explaining the underlying principle to young Fred Brooks (as he was back then) when he was struggling with that /360 development that was driving Watson round the bend at IBM. I think he wrote a book about it.

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