Thursday, November 24, 2005


Bubbling issues

From a letter of 7 October to CEO of NMSI Trading

The matter is our need to see from NMSI a clear overall management framework for the project, showing how you are working and covering the entire process of concept and content development through from now to the opening of the discovery centre. Notwithstanding the Process of Framework document you supplied in June, and the Snapshot Cost Overview in September, the process is at present too opaque for us, and leaves us unable to evaluate properly either the proposals coming from NMSI or the work done by you. As we are at a stage now when the numbers start getting much bigger, it is essential we get the necessary tight structure in place before we commit to go on from here. On top of this the accountability of the project is now widening with the establishment of a Steering Committee.

The opacity is in both project process and intellectual/ content development. For process, we are expecting you as our expert advisors to provide a timetabled view of the work you propose is required for this entire project. We look to you to advise on where the major development deadlines will fall, failure to meet which will compromise our timetable. We would like to see headline target completion dates for the project stages set out in your Process of Framework document in Sections 6 and 7, assuming a target date of mid-2009 for the centre’s opening. We need to understand from you how realistic that opening date is, and what options there might be to flex components within that overall timescale. We need a clear indication of what elements of your work are contingent on local resources, dates and circumstances, and what options there are to redeploy your resources onto other tasks in the event that we find ourselves dealing with unforeseen delays here. We need to know how you propose to manage your entire process to maximise quality and minimise cost, delay and unnecessary work. It is this process overview that Her Excellency understood that she had asked from you, and that you had undertaken to provide.

My assumption is that you must anyway be working to some form of complete and structured project process rather than just moving from one phase to the next. The Framework document delivers only a small part of the picture, and for the purposes of coordination and supervision we need the picture to be much more rigorous. From now on we will be managing and coordinating a much larger process, where all contributors must provide and work to an agreed plan. I would also like to see a monthly progress report from NMSI, summarising progress against plan, noting actual or potential constraints, and confirming hours worked and costs incurred.

On content development similarly, we would like you to set out the shape of the intellectual process this project will go through to develop the experiences and materials for the centre, in headline terms. It is unclear to us how individual units of work contribute to the whole picture in this respect, where the notable gaps in knowledge are that have to be filled, what research work is essential and what merely optional. So we have no way of establishing the value of any particular proposal in terms of how far it gets us, and in particular no way of justifying (or challenging) its cost or the hours of NMSI time. For us, the absence of a clear and agreed strategic setting for units of work, with a clear sense of the final destination and with clear agreed outcomes (not just deliverables) for each major stage, makes managing the process unnecessarily challenging.

As a topical example, I have just declined to approve the proposal for an inflatable exhibition structure for the next Outreach phase. It is an exciting proposal, and may be well worth the £XXX at which it is costed. But it is presented to us solely as a structural environment containing some interactive exhibits. It is not made clear what the intellectual proposition or subject area of the exhibition or other spaces might be, beyond that it “would be drawn from the existing outreach project, as well as the outcomes of the early vision work”. There is no indication of what type of interactives might be included. It is not made clear what the overall project will learn from this, other than, broadly, that we can test-bed possible content for the discovery centre. It is not clear what success for the touring of this structure would look like, nor how much of the total learning and testing process required for the discovery centre this would complete for us. It is not clear how this relates to or builds on the learning from the summer activities. No alternatives - different, smaller, cheaper, faster - are presented.

If I take the matter of fees as a further example, to create the inflatable structure proposes NMSI time costed at £XXX, for work on an exhibition area of maximum 200m2. The time over which these fees run is 28 weeks. The Snapshot Cost document costs the entire NMSI content development for the discovery centre at (I understand from Kate) £XXX. The size of centre’s exhibition area is 7,500m2, some 37 times that of the inflatable. Without any bigger view to refer to, I find difficulty in reconciling the differences in fee levels. If the two are conflated in some way, it is not apparent.

As with process, for content development we would like to have the big picture set out clearly. This would show what the major essential learning and development stages are, what is required to complete each of these, and how long the process should take. Again, the experience of NMSI in developing sites such as Sellafield as well as the Science Museum’s own displays should, we assume, have established a reasonably transferable content development template. For each individual stage we need to understand how it links and contributes to the whole development process. I would suggest that for all future units of research, evaluation and content development work, the proposal identifies clearly how it links to the overall content development strategy, what its success factors are, and what it will contribute to the whole. I would also like to have a much clearer idea of how time-based fees are estimated. Again, as with process, I would ask that we receive a monthly progress report showing how content development is progressing against plan.

Lastly, throughout the lifetime of the project we have been providing you with (I believe) useful insights into our thinking and how it is evolving. The project initiation document in various iterations, the schematics for the discovery centre, vision statement, branding brief, more recently the case statement document, have all been passed your way. We hear little back however, except anecdotally, to confirm that your sense of the project’s vision and form is aligned with ours, and that this information is indeed productive. Can we add to our wish-list a feedback process that checks, briefly but soon and then regularly thereafter that what is in your mind matches what is in ours?

I know that we have discussed a November presentation to Her Excellency, where some of these matters would no doubt have been dealt with. I would like to get the substance of this letter agreed and implemented before any presentation is made.

I’m in London for a work week from 17 October, as I’m sure you will wish to discuss.


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