Bletchley Park’s bitter dispute – mediation is the solution

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The relationship between The Bletchley Park Trust (BPT) and The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) both based at Bletchley Park has been in the press recently. A piece published by the BBC in January this year Bletchley Park’s bitter dispute over its future showed a Bletchley Park volunteer crying after being sacked by the current CEO of Bletchley Park Iain Standen. There was a public outcry after the BBC report was shown on the news, with people complaining about the way that volunteers are being treated and asking what is going on.

Lots of people have asked me to comment since the report. I first got involved with Bletchley Park in 2003 and  started a campaign to save it in 2008 when I found out that they were having financial difficulties. I’m currently writing a book Saving Bletchley Park about the campaign, the people involved, what we did, what worked and what didn’t.

During the time that I was campaigning to save Bletchley Park and now during writing of my book I have spoken to quite a few people that have been involved with Bletchley over the years. It has all been very interesting.

One of the things that has disturbed and dismayed me from the start has been the fact that despite seeming to want, at a high level, the same thing, the two trusts BPT and TNMOC have never seemed to be able to work well together. I have never quite understood this. Practically everyone that I have ever spoken to, involved in either trust, has been a good person who obviously wants the right thing to happen. They have all seemed to have the long term interest of Bletchley Park’s future in mind and to want the best for the whole site. Why then are we in the situation we find ourselves in today where the two trusts seem to be at loggerheads?

I’ve stressed about this for years, I’ve tried talking to people on both sides, almost all of whom I respect. I was invited to join BPT in 2012 by Sir John Scarlett and became a trustee for 18 months. My main goal in becoming a trustee was to try to ensure Bletchley Park as a whole’s future success, with a fundamental part of that being trying to help both trusts work together with a view to at some point becoming a single trust. I sought to get BPT to agree to ask TNMOC to go to external mediation together to get them talking to each other and working on a way of moving forward together. Unfortunately I was not able to persuade the board to take that route.

When it became apparent to me late last year that I could not achieve my goal, I resigned. I had failed.

I failed to make happen what I still think is a critical factor in the future success of Bletchley Park as a whole. If the two trusts cannot work together, the future success of Bletchley Park as a fundamental, international heritage site is under threat.

I believe that mediation and getting both trusts talking to each other is the best way forward in ensuring a safe and successful future for Bletchley Park. I may not have been able to make that happen, but I think that there will be someone who will be able to. I’ve spent the last couple of months trying to work who that might be. Who would be the person, or organisation that would be able to strongly “encourage” this solution to happen?

It has often occurred to me that maybe it would have helped to have more women involved at a high level. BPT and TNMOC are not exclusively male, but they are mainly male. Would having a few more women involved to encourage communication and collaboration rather than competition been a good idea? I think so. Having a gender balance can make a difference in these types of situations.

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It would have to be someone that both trusts will listen to and work with. My first thought was Baroness Trumpington. She worked at Bletchley Park during the war, is formidable and reasonable, along with a great sense of humour. Other ideas have been Ed Vaizey at DCMS and the Heritage Lottery Fund who are currently funding BPT. I have discussed this with several friends who also care deeply about Bletchley Park and have deep knowledge of the situation. Brian Randell from University of Newcastle who has done so much for Bletchley Park and TNMOC over the years, Bill Thompson from the BBC and Lucian Hudson, Head of Communications at the Open University. We all agree that the two trusts must work together and that mediation is key to making that happen (please correct me if I am wrong gentlemen and I will amend this).

In an interview with The Guardian yesterday I said that I thought mediation, getting the two trusts around a table talking together absolutely what is needed, and that I believe it will happen. We need to get them both discussing their issues with an external, objective mediator, only then can we move this situation forward. One of the problems is that everything is not on the table, no real time, full and frank discussions around all of the issues that exist have happened (to my knowledge). Like any situation where there is a breakdown in a relationship, a chain of reactions going from one side to the other is not useful. We need the equivalent of Relate, relationship counselling, but for organisations rather than individuals. Does that exist? I thought of ACAS but they unfortunately are not appropriate.

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I believe that the fact that this dispute is now in the public eye is a good thing. It has opened up to the public a situation that has festered long enough. The UK public and many people around the world absolutely LOVE Bletchley Park. It is an awesome place. The place where more than 10,000 people, mainly young women, worked to save *millions* of lives during World War 2. The birthplace of computer science, the place where Alan Turing and others like him worked tirelessly for us. So that we and millions of others around the world like us could live in peace. We owe it to these people, and to the site itself, to now help these two organisations work together. To make Bletchley Park the successful, international heritage site that we can all be proud of. We CAN do that. It MUST happen.

The infighting has gone on long enough. Now is the time for BPT and TNMOC to work together. Let’s help them to do that by not taking sides, but by encouraging them to work together and by supporting them both. They need our help. Let’s give it to them. Lest we forget.

I welcome your comments and suggestions.

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25 comments

  1. I suggest approaching CEDR http://www.cedr.com/ see also the Wikipaedia entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centre_for_Effective_Dispute_Resolution

    They handled disputes like the Maxwell Pension Funds and the Alderhay Organs scandal where the nature of the issues made resolution appear intractable.

    I can ask Karl Mackie (the CEO) what the cost might be.

    It is always possible that a donor to both the Museum and the Trsut might be happy to cover the cost. I would not suggest a pro bono mediation because it would not carry the clout of a mainstream CEDR exercise.

  2. I went to Bletchley Park a few years ago and had an amazing time. It’s a crying shame the 2 organisations can’t work together. Both have so much to offer the visitor.

    I was a bit gobsmacked to see the first ICL computer I worked with on public display there though. Made me feel a bit of a relic ;)

    1. Yes absolutely, you are right. Both trusts really do have so much to offer and being caught up in this way takes a lot of energy that could be focused on the positive.

  3. I’m unknown and disinterested but I’m also well practiced in facilitating consensus and co-operation and would be willing to try to do that here at no charge.

  4. I am exceedingly saddened by events that I truly do not understand. Three years ago, I accompanied a party of students on an educational day at TNMOC but we also had the opportunity to visit BP. Last year, we didn’t. Who loses out? My students. I have always promoted the excellent work of TNMOC (I did so last week at the Raspberry Jamboree in Manchester) and my husband’s uncle worked at BP during WWII so we have affection for both sites.
    As a teacher and a mum, I’m used to brokering the peace. It would be absolutely insane to allow either to be lost – especially as now is the minute/hour/day/week/year of code and Computing is very much talk of the town.With cool developments such as Raspberry Pi, now is the very time that relevant organisations should be working ever more closely to contribute resources to this huge, rolling snowball of educational initiatives.
    We just cannot let these two great organisations drift apart. To take a quote from the Art of War: “There has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.”

    1. Thanks very much Chris, great that your husband’s uncle worked at Bletchley :) I still live in the hope that I will find a relative amongst the thousands of people that worked there.

  5. I’m a computer preservationist (mostly DEC & IBM, 1960s – 1980s – http://www.corestore.org/compute.htm ) and I’m not sure best interests are served by having both organisations on the same site at all; they’ve been thrown together by an accident of history.

    Bletchley Park is primarily a sigint thing, preserving and presenting a site of considerable historical importance. It HAS to be where it is, and only touches incidentally on the early history of UK computing.

    A computer museum can be anywhere, and probably *should* be somewhere more accessible that Bletchley – a major city location. LCM or CHM in the USA show what the correct approach should be.

    For me, they’re not natural bedfellows, and an amicable separation might be the best way forward.

    (Disclaimer: I’m a Brit by birth but haven’t lived in the UK for nearly 20 years. I have no particular knowledge of the situation or people involved, and have no skin in the game)

    1. There is more than a historical accident to the location of TNMoC. The building (H Block) is the first purpose-built computer centre in the world, constructed during WWII to house several Colossus machines. As such it forms an integral part of both the Bletchley Park story and the history of computing.

  6. “Daily solutions of Fish messages at G. C. & C. S. reflect a
    background of British mathematical genius, superb engineering ability, and
    solid common sense.”
    The Special Fish Report
    1st December 1944
    Albert W. Small
    Cryptanalyst
    U.S. Signal Corps

    Not much solid common sense at BPT at the moment is there?. I think Dr Black should be the CEO. Sorted.

  7. Sue Black has written a very interesting piece calling for ‘mediation’ between the Bletchley Park Trust and The National Museum of Computing. It is a thought provoking piece and demonstrates Sue’s well known passion for the Park, but I am going to disagree a little with her. I know she will not mind because she wants debate and views ‘on the table’ and that is what this is all about. Sorry about the length Sue ;)

    I think it would be a terrible mistake to think that this is simply two charities disagreeing and in need of mediation. There is a bigger issue here, that is much more important than Bletchley Park Trust or The National Museum of Computing – it is Bletchley Park itself. The Park’s future is at stake; as a heritage site, as a place to record the remarkable events of WW2 and as a point of inspiration for our young people today and tomorrow.

    The Park is a family of interests and it has many stakeholders. It has many functions and tales to tell. It is not just two warring parties, although for many that is what it may seem of late. It is a heritage site moving forwards under the stress of change and the cracks are showing, showing perhaps too much, showing at a worrying level, showing enough to be telling all those that love the Park that we ALL need to stop, think and make doubly sure that the way forward is right and that the people, collections and story are being treated with respect and value.

    Beyond BPT and TNMOC there are others who care for this place;
    – an army of volunteers past, present and future that are not employees, trust members or businesses. They have saved Bletchley Park in the past and enabled huge numbers of people to enjoy their visit to the Park. Where are their voices?

    – a collection of on site businesses that have, over time, poured huge amounts of money into the Bletchley Park cause through rent, the renovation of many of the site’s buildings, donations in support of activities, the provision of expertise and their own passion for the place and story. The idea of nurturing science and innovation at the heart of a heritage site is inspired and supports the future proofing, relevance and attraction of a major national heritage resource. Where are their voices?

    -the community in which Bletchley Park belongs. The town of Bletchley has a long association with the Park, long before the arrival of a codebreakers. It is integral to the history of the Town and the necessities of war took the Park as it was known, from the local residents. Bletchley Park belongs to Bletchley and the wider community of Milton Keynes. It is a national resource of course, but it has a different meaning to the people of Bletchley that includes their history and their experience of war. Where are their voices?

    – the increasing numbers of young people that visit the site that are not part of any organisation, have no vote, no say, but will in the future be charged with looking after Bletchley Park. What message does this dispute convey to them, what do they want from this site and what do we wish from them to secure BP’s future? Where are their voices?

    This situation does not require only mediation, although that may be part of the healing process. Our beloved Bletchley Park needs all the voices to be listened to; it needs saving again, this time from itself and its own success. I fear that despite all the best intentions, that it has lost its way or part of it. Bletchley Park needs a ‘review’ of which mediation might be required. Bletchley Park does not just need a compromise between two warring charity’s objectives, it is more important than that; it needs to cement into the plans for the future what is best for Bletchley Park beyond the interests of any of the family of organisations and individuals on site, including a Trust that has temporary guardianship for this priceless asset.

    That is hugely challenging and it may be easier to retreat to one side of a fence and call it the ‘heritage aspect’ that is worthy of care and consideration, whilst the parts outside are deemed not part of the ‘attraction’. Every square foot of Bletchley Park and some parts technically outside (eg Block G) are part of the story. You cannot airbrush history because you do not have control of those parts. You have to show leadership, passion, commitment to bring all those parts behind and in support of a vision for the park that will take it into a secure future supported by all the voices that love this place.

    Is that difficult? Yes, it sure is. Challenging? Yes hugely. Necessary? Yes, otherwise the potential of Bletchley Park will be lost forever.

    If those who currently hold the batons of ‘Trust’ cannot fight for this great cause, fight for the very best of Bletchley Park not just the best, fight for a world class heritage site not just a great one, fight to convince people not just express authority; then they should stand aside and the ‘voices’ that love the Park need to find the people that can.

    Too much of the Park has been lost in the past, too much is mired in controversy and poor judgement. Maybe history is telling us something – that more than mediation is needed, maybe a new framework that brings together all the parties working for and on the Park and maybe we need a more open, inclusive, imaginative and ‘can do’ collaboration that secures the future for the whole Park not just the pieces considered the ‘heritage aspect’.

    This is not about ownership and control. The challenge is to create an irresistible vision that all of the stakeholders want to support, want to work for, want to raise cash for, want to guide visitors around, want to make work despite all the difficulties that may arise. A Park well organised but without passion, a heart and people at its centre is simply not worthy of the history of this amazing place.

    Too much energy (and charitable money) is wasted in disputes between BPT and TNMOC, but also between BPT and some of its volunteers (from crying to resignations), between BPT and BPSIC (at least one of which ended in the High Court I understand), between BPT and some of the collections (now gone from the site).

    BPT has a tough job to do and change management is a tricky path to follow. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t want to help them, but sometimes it is tough when you are thought of as outside, not ‘core’, incidental, ‘just a replica’ and you look ‘in’ through the fence.

    I support Sue Black in many of her comments but we need more than mediation, we need inclusion for all the stakeholders, we need openness worthy of a Charity and a leadership that gathers support, not excludes it.

    Chris Monk

    I am the Learning Co-ordinator at TNMOC. I am a paid employee for 4 days per week and a volunteer for 2 days per week (3 when my family lets me get away with it).

    My views here express my own thoughts and not necessarily those of my employer.

    1. This makes a lot of sense Chris, the current difficulties and issues are deep and embedded. As someone who lives close-by and remembers the time when BP wasn’t shown on local and OS maps or admitted to I have been pleased to see its development and, as someone who has worked with IT since the 70s, I was equally pleased to see Colussus being rebuilt and that TNMOC was collecting a history of my profession. I naively accepted that the two were working together to their mutual benefit and for all concerned.

      In view of the recent events however, what Mike Ross writes also makes sense. They are two different organisations with different missions, BPT is essentially rooted in a very specific time and place whereas TNMOC is committed to an ongoing development and, although they have equal call on Colossus and other wartime artefacts, they don’t have to be co-located.

      In a perfect world they should be developed together into a wondrous celebration of engineering, wartime code breaking, social cohesion and collaboration, ingenuity and intellect. Unfortunately, they seem to have grown apart – maybe it is the £££s that have been so successfully raised for BPT that has formed a wedge? I noted while rooting around the two organisations websites that the respective boards of trustees seemed weighted in favour of BPT, if mediation is to be attempted will this need evening up?

  8. Thanks for the clarification, Sue. I agree with you that BPT and TNMOC have to come to an agreement fairly soon, because it is ridiculous that they can’t co-exist on the same site without practically coming to blows.

    I recall how proud you were to be asked to join the BoT at BPT, and how you were looking forward to making the site even better and more relevant. But, that said, I do think that voting with your conscience like that was also right. Well done you.

  9. To me it seems the rather convoluted financial arrangements between the two trusts is a key factor in the problems that exist between them. For TNMOC to pay rent and then get all/less/more of this back through entrance fees (whether collected together or separately) seems overly complicated and must get in the way of TNMOC being the value add to Bletchley Park that I’m sure all parties want it to be. Cannot a solution be found where these figures largely cancel each other out rather than build up to be distractions to unity. It’s far easier to climb one molehill than two mountains.

  10. I hope that the long-running dispute between The Bletchley Park Trust and TNMOC can be resolved before too long so that the site will continue to attract visitors from around the world. You deserve much respect for trying to establish a solid partnership between the two trusts and it is incredible that they still haven’t moved forward with this. I completely understand why you made the decision to resign from the board of trustees at BPT but I will always think of you when I’m enjoying future visits there (providing the site does eventually secure a safe and successful future without you).

  11. Should be simple. Move NMoC inside ‘the fence’ add £2 to the general admission to the BPT site and relay that to NMoC after rent and everyone can enjoy both sites and the logical progression in the Ultra secret from Enigma to Tunny.

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