BCS In Crisis Vote Of No Confidence

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I received a mass-mailed letter from one Elizabeth Sparrow today that triggered my open source instincts. She's the current President of the British Computer Society, as well as one of the key people trying to get us all to stop calling it that. She and her colleagues would like us - the current voting members - to agree to rename the BCS as "The Chartered Institute of IT" and there's an expensive marketing campaign in progress to perform the naming and rebranding switch.

Right now it's in an awkward phase where we're all instructed to treat "BCS" as an abstract string preceding "The Chartered Institute of IT".

The reason for the letter? A group of members - Elizabeth and her friends would like me to believe it's "a very small number" but that's calculated purely from the number required to call a meeting - are concerned by the changes and have pressed the governance 'panic' button.

The letter was to seek my support for the current leadership at an Emergency General Meeting (EGM) on July 1st. While the letter and accompanying leaflet characterises the opposition as Luddism, the concerns expressed have a kernel of reality.

Far from being a bunch of insignificant Luddites, the members expressing concern are actually long-serving, loyal and senior members of the BCS including a past President. And I think that despite their vagueness and anger, they may have a point.

They apparently feel that the current leadership want to subvert the BCS and turn it from the professional society for Alice and Dilbert into a mass-membership organisation serving the needs of the Pointy-Haired Boss and the corporations he serves. Further, they accuse the current leadership of reducing membership standards so that a high-paying mass-membership seeking just post-nominal letters can be recruited, diluting the voice of the "old guard" so they can no longer cause trouble.

Facing heavy opposition, they have assembled the necessary 50 signatures required by the governance and called an Emergency General Meeting calling for "full, open and transparent disclosure of all financial accounting relating to [the 'transformation programme']". Sadly they've not made any concrete and positive proposals of their own, but even more sadly the BCS leadership has chosen to deride rather than channel the criticism into transparency and outreach.

Their obviously dismissive language and the motions they are putting before the membership unwittingly suggest the rebels have a point. In particular, they have tagged on to the end of the resolutions for the EGM a really bad resolution designed to ensure there will never again be this sort of rebellious activity. It amends the bylaws of the BCS to require "two percent of the Professional Membership at the date of the receipt of the requisition [for an EGM]" (rather than the already challenging 50).

Given the expansion of the membership, that's an impossibly high barrier to climb - today that would be 1000 physical signatures and if expansion continues it will be even more. While I doubt I will be voting for the vague no-confidence motions at the EGM, I will definitely be voting against this extreme measure, which removes a valuable safety-valve from the governance and puts the leadership above reproach.

There's also no credible representation of the view of the members calling the EGM on the web site built about it - you'll need to visit the blog by one of the signatories of the request to get pointers to press articles including a Q & A whose tone is itself illuminating. There's also a bunch of material behind the BCS memberwall, apparently, safely under control and out of the way of journalistic scrutiny. [Update: there's now an information site by the people who called for the EGM.]

The BCS is obviously very sensitive about this and would rather not receive any scrutiny - presumably a low turn-out and delegated votes to the chair of the meeting by uninformed members both serve their purposes.

When I called to get details, their press office was not authorised even to confirm details I know to be already public (like the cost of the campaign they are running for the EGM, or the size of the membership), let alone discuss the matter further or provide comment. This lack of transparency is worrying and likely to draw more scrutiny than would openness.

As a long-time member (at the Fellow grade) I have no doubt that the BCS needs revitalising - my own attempts to engage over open source have gained little traction, for example, and the public policy positions the BCS has taken have often seemed to me over-accommodating to business influences.

But I do wonder whether the polished, corporate direction of the modernisers is the right fix. The more I see, the more credence I give to the concerns of the despised "old-guard".

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