Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Great Chess Sets For Schools Fiasco

But the others wait in Casablanca...and wait....and wait...and wait.
For those who follow the internal affairs and faction fights of the English Chess Federation - and I am not sure whether there are too many, or too few, that do - the last few months have been dominated by one issue in particular, this being the apparent collapse of the Chess Sets for Schools Project. Which was announced, with, on the face of it, justifiable pride and pleasure, a few months ago, but which currently appears less than likely to happen at all. On the face of it this is a serious embarrassment for the ECF and a setback for the cause of encouraging junior chess.

A great deal has been spoken on the subject, not all of it on the English Chess Forum dedicated to the pursuit of civilised discussion. Since words are presently accumulating rather faster than chess sets I thought I would add some of my own. (As per usual they represent the views of the author and nobody else - especially not the corporate view of the Streatham and Brixton Chess Blog, even if such a thing were to exist, which it does not.)

Roughly, as far as I am aware, the sequence of events has been as follows. (This is of necessity a summary and some details will surely have been omitted. Readers are welcome to mention these in the comments box if they consider them important.)

In December, the ECF, at a meeting at the House of Commons, announced the launch of the Chess Sets for Schools Project. In conjunction with a firm called Holloid Plastics, no less than a quarter of a million chess sets were to be produced and distributed, "completely free of charge", to schools, via ECF members in every county. Every MP in the House would be written to to inform them of the project and to seek their support for chess. The cost of the project was estimated at two million pounds, all of it to be borne by the suppliers and therefore a more than sizeable and more than welcome injection of money into chess.

The ECF announced the project on their website (the original link, produced in February, is no longer available but the announcement, updated in June can still currently be read and the project, at time of writing, still dominates the site's front page under the heading Latest News). It is worth reproducing a few of the statements made in this announcement, which convey how proud the ECF was to have secured such a deal and how significant they considered, quite rightly, it to be. The ECF's Director of Marketing, Peter JB Wilson, said:
Just once in a lifetime, if you are very fortunate, something happens which is bigger than anything you ever imagined. To say that I am delighted to be actively involved with a chess opportunity which has arisen over the past 7 months or so would be an understatement....

....I am still somewhat shell-shocked at the extent of this project - and I thought I had seen everything having played chess from the age of 4. It is the most exciting chess project I have ever had the pleasure of being connected with and potentially could change the face of English chess for ever. It will provide the opportunity for very many tens of thousands more children to take up chess.
An exciting project indeed: my only qualm at the time was whether there would be far more chess sets than schools would be interested in taking up. But we would see.

That was February: obviously it would take time to produce, transport and distribute the sets but a little too much time had passed, and a new school year begun, by September, by which time it started to seem that something had gone wrong. It being a free and generous offer, people had (in the main) been naturally reluctant to enquire too closely as to timetables, for fear of seeming ungrateful. But when questions did begin to be asked, the few answers that came back were unpromising - and in some cases, unconvincing.

The ECF site announced that there had been production problems due to one of the tools used to produce the sets being damaged. Curiously, the Holloid site said nothing. The project wasn't even mentioned. Which would be a little unusual when a company is producing something primarily as a marketing opportunity.

The ECF announcement said a little more, which however served to make the situation less clear:
Holloid are arranging some production slots to make sets of pieces as soon as they can but they have to put the welfare of the company and staff ahead of this project. They have undertaken to do their best to make as many sets as they can in the shortest possible time. This is costing Holloid, and indeed their MD personally, considerable sums of money.

A statement on deliveries will be released when the production situation is clear.
"When the production situation is clear", indeed. What did any of this mean, in practice? When would the chess sets be produced, and how many? Would any be produced at all? Moreover, at roughly the same time, it did become clear that the Sales Director of Holloid Plastics, Fergus Christie, who had essentially originated and driven the project, had left the company.

So, on the face of it, the ECF is in the position of having embarked on, and advertised a project which their own Marketing Director described as "the most exciting chess project I have ever had the pleasure of being connected with" and which has failed entirely to deliver. On current form nobody who has enquired is going to receive a single set. No school that has shown any interest is going to be at all impressed with the ECF and nor are the MPs. Few are likely to show the ECF same level of interest, or trust, again. Nobody wants to be associated with, or to work with, organisations that make promises and fail to deliver on them.

Those are harsh words and it's reasonable to ask - are they fair? Is this actually the ECF's fault? If so, in what way and to what extent? There are three issues I'd like - as briefly as possible - to explore. One is culpability for the failure to deliver the sets. A second is the question of whether the ECF announcements were premature. The third is the ECF response during the apparent collapse of the project. In each area, to what extent are the ECF - or those individuals who held responsibility for the project - to be blamed for this apparent fiasco?

1. Culpability for the failure to deliver.

There is an occasional tendency among some over-aggressive critics of the ECF to come to the conclusion that they wish to rather than a conclusion justified by the evidence: to decide, almost in advance, that the issue must always be one of the ECF's competence (or rather, lack of same) and that other parties' failings can be ignored (or attributed to the ECF). Hence, for instance, the comment on the English Chess Forum from one notorious feud-monger:
Does that make Holloid a bad company? Probably not; it probably intended to do something at one stage. It probably misjudged the competence and capability of ECF - not hard when you think about it.
This seems to me to be nonsense. The responsibility for a failure to supply goods must normally lie with the supplier and this is no exception. I am obliged to work with some highly unreliable suppliers in my day job: when I order items that do not arrive, or arrive damaged, or are not the item I ordered, I tend to think that the fault is probably with the supplier (or with their supplier) rather than with myself. Similarly, if a customer orders something and I fail to supply it on time, I may or may not think it's my fault, but I would be pushing my luck to blame it on the competence of the customer.

In truth there is not the slightest specific reason to think that Holloid's view of "the competence and capability of (the) ECF" in any way impeded the promised production of their chess sets: to claim otherwise is ultimately stupid even on its own terms, because it merely weakens any case that can be made against the ECF. It was Holloid (or Fergus Christie acting on behalf of Holloid) who initiated the project, who made the promises and who were responsible for arranging production. With them must surely lie responsbility for the failure to deliver: and if they do not think so, they must surely say so.

It does not, to this writer, seem apparent that either Holloid Plastics, or Fergus Christie, have been properly candid about the real reasons for the project being delayed - if indeed "delayed" is the right term. Christie has told the English Chess Forum that the firm lost its production, technical and sales directors (he himself being the last of these) in the first week of August - but he didn't actually say this until the first week of November! Even more seriously, he has also claimed that the industry sponsors behind the project
"still want to be associated with the project...though not with Holloid."[my emphasis - ejh]
Now that is a very interesting thing for him to say, because it is not really compatible with the ECF statement from October that I quote above and which presumably comes from information supplied by Holloid.

So what's the truth? Whose project was it, and is it? Fergus Christie's, or Holloid Plastics'? With whom are the "industry sponsors" - assuming they actually exist - actually working? One would really like to know the reasons behind the resignation of those directors - and the state of relations between Holloid and the former Sales Director. Whatever the precise truth, the impression one necessarily has is of promises made by a company that was in no position to make or to fulfill them - and of subsequent rows within that company and a project therefore left in ruins. There are, certainly, competence and capability issues here. It's impossible to know precisely where the responsibility for that ruin lies, not without more infomation as to who said what, when and to whom, and whether they were justified in doing so. In other words, not without knowing what happened at Holloid in August, and before. But it is clear that on our present information, responsibility for the collapse lies with Fergus Christie, or with his former company, or with both.

It is not, I think, a situation over with the ECF can have any control or one that they can be expected to have anticipated. Nor do they have any power to do very much about it. Where the provision of goods is for free, what can one do when those goods are not provided? There may or not be a breach of contract involved (the actual contractual situation between the ECF and Holloid is another item that remains a little opaque) but in truth, where you are not paying for something, your capacity to expedite the process of delivery is somewhat limited. The situation has put the ECF in a position of having to rely, not just for the sets themselves, but for information about progress, on other people. Whether they should have put themselves in such a position is another question. But it was the other people who promised to produce the sets, and when they did not, there were no levers that the ECF could pull to hurry them up. That being so, I cannot find them responsible on that score.

2. Were the ECF announcements premature?

One answer to this is "yes, obviously" - since the ECF now have enough egg on their faces to make a thousand omelettes and, as I have already said, their credibility when it comes to future projects is very much in jeopardy. It is one thing to conclude that it is not their fault that people on whose word they relied turned out not to be reliable. It is perhaps another to accept that they should not at least have had some caution in announcing the project before the sets were actually there to be collected.

Excitement is understandable, sure - but would it not be wiser actually to wait until you saw the sets before offering them? Otherwise you put yourself in the situation of my friend who recently paid €3500 for the hire of an villa in Italy for her wedding reception only to find, on arrival, that it was uninhabitable and works were actually in progress. She'll never get her money back, or her ruined wedding reception. The ECF might not have lost any money, but they've lost their credibility.

As it is, provided those letters "to every Member of Parliament" were ever actually written (and let us hope they were not) then the ECF have allowed themselves to be made fools of. Happens to us all, from time to time - but that is one reason why you need to show some prudence, to try and avoid it happening too often.

This is a powerful case....slightly weakened however, by the dearth of people who were prepared to express any scepticism about the ECF announcement when it was actually made. Anybody who failed to do so then, but does so now, can perhaps fairly be accused of asking the ECF to show a degree of caution that they did not show themselves. Retrospect is a wonderful thing and everybody can be a quarterback on a Monday morning.

It's true to say that there were a small number of sceptics from the start (see for instance here): some of them people with relevant experience who asked questions which have turned out to be very relevant indeed. These people may, I think, be very critical of the ECF for prematurely announcing and celebrating a project which had not been properly thought through. But others said nothing until much later: I, for instance, said nothing then. So I wouldn't be comfortable attacking the ECF for something I didn't find odd at the time they did it - nor am I wholly comfortable with other people doing it. On this item, perhaps, if the ECF may be guilty, then there are nevertheless few who have earned the right to cast the first stone.

3. The ECF response during the apparent collapse of the project.

There has, as I have already said, been an ECF statement on the subject, though one far from fully explanatory and one clearly depending entirely on information from Holloid Plastics, who have not demonstrated that they, or what they say, can be relied upon. But that is it. Other than that, the ECF appear to have frozen, or gone missing. The project still dominates the ECF website, which still invites schools to participate, as if nothing had happened save a short and inadvertent delay. Other than that, nothing.

Nothing has been heard from Peter JB Wilson, the Director of Marketing, whose name is as absent from the October press release as it was present on the initial announcement. The original Project Manager, Charles W Wood, after spending several months enthusiastically promoting his project (and deploring negative commentary) on the English Chess Forum, abruptly ceased to post and - as far as I am aware - abruptly ceased his association with the project. Meanwhile the ECF as a body, who had originally lauched and supported that discussion forum, specifically ceased to support it and disassociated themselves from it (though several officials continue to post there). The overall impression was of individuals unwilling to deal with a crisis, unwilling to answer questions in a crisis and - by and large - unwilling to accept that there was a crisis.

Now it's my view that much talk about "leadership" is cant, put about by people who do not know what it is, who think they are displaying it when they are not, or who mistake it for making bad decisions quickly and then reversing them. I've worked with, and for, too many people like that. Nevertheless, whatever it may or may not mean as a concept - and I am genuinely not expecting the officials of a chess organisation to display the qualities of a Spartacus - there are some things which it does not mean, and these include going missing during times of difficulty. This is a time of difficulty and it seems to me that the ECF (or certain leading officials within it, as I am perhaps using the term "the ECF" too easily, as shorthand, in this piece) have gone missing. That cannot be good enough.

Let us suppose that the ECF do not consider that this is a fiasco - or that if it is, it is not their fault. Let us suppose that they regard many, most of all of the criticisms that are made of them as unfair, ill-informed and even ill-motivated. Good - then let them say so! But being in charge means being where your members can see you when it matters even when it is not your fault. Especially when it is not your fault! It is not good enough to say, as perhaps they may do later, that you were doing your best behind the scenes to put things right. Or at the very least, if you are going to take that route, they need to come out right. If you say nothing, if you go missing and if things do not come out right in the end, then it will not wash to say that it was not your responsbility. Because people will say that you sought to evade your responsibilities. And by and large, they will be right.

Where is Peter JB Wilson? What is he doing and what does he have to say? What is the status of the project and is it Holloid's project or Fergus Christie's? What should schools who are waiting for their sets be told and what should those schools do? I don't know the answer to any of thee questions - do the ECF? Do they know? If they don't, then why is the invitation to schools still on the front page of the ECF site?

There are calls for resignations being made. I am reluctant to join them, for a variety of reasons. These include a conviction that people should not normally resign in the middle of a crisis, an unwillingness to take decisive sides in internal ECF disputes and, I suppose, the possibility that things may yet turn out all right (we do not know for certain that they won't) in which case the egg will be on the faces of the critics. But there is responsibility here and I cannot see that this responsibility is being properly discharged.

Perhaps, too, I am reluctant to call for resignations when it doesn't seem to me - as it does not - that the primary responsibility lies with the ECF or any of its officials. But at the same time, there is perhaps a wider question, which is that there is another consideration involved when consdering whether or not to retain or relinquish one's office. And that is, regardless of the extent of one's culpability for this problem or that - whether or not one retains the confidence of the public. Can all of the officials involved say with confidence that they do?

I have no intention of saying either way. But it does seem to me that a great deal depends on the salvaging of this project and that if it is not salvaged, it will not be wholly adequate to say, even though it is true in part, that it was not their fault.

When the project was announced, the Project Manager wrote:
This has to work, imagine if it didn't.

[Comments are welcomed, but comentors are asked to keep things polite. Anonymous comments will be permitted but will be especially closely moderated.]


Anonymous said...

I am the alleged "feud-monger" you are too shy to name, preferring instead your trademark sneer and name-calling at my expense again. It is my comment you selectively cite, your trademark manipulation of data.

I have been critical of this project, and of the ECF's competence in managing it, for more than a year, long before you arrived pompously to blunder about in the matter. On every count, I've been proved correct in my assessment.

You plead for politeness in contributions to this thread: your trademark hypocrisy in evidence again. You seek to protect yourself from forthright comment, but are quite unable to extend politeness to your critics - of which I might become merely the most vocal.

But I'm up for it if you are.

Atticus CC

Morgan Daniels said...

'Plastic people!
Oh baby, now you're such a drag...'

ejh said...

Professor Robertson - you're quite happy to abuse other people in the most lurid terms but you do not like it when you're criticised, much less aggressively, for doing so. You're quite welcome to defend your assessments here, and as you feel you have been criticised you have been allowed to respond: further comments on the meat of the piece only, please.

Anonymous said...

In a parallel universe, if you take the word "free" out of the equation, the distribution of sets would have been straightforward. There's an established mail order structure for chess equipment in the UK so why not use it?


Manufacturer makes sets - dispatches to chess retailer.

School orders and pays for sets with chess retailer.

Chess retailer dispatches sets to schools.

Superficial research suggests the retail price for a package of 10 sets and boards to be in the £50 to £80 range. I don't know how much of this is the cost of manufacture, but lets guess that the Chess in Schools package could have be sold for £40. Would this have been viable in term of attracting interest?

In any event nothing will happen if the manufacturer doesn't actually make any sets. The computer term vapourware comes to mind.

Anonymous said...

One point you didnt mention: why was Charles Wood employed in the first place as project manager? That was a truly baffling decision.

Who made that extraordinary decision?

Anonymous said...

Excellent write-up, EJH – a well-balanced summary and analysis of the situation.

Martin Regan, the ECF’s CEO when the project started, makes some interesting revelations on the English Chess Forum, among them:

1. that there was no contract with Holloid (on account of the ECF not having solved storage and distribution logistics)

2. that the press release announcing the project was made (to Mr. Regan’s astonishment) without reference to the board (and without reference to Mr. Regan?)

I still wonder if Holloid may, after all, be able to deliver and whether discussions in public about the project will adversely affect that possibility.


Mark Weeks said...

I noted with great interest the story of free chess sets when it was first reported. Now I understand that it was not about free chess sets; it was about free publicity. What was the ECF thinking? What were those who bought the story (including me) thinking? What can we all learn from this? - Mark

ejh said...

What were those who bought the story (including me) thinking?

Well, quite. I think the "including me" (by which I mean myself as well as Mark) is a relevant point: there's no doubt that given ECF officials have performed very poorly indeed, but why any of us thought 250000 chess sets were likely to be produced is in retrospect a little baffling.

John Hipshon said...

Two years ago I approached the ecf with a chess for schools project. I was told to wait before launching it as there would thousands of free chess sets available soon.
I had a couple of meetings with Charles Wood and agred to work with him on the project - he promised all sorts and I said I would work on a leaflet which cost me £200 for the design.
I spoke to Gerry Walsh at a tournament in York and it was as a result of this conversation I realised the ecf had no coherent plan on how to pull this off and my original idea had been hijacked without a business plan or strategy to see it through.
It also became clear that Charles did not deliver his promises - he failed to do a number of things that we agreed (all minuted).
At this point I wthdrew gracefully to watch the disaster unfold.
The main points I made to Charles and many colleagues at the time was that, as a Head Teacher, I know how schools work, and that if you give them free chess sets they would treat them the same as the 50 other initiatives that hit your desk every month - bin. The whole thing needed a coherent approach and strategy and schools needed to know what the back up and follow through would be. I suggest that of the 25000 schools this was supposed to reach only a small percentage would have any idea about it and only a small percentage of those would have the remotest idea what to do with the sets anyway.