Saturday, February 04, 2006


NMSI get it seriously wrong

NMSI visited before Christmas to present to our Steering Committee (three senior ministers, the head of UNDP and of course HE) their view of how the project should take shape going forward. Early signs of how this might go had not been encouraging. I had attended a preparatory meeting in London with NMSI on 25 November, called by them specifically in order to show what was proposed for the presentation. None of the people who would be at the presentation attended, and no aspect of the presentation was discussed beyond a vague outline. Hmmm.

The Committee expected NMSI to demonstrate in its presentation:
o Significant insights into Syria’s young people and context gained through the last six months’ work
o A clear spirit of partnership and collaboration
o A strong intellectual framework on which the future programme would be built and a clear development process for it
o A picture of what the final experience(s) – discovery centre, touring activities, etc – might be like
o A summary of the process of reaching these goals

The presentation failed dismally on all counts. In fact it was disastrous. I spoke to the Committee members afterwards and drew together their responses as follows:

The Committee was surprised that the person chosen to present was involved for the first time. His direct knowledge of Syria was small, and his knowledge of the project appeared largely tangential. He admitted to “no idea of the historical context” for this project, and his evident enthusiasm for Syria was based on 24 hours in the country.

In general the Committee found the “we/you” language of the presentation inappropriate and often misleading. This carried the strong implication that NMSI felt it had done everything itself. There was no acknowledgement in the presentation of the contribution of the local project team, or (for example) that much of the activity had been done by them. NMSI also failed to mention that separating out teenagers from the younger children and the use of video in the teenage activity were both proposals that came from Syria. The Committee was disappointed by the absence of language reflecting collaboration and partnership.

In the view of the Committee, the presentation failed to bring out “high-level themes and narrative flow, including how the Museum would affect visitors and the (high-level) outcomes of their visit”.

NMSI stated: “Eight months ago we were invited to create an outreach programme…” The Committee believed this not to be so. 1) NMSI was always invited to deliver a whole project, and 2) eight months ago was when the contract was signed, not when the relationship began. The Committee would have preferred to hear words such as: “Two years ago we were invited to become partners with you in a huge life-changing adventure for a nation…”.

NMSI laid claim to five themes – citizenship, responsibility, innovation, creativity and dreaming. In fact the themes of responsibility and citizenship (expressed as desired outcomes) date back to the very first discussion with NMSI about the project in 2003. The Committee would therefore have liked to see in its supporting documents the original proposal paper and more detail of the academic research carried out in Syria and the UK which led to NMSI’s proposal. It was also disappointed not to be shown how these themes had significantly shaped the Outreach programme. There was therefore no clarity as to how in practice they would add value.

The Committee found the learning outcomes for both age groups simplistic and generic. In both summaries, the word “Syria” could be replaced with the name of any other country without altering their accuracy at all. The Committee found it difficult to see how these learning outcomes are unique to Syrian children – all are universal.

The Committee noted NMSI's conclusion that Past, Present and Future “proved to be” valuable themes for promoting the ambitions of the project. It could not reconcile this with the absence in the evaluation report of any mention or analysis of these themes. The Committee again found the Past, Present and Future themes generic and universal rather than in any way distinctly Syrian, is unclear how they would work in practice alongside other suggested themes or the Big Idea, and is unconvinced that these have in fact been tested in any rigorous way. Other conclusions also seemed to the Committee lightweight and obvious.

These last two points led to disappointment amongst members at the apparently insubstantial conclusions gained from a significant investment of time, resource and money. The Committee had expected NMSI to demonstrate a deeper and less predictable insight into Syrian youth and the opportunities for communication, involvement and learning.

The Committee found bizarre and inappropriate a statement that Syria needs to make a tangible and lasting commitment to the project. As stated in response during the meeting, there was no question about this commitment from Syria.

In terms of the project's "personality" the Committee found the list of traits too long, unfocussed and too much like those of an aspirational company. The Committee would have liked to see more evidence here of collaboration with the local project team’s thinking, rather than a list drawn up in isolation by NMSI. In particular it would have liked to see included the feeling amongst young people that this project, its building and activities, is theirs.

In respect of The Nest (NMSI's "big idea" to bind the project together) the Committee had a number of views. In summary it felt that the idea was not right for the spirit of the project, related too strongly to a physical environment rather than transforming states of mind, and was in no way uniquely Syrian.

The Committee was told that the Nest was only a suggestion, but was told also that a Big Idea was an essential top-level building block for content development. It was not made clear how the project could make quick progress if time was now spent developing the right Big Idea before content development could advance. If content development could progress anyway, the Committee questioned whether the Big Idea is in fact essential now or at all. The Committee was told by Professor Molloy that the project should ideally have the “potential to develop slowly and make mistakes”. It found it difficult to reconcile this with next steps described as “a vital sequence of work” including an accommodation schedule and an operational strategy, which in turn led to the positioning brief for the architect. Given the need to appoint an architect shortly, the Committee would wish to see any upstream work progress as swiftly as possible.

In questions, Committee members noted NMSI's response that it had been asked to talk about process. They were therefore surprised to have earlier heard the presenter say (literally) that process is not exciting. They also considered the presentation was only superficially about process, and only covered a limited period up to the briefing of an architect. The Committee felt that the entire emphasis of the presentation was on what NMSI saw as the one important next step.

NMSI stated that it had been asked to focus on the building because it was urgent, and was now hearing from the Committee that it was unimportant. The Committee felt that this was misstating the case; NMSI had been consistently asked to focus on concept and content development for the whole programme. It had been made clear that there was a target completion date for the centre, which indeed must drive the timetable, but NMSI had not been asked to focus solely on the form of the building but the experience within it and on touring activity.

NMSI's presenter underlined the need for project objectives. The Committee were clear that project objectives had been sent to NMSI in October 2004, and as yet no comment on them had been received by the local project team.

The Committee had hoped NMSI would lift the project off the page and give them a vivid sense of the potential experience and how it could change young lives. It had hoped NMSI would show how their understanding of Syria’s people and context had grown. It had hoped NMSI would enable the Committee to endorse with confidence the further progress of the project. It sought from NMSI evidence that the considerable investment made so far has created real value in the form of substantial and distinctive hard knowledge, insights and intuition on NMSI's part. This simply did not come across. It had hoped that an inspiring picture of our eventual destination – the dynamic journey for young people inside both the touring programme and the discovery centre – would be painted.

Instead, the horizon of the presentation was no further away than the commissioning of an architect. The Committee had expected to be talked through the process of reaching that destination in a way that clearly set out the main components of a project like this and how NMSI would be pro-actively managing its contribution. The presentation did not embrace the whole process at all and gave no sense of momentum or energy. It had expected a spirit of partnership to shine through the presentation, which was absent. The Committee found the learning summary superficial, the Big Idea wrong, the absence of reassurance that NMSI have a coherent process worrying, the whole approach disengaged and unilateral. The presentation left the Committee totally unconvinced.

NMSI were offered the opportunity to re-present a fortnight later, but refused. On this basis, there was no option but to draw the relationship to a close. A great pity because they have some very bright people on their team.


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