“I give you an undertaking that we will not make a complaint when our British Council know-how, accumulated over 74 years, moves in other directions.”
Thus spake the Lord Kinnock as he sat beside his fumbling Chief Executive, who had been put on the spot by John Horam MP at the October meeting of the FAC, and before, with control of the agenda apparently ceded to him, he switched the subject to something completely different.(see Q96). So here’s a story about directions know-how can take when the British Council is involved.
In 1988 the British Council chaired a grouping of people representing various aspects of English language teaching – schools, publishers, exam boards – known as ELPU, the English Language Promotion Unit. [I had dealings with it: ELPU it was who commissioned me in the spring of 1989 to go to Taiwan, before the British Council was represented there, and report on market opportunities for British ELT services]. Getting schools, publishers etc to agree on the best way to spend money is not easy, but when ELPU were presented with the idea, together with a model, of publishing an electronic database of EFL courses in the UK (codenamed CABS) the idea was given general approval. At the next formal meeting, the British Council announced that, with ELPU funds, it had commissioned a company in Cheltenham called ECCTIS 2000 to deliver this product. The then ARELS chief Richard Livingstone queried this and asked, since the idea had been presented to ELPU by a couple of his members, should the project at least not have been put to competitive tender rather than being gifted to a company chosen by the British Council? So then tenders were invited.
We had very little notice, but that autumn of 1989 I and two colleagues, Geoff Cook and Nic Underhill (whose original idea this was), put together a bid in my business name (EFL Services), which I delivered to Spring Gardens in person. The British Council reviewed the bids in secret. Despite the fact that whole concept was ours, we didn’t win because the winning bid was evidently made by the company that the BC had, coincidentally, already contracted. A little miffed that we had simply created an opportunity for the people in Cheltenham, the three of us met in early 1990 to find the way forward, and we agreed then that I would make the necessary investment and take on the project without ELPU backing and in competition with ECCTIS (and seven years later I bought out the rights in the product from Geoff and Nic).
Meanwhile, armed with the know-how accumulated over a mere 54 years, the British Council and ECCTIS produced a lemon.
The database didn’t work properly, the project failed to interest either schools or agents or their own advisors, and when the funding ran out after three years of throwing good money after bad, the British Council eventually had to kill it off. We all boldly put the past behind us, and relations between myself and the BC picked up, and in 1995 the British Council started giving vocal support to our now well established “EFL Coursefinder” product, and recommended its use in British Council offices.
In 1997, by which time our services were web and CD based, the British Council formed an agreement with the (then) British Tourist Authority to produce a unified EFL printed guide with both private and public sector institutions represented. That failed too. In 1998 the BTA, having lost over £100,000.00 on one edition only of the guide, announced that it would take this no further. That’s when I was asked by the British Council if I would take it on. Easy for them. Unlike the quangos, I was in no position to lose anything, much less a six figure sum in a single year. I did some calculations (which included establishing the fact that the BTA had overpaid for production, indeed had chronically overpaid in the case of paper), and put forward the idea of a uniformly branded “suite” to include our “English in Britain” website and CD with a new “English in Britain” Guide. This elegant and complete solution to the British Council’s problems and aspirations was gratefully accepted. No money was to change hands, we would take advice regarding what was appropriate to include etc. from the British Council, and the British Council agreed to support our products with their “best efforts”, and not to compete. After my experience about ten years earlier I should have known better, especially as the same manager was involved, but I decided that this time they could be trusted. Mistake.
Despite the fact that we were fully exposed financially honouring this agreement, and despite the fact that the BC were guardians of our property with our electronic database installed on BC computers worldwide, and despite the fact that we provided this 1st class service to the British Council completely free of charge, including producing and distributing worldwide 150,000 A4 80 page full colour guides door-to-door at our expense, before even our contract had expired the British Council, having in 2001 signed a competing agreement under which they were given a share of the profits, were in direct competition with our website. True, their first shot (January 2002) was quite different from ours, was an instant and spectacular failure and had to be taken down. But the second secretly developed attempt which appeared in November that year survived, and it employed a database model exactly like ours.
Lord Kinnock may not complain if British Council know-how moves in other directions. It is the rest of us, however, who should not just complain but actively resist it because there is altogether too much of that sort of "know-how" in the world already. And when faced with challenges about malpractice, unfair competition, double-dealing and abuse of privilege, rather than switching the subject to what Bidesh might have to say about Sierra Leone or whatever, someone who has a role in the governance of the British Council should have the courage and integrity to address and sort out the problems and the damage for which the organisation is alone responsible.