It’s that Delivery Plan again!

Iain Pears has said very nearly all there is to say on this. Thom Brooks’ email suggesting things to do about it is reproduced here. Not much to add, really, except…

The story so far, again, in brief, and with links:

(a) The AHRC’s Delivery Plan is worded so as to give a clear and open endorsement of a Conservative Party electoral slogan.

(b) There’s no good evidence that the Conservatives, or the present Coalition Government, asked for this to happen.

(c) David Willetts appears to find the AHRC’s conduct a bit silly, and evidently wishes it hadn’t done what it did.

(d) As well he might. This has become a stick to beat the Government with.

(e) It is a mystery what the AHRC staff responsible thought they were up to. Neither the ESRC nor any of the other Research Councils has ever tried anything similar.

(f) The AHRC, usually through its Chief Executive, Rick Rylance, keeps contending that it has not done anything misjudged or out of the ordinary. Professor Rylance has denied that the Plan says what (on my and almost everyone else’s reading of its straightforward English-language phrasing) it says.

(g) The arts and humanities research community is very angry. Several thousand individuals and 32 learned societies have complained.

(h) Professor Rylance has most recently stated, presumably correctly, that revising the Plan would involve consultation with Government, but that “this is not an intention.”  He does not specify whose intention it is not, or why not.

(i) Mass resignations from the AHRC Peer Review College are looming; Rick Rylance’s credibility has, alas, become the story.

If they didn’t mean the Delivery Plan to say what the Delivery Plan says, why don’t they just change the Delivery Plan?

The AHRC’s most recent statements hint that we should accept there’s some practical reason (beyond embarrassment). They don’t say what. We might most naturally think of the bureaucratic cost of replanning, revalidation, reprinting, distribution. Quick thought-experiment, though:

Scenario 1. What if somebody were suddenly to notice that the Delivery Plan libels the Pope? Recalling and revising must at least be practically possible. If it isn’t, that’s a major failing in its own right. (When I started typing this, I was going for a reductio, but… you know… could anybody with a bit of spare time please do a quick run over it with an eye to papal business? Just in case…)

Scenario 2. What if somebody notices that the Delivery Plan contains statements contrary to fact? (Not a major thought-experiment, this one. Section 2.10.1 of the Plan discusses the AHRC’s relationship to “other government departments”. Far from being a government department, the AHRC is a non-departmental public body or, to use the picturesque term, quango. The distinction, though not sexually stimulating, is significant here. NDPBs operate at arm’s length: they are accountable to, but work independently of, government. Unless they don’t. But they’ve gone wrong if they don’t.)

In this second scenario, the Plan is not a Bad Plan: it is a Plan With A Mistake In It. There is no prejudice or shame in revising the document. Do released copies have to be recalled, as they would in the papal case? I’d say not. Publicise the correction and change the PDF on your website, and contact anyone who’s sufficiently sophisticated to be keeping a Copy Of Record on paper, like the archivists always tell you to. Job done.

Scenario 3. What if somebody notices that the Delivery Plan does not adequately convey the intended sense? If we insist on accepting that nothing shifty is going on, then we should presumably conclude from Professor Rylance’s April comments that this has actually happened. What would be a reasonable response? As for Scenario 2, I think. I, for one, would say no more about it.

Scenario Omega (in numbering, as in life, we should expect the unexpected). What if one of the parties you’re supposed to mediate between is just downright flipping appalled by part of the Plan? Even if you don’t have to worry about the other party (who has done no more than blink at it and say “Really?”), I will concede that you’ve got a more complex job on your hands, because it’s not immediately evident what the revision ought to look like, or who gets a say in deciding that.

But I think, even in the Omega Scenario, your starting offer has got to be “Here’s what we might be able to do” – as opposed to “We’re right, and you haven’t formulated an opinion so you can’t disagree.” I am struggling to understand how so many recent official statements in the name of the AHRC can possibly have come to be worded as they are, except on the supposition that the Council employs a full-time Compliance Officer to ensure maximum offence to humanities academics.

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