Caroline Killeavy addresses the AWCC AGM

Caroline Killeavy, Head of Customer Relations at BW, was the after lunch speaker at the AWCC AGM held on Saturday 13th March at Stafford Boat Club.

Caroline started her talk by explaining that the job included the complaints process,  freedom of information requests, and management of the Engagement Team, which included angling as well as boating.

She started with the Third Sector proposal and said that it had created uncertainty on both sides – there was neither a right, nor a wrong way of implementing the proposals. There needed to be much discussion and evaluation of all the perceived risks. There would inevitably be much political lobbying. A final decision would be taken when more detail had been evolved. However, it was not yet a done deal, but when it was it had to be the “Right Deal”, it had to be a partnership with the key stakeholders. In the mean time there was the small matter of the General Election, but the time was now much better than it was a decade ago. The Third Sector proposal was in principle approved by the three major political parties, but could a good political deal be achieved with a new Government?

Caroline then moved on to the increase in visitors to BW’s waterways over the last five years; the statistics suggest that 13 million people visited the waterways last year – that is about a quarter of the population of this country.  This increase in visitor numbers has resulted indirectly in good media coverage, and had been of much benefit to the BW cause. In recent telephone surveys, 90% of those surveyed considered the waterways to be very important.

Caroline continued by saying that there was a need to change attitudes within BW and particularly to the involvement of the key stakeholders. She assured us that BW management was changing! She assured us that there was a new model for involving and educating young people and also an increased emphasis on working with local communities and the capturing of a full range of volunteer skills in local communities; engineering, mapping, media, finance, etc. She emphasised the volunteering website, . She realised that BW had to do a good packaging job in encouraging volunteers in suitable areas for volunteering.

Caroline was keen to promote adoption schemes and gave the example of a bank in Birmingham that encouraged all employees to be actively involved in the canal outside their windows in their lunch hour. BT were running a similar scheme and providing a co-ordinator for free for six months. She mentioned a North West youth volunteering activity where ‘intergenerational’ relationships were seen to work very well.

The Customer Service Team was also involved in up to date IT techniques with Twitter and Facebook accounts. She invited us to “tweet” the team! It is more approachable and informal, she said, and in particular it allows BW to engage with users of these new social media websites.

Finally, she made the point that major change within any organisation is always hard. There was willingness within BW, but still a fear for jobs. She then tackled the many questions from the floor in a frank and informal manner.

Questions covered the level of director’s bonuses, the many thousands of visitors who make no direct financial contributions, how to attract volunteers who are not boaters and how to get greater involvement of Local Authorities, particularly those who appear not to value their local waterways.

Caroline would not be drawn on the level of executive remuneration packages other than to say that there was a need to attract the right people. She said that non-executive Board Members remuneration was relatively slight. (The remuneration position of Trustee Board members is likely to be considerably different!)

The continuation of the Grant in Aid will still be necessary in recognition of those who do not pay directly for waterway maintenance. There would be renewed efforts with Local Authorities via the Regeneration Team. She did, however, remind us that it was the taxpayer who presently provided much of BW’s funding, so almost everyone makes some contribution towards the waterways facilities that are free for all to use.

A comment from the floor then identified the recent report in Waterways World that said the main problem with BW management was likely to be “letting go”. The method of selection of Trustees for the new charity was then queried, with the suggestion that the recent BWAF letter to Robin Evans did not go far enough *. The loss of jobs was then queried, as volunteer numbers increases. The problem of controlling volunteers was raised.

Caroline agreed that changing culture would not be easy, but there was a need to get away from the complacent image of the public sector approach. She did confirm that in the most recent reorganisation, no bank-side staff was lost. She accepted that there were possible difficulties as volunteer jobs approached those done by “professionals”, but said that it was always important to make the volunteer role in some way different to avoid the problem. Overall, volunteers had to be properly organised and controlled – they could not be allowed to do as they liked!

The matter of how to effectively inform the average boater was then raised and how to avoid the “glazed looks” when mentioning the Third Sector. The possibility of the new charity covering all waterways’ authorities was raised. Erica Martin then made an impassioned appeal for the new charity to include everyone, which was widely applauded, including by our speaker. Caroline concluded by emphasising that there was no right deal with the government, that they still had to pay through the Grant In Aid and that whilst a single Navigation Authority may be desirable and achievable at some time in the future, it was not on the cards at the moment.

The AWCC President, in wrapping up the AGM, then gave the speaker a sincere vote of thanks for her informal yet frank approach, with the wish that local user group meetings should take a leaf out of her book.

* Chairman’s note. The BWAF meeting on 22 Jan did go considerably further in discussion on the matter of Trustees, who they should be, whether they should be paid and how they should be appointed, etc. However, it was decided that there was a limit to how much of this should be set out in the letter from BWAF to Robin Evans. There will be further opportunities.

Webmasters note: Thanks to John Baggs, David Pearce and Erica Martin for their notes on the above presentation.