Tonight Mr Reasonable attended the One Barnet Overview and Scrutiny Panel to ask so questions about the One Barnet programme and to get some answers. Well I got to ask my questions and I appreciate the courtesy I was shown by Cllr Yawitch who chairs this panel. But did I get the answers I was looking for? Not likely!
My questions were as follows:
1. Agenda Item 5: Can the Panel ask the One Barnet Board to publish minutes of their meetings and make them available on the Barnet Council website as a way of enhancing the corporate governance of the Board.
2. Agenda Item 6: In the highlight report it states that the under the work stream New Relationship with Citizens that the project is complete. Can the Scrutiny Panel find out from the One Barnet Board when the citizens of Barnet will be informed what this engagement strategy entails and what consultation has taken place with residents that validates this strategy?
3. Agenda Item 7:
a) Can the Panel ask the CRC why they feel it is necessary to recommend “That the Director of Commercial Services be authorised to initiate the procurement of a private sector partner(s) to deliver the following services: Customer Services, Estates, Finance, Human Resources, Information Systems, Procurement, Revenues and Benefits” before the outcome of the business cases is known or has been reviewed or consulted upon by other scrutiny committees/panels. Even issuing an OJEU notice sends a clear signal to bidders, residents and Barnet Council staff that the decision has already been taken.
b) At Annex 1, 4.4, The key risks associated with delivering the recommendations of the options appraisal, are the panel concerned that under the risk assessment no mention is made of the quality of service provided, of the satisfaction of the residents, of the lack of flexibility leading to the sorts of problems experienced on the Fremantle/Catalyst contract. Are Panel members concerned that there appears to be no evidence of a detailed risk assessment involved with each option?
c) Given the level of resources the council are currently putting into cost saving measures and the amount they are spending on interim staff to make improvements to the way services are operated (such as procurement) do the Panel consider that this strategy seem to be somewhat premature and it will allow the private sector to pick up a service which will have already born the costs of consultants, reorganisation specialist and redundancy funded by the council tax payer.
d) Have the Panel been provided with benchmark evidence of a successful outsourcing within another local authority on the same scale and complexity proposed in this item and if so do they think it is worth sharing with the residents to help allay concerns that exist. If not, are panel members concerned that Barnet is being used as a testing ground for an untried system.
e) Are panel members concerned that having spent a fortune (£8 million) on an SAP system in 2005 and spent millions each year in consultant support the report states at point F5.6 (page 79) that “IT systems need to be joined up to enable cross-system flow of data and information to provide real insight”. Will the panel request that the CRC challenge senior officers as how this situation has been allowed to arise?
f) Can the Panel ask why, given the findings at table 7, consolidated service analysis of the option appraisal report which states that both Finance and Revenue and Benefits are performing well, these two elements should be included within this out sourcing exercise? Are the panel concerned that the only element of the Revenue and Benefits that is not performing well is the National Non Domestic Rates function and that the report appears to show a direct correlation between the 40% cut in staff and the decline in performance? Based on the foregoing, are the Panel members, like me, puzzled as to how the scoring for Revenue & Benefits at page 97 has been decided.
Unsurprisingly the answers did not give me a great deal of comfort. No they will not publish the One Barnet Board minutes – and even the Councillors on the Scrutiny Panel members don’t receive them! The engagement strategy is no longer a strategy it is a set of principles but no you are not getting them! Then we got into the meat of the outsourcing options appraisal.
The answers gave me no confidence that this outsourcing project is robust and what became clear is that the council are determined to seek a private sector partner to run these services because it is their political belief that private sector is the only possible provider.
Cllr Rams stated that they had undertaken soft market testing and there was interest from the private sector in running council services. Well what a blinking surprise. It’s a bit like walking up to a car salesman and saying “I’ve got a bike – do you think I should buy a car?” And you think he is going to say no?
So where does that leave all those council workers who are currently working hard to deliver huge service efficiencies. Well work hard for the next 18 months while we negotiate handing over your jobs to the private sector. Andrew Travers mentioned the problem that the Barnet Primary Care Trust had experienced when it was announced that they were being disbanded - key staff just walked away. Well once the staff in Barnet Council realise that all their hard work is going to benefit some large private sector company perhaps they will start walking away too.
As I said to the Scrutiny Panel, this contract will run to hundreds of millions of pounds. If/when this all goes horribly wrong, residents will quite rightly ask why you didn’t challenge them more closely.
It is a very complex subject and I apologise if this is boring. But trust me, this has the potential to fundamentally damage Barnet to its very core. If you think the Catalyst contract was a problem this has the potential to be many time worse and it is all being done in the name of political dogma. I got a sense that some of the Conservative councillors were deeply uncomfortable about this process. I just hope they have the common sense and integrity to stand up and be counted when it matters.