Due to substantial concerns first raised publicly last autumn from a large group of people from industry, community and consumer groups, a Scrutiny and Liaison Committee was set up with BIS approval to monitor and ensure transparency, enforce the need to communicate openly and honestly, and to guarantee a clear separation between CBN (a private consortium of consultants) and INCA - a co-operative membership organisation funded with public money to support community networks.
This will be the third such organisation. The first was the Association of Broadband Communities - a loose support network of community networks. It was unfunded and run by volunteers but we had a stand at the first BSG conference in Birmingham in 2002, which many of you won't remember.
A year later, after Malcolm Corbett attended the Access to Broadband Campaign conference in London in July (another event of mine as a co-founder of both this and the other ABC), 48 of us met at Rural|Net Conference Wyboston Lakes in the autumn, to vote on whether to shift our allegiances and energy to Timms' funded CBN to give it a kick start. We decided it had to be worth trying to continue what we were doing but with funds, and so CBN was born. Otherwise, CBN would have struggled to find any "members" who were not already catered for. CBN was launched at the 2nd Access to Broadband Campaign conference in Jan 2004 at Cisco HQ, Heathrow by Rt Hon Alun Michael MP.
CBN officially/legally ceased to be a co-operative organisation supporting community networks in Jan 2009, after at least 3 years of not actually getting together memberships or signing up a single community network member. It was, therefore, unfortunately unsustainable because it never implemented a business plan to carry out its initial purpose; so it became a private consortium of consultants. And now, it seems to have morphed into INCA.
Judging by the newsletter sent out this Friday 12th March by Malcolm Corbett, the interim CEO of INCA, something is definitely amiss. There is currently only an (unelected) Interim Board in place (until June), and there are certainly no members. You'd never guess that from the newsletter sent out.
.....We have set up a working group to consider an INCA response. We will provide a briefing in mid-March for INCA members and supporters setting out our view of how Government can maximise innovation, investment and engagement, thus getting the biggest bang possible for our taxpayer's buck.
Right, so next week ish, INCA members are going to be informed about INCA's views. Isn't this 'cart before the horse'? Aside from the many other questions this quote raises, there is nothing on the website at inca.coop; in fact, the newsletter goes on to say,
A membership recruitment campaign and new website will be launched this month.
No-one can point anyone yet to a list of members then? Memorandum and Articles? IPS registration number, perhaps? Membership fees, benefits? Members' application form? Um...anything to prove that this organisation exists in reality and is not just a re-invention of CBN - the names just seem remarkably familiar in that newsletter. Malcolm Corbett, Andrew Macdonald, Marit Hendriks have all been heftily involved in CBN for years. The INCA website is hosted on Adrian Wooster's personal account at MyZen - too many innocent people seem to be being dragged into this whirlpool, determined to get a community support organisation back on track.
CBN has also agreed to licence the NextGen 10 events programme to run under the INCA umbrella. Marit Hendriks and Andrew Macdonald will continue to be the Next Gen events organisers.
Andrew was originally the event organiser for my events (because he is an excellent EO), for both Digital Dales and the Access to Broadband Campaign, both of which were in existence years before CBN was even conceived or funded. CBN have agreed (did the Interim Board ask?) to 'licence' the NextGen 10 programme - AT WHAT COST? Because surely, by running these events through INCA, the consultants/directors of CBN stand to lose valuable revenue so it can't be a free gift or that would be going against their legal responsibilities as Directors of CBN.
I hate to say this, but from here, it looks like either a stitch up in some way or horrendous corporate naivety. CBN appear to have moved at least two of their directors, possibly three, into presumably paid (or intending to be remunerated) positions in INCA, without apparently any procurement or even interview process for the jobs (and prior to an elected Board being in place); licensed the events package run by an independent, but heavily involved with CBN, team; commissioned a website build (dare we ask from which website designer?); and seconded MC from CBN to be interim CEO.
Excuse my cynicism but those costs alone should eat nicely into the £150,000 of taxpayers' money BIS have given over to INCA. Particularly in light of the fact CBN have also requested that they are paid for the "expenses" incurred in setting up INCA - a figure of £30,000 was quoted in a previous email to BIS.
This statement should provide some reassurance, but sadly fails to.
INCA operates as a separate organisation with its own Board.
Have any members been invited to join yet? If not, there are no membership subs being banked although we are now in March and INCA was launched with some fanfare at NextGen09 last autumn, (prematurely, it would seem) and all outlays seem to be being directed to current CBN directors or associates. What exactly is going on???
Should we ask: how is there going to be any money left to do what is required and laid out in both the Caio Review and the Digital Britain report as a role for such an organisation over the next 5-10 years?
If the entire business plan is predicated on member subs, wouldn't it be wise to get those in place and contributing (not just financially) BEFORE expending the existing funds? And checking that there are actually people willing to pay a membership fee first? Has market research been conducted into the appetite for such a membership organisation? To establish what the target audience are willing or able to pay or contribute?
Or is INCA planning to make money purely from 'consultancy' to projects who have sufficient money to pay for such things? Which would seem to exclude many of the Final Third First projects currently envisaged......and replay the CBN scenario rather too closely.
This may all sound like sour grapes but it isn't. I clearly remember conversations with people like Adrian Wooster about how, if you were headhunting the ideal team to deal with Final Third First and community networks, you wouldn't need to look far. You didn't need to then, and I remain convinced you wouldn't need to now. It just needs some jiggling to get the right people in the right places. And to be run in a business-like manner, whether it is not-for-profit or otherwise. There is little difference between requirement for a support organisation and the network viability in such areas, to be perfectly honest.
I sat and watched the approx £1/4M that CBN acquired from public sector vanish in a remarkably short time and achieve very little for the community networks it was supposed to support. It was especially saddening after all that **had** been achieved with no money in either the Association of Broadband Communities and the Access to Broadband Campaign, as well as the many community networks who shared information, advice, support, help, expertise.
I know. I was Membership Services Director for most of CBN's initial existence (paid and unpaid) until I was unceremoniously "laid off" whilst still under contract. Perhaps because I was asking far too many questions about where the money had gone and why we had no members?
Well guys, this time I still have nothing to lose. Where EXACTLY is the INCA money going? Will it now achieve what is required of the organisation so many people would like to see come back into existence? (and I am not talking CBN). It is not about ticking these KPI boxes (which are apparently confidential performance indicators), nor for BIS. Nor is it about creating jobs for the boys, but about creating a wealth of opportunities by finally bringing next generation networks into existence.
Many people have been supporting, FOR FREE, those who require this practical support, clearly identified in the Caio and DBR report, in lieu of CBN activity in the space.
There are so many who want to see the organisation(s) started and which many were involved in over the last 10 years, finally make an appearance as a sustainable body. INCA could be it, if it is permitted to be allowed to form without private agendas taking priority.
This is PUBLIC money. I think we deserve a public explanation, please.