Friday, 16 December 2011

Barnet Council - Indecisive or obstructive. 11 months and still waiting for a decision.

Updated 12 February 2016 Still no decision 5 years on

Back in January Barnet Council launched its Pledgebank website to great fanfare. At a cost of at least £30,000 it was aimed at encouraging the community to volunteer for civic activity. It states:

“The website is based on the simple principle that the person making the online pledge will work to make it happen “but only if” a number of other people commit too”.

So on January 12th Mr Reasonable submitted the following pledge:

“I will pledge to give up 4 hours of my time every month to scrutinise and challenge all invoices over £10,000 to help the Council reduce unnecessary spending so long as five other people will make a similar time commitment to sit on the panel and that Barnet Council will genuinely participate in the process and listen to the advice and opinions given.”

Now there was a very good reason for offering this pledge. I had already raised significant concerns about purchasing and procurement monitoring at the council and genuinely felt that having an external panel of people to review and scrutinise these invoices would have helped the council. Perhaps this panel would have picked up things like the MetPro scandal and RM Countryside situation earlier. Perhaps it could have discovered a number of other contractual problems which have been highlighted over the last six months.

But Barnet Council don’t like residents asking awkward questions. So having submitted my pledge on 12 January I waited and waited and waited......
By the end of April I thought I had waited long enough so on 27 April I sent the following email:

Dear Barnet Pledgebank,
Back in January I submitted a pledge – see the email below. It was not accepted but I have never been told if it was rejected. Please can you let me know if it has been:
a) Accepted - and if so when will it be put on the pledgebank website so others can sign up;
b) Rejected - and if so on what criteria;
c) Undecided - and if so when a decision is likely.
Thank you for your help.
Kind regards

I waited for a response. Now I am a patient man but no reply was forthcoming, not even an acknowledgement. Complete and utter silence until September when reading the response to a Freedom of Information request (not submitted by me) that my pledge was still “under consideration”. I duly email Barnet again with yet another polite email:

Dear Barnet Pledgebank,
I submitted a pledge on 12 January 2011 for which I have never had a response. Indeed, I wrote again on 27 April chasing up this pledge but again I did not even receive the courtesy of an acknowledgement. Yesterday (2 September) in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, Johnathan Schroder, Internal Communications Manager, Chief Executive's Service at Barnet Council stated that my pledge was “under consideration”.
Given that it is now 9 months since I submitted my pledge, please can you tell me how much more time you need to consider my pledge and when a decision is likely.
I look forward to an early response.

Now you would have thought that might have elicited a response – but you would be wrong. No reply not even an acknowledgement. So after a couple of weeks I rang the council. "Someone will ring you back". No they didn’t. Four weeks later I rang again “Someone will definitely ring you back”. Are you sure? “Yes someone will definitely ring you back today”. Guess what – not a peep, no one rang back.
By November my patience is wafer thin. I rang again but this time, when I was told they would ring me back, I asked to speak to their manager. A few seconds on hold and then told he had just left the office but that he would get back to me. Who is your manager I asked. “Chris Palmer, assistant Director of Communications.” Ah, a Senior Officer and someone who has some clout, maybe? So on Monday 21 November I at last received a response from Mr Palmer.

I am responding to your request for an update on your pledge earlier this year.
This is being reviewed again and I will give you a definitive answer tomorrow.
The criteria for inclusion on Pledgebank are:
• Does this support a civic activity?
• Does the pledge include a deal by at least two parties, to a common end?
• If a pledge requests an action by the council, it should support council priorities.

Pledges may be rejected if:
• They are political by nature
• They are promoting a commercial activity
• The transaction does not support a civic activity.
• The pledge runs counter to the council’s stated policies and objectives.
• The pledge is a statement rather than a deal.
• The pledge maker makes no commitment themselves
• The pledge asks for a commitment from the council that cannot be supported within current resources. “
Obviously Pledgebank is intended to encourage activity outwith the council, i.e. civic activity was always intended to mean activity across society rather than simply further activity from, or about, the council. Your pledge has represented a conundrum in that it does not match the original intentions for Pledgebank and has therefore been a source of debate within the council. For that reason I apologise for asking you to bear with us again, but I will respond in full with a final decision tomorrow.
So, in answer to your question below, c) and 22 November.
Yours sincerely
Chris Palmer
Assistant Director, Communications.

Now as far as I can see my pledge meets all of the relevant criteria so you might expect a swift response as promised. Not at Barnet Council.
Further chasing has still not brought a definitive response. I emailed again last week and again received a reply saying there was still no decision.
Barnet Council, you have had 11 months to make your mind up. I reckon that if this pledge had been accepted it could have benefited the council and more importantly Council Tax Payers by highlighting wasteful spending. It might have picked up Metpro earlier. It would have certainly challenged the huge spend on companies who do not have a valid contract with the council. It might have asked pertinent question like why we are spending millions on consultants with no tangible outcome. It might not have stopped these thing happening but it would have at least added some checks and balances. I was offering half a day a month of my time for free. Not a penny of expenses or allowances. Nothing at all. My only objective to help save the community money.

Barnet Council hate people looking at what they do. At cabinet resources committee on Wednesday Cllr Coleman made a sneering remark about the detail of the increase in charges being something that “the bloggers can pore over at midnight”. Surely everyone should be looking at what they are going to be charged. Public scrutiny should be embraced not sneered at. That is what is wrong in Barnet. They expect us to take what we are given without debate or challenge. Well that must change.
We need much more public scrutiny of Barnet Council and we need it now.


  1. ah ... my friend Mr Chris Palmer, stern faced head of (avoiding) communication. Do you remember, Mr Palmer, when you told Mrs Angry that she must consider herself suspended from the Barnet Council facebook page for two months, for the crime of making a 'party political' comment? Oh: the shame.

    Plegebank being a non political programme is a very amusing thought, isn't it? Do you remember, Mr Reasonable, when the ideas website was launched, and Mrs Angry discovered that it had been pre-loaded with One Barnet friendly suggestions? Wasn't that naughty, in a borough where we might expect to see council officers doing God's work?

    Pledgebank is simply a refinement of the same process, with a pretence of engagement with the community disguising the usual rigorous process of censorship.

    I think you are being unfair to accuse Brian Coleman of making a sneering remark: this is simply his default mode and he does it without thinking, poor old love. I imagine, anyway, that the idea of reading council papers late at night in any depth is a habit that few Tory councillors would understand.

  2. The usual mealy mouthed attempt to paint something as what it is not, Mr Reasonable.

    It is most defintely a civic activity to Armchair Audit. Our highest profile supporter the Right Hon Eric Pickles MP said as such at the CIPFA conference.

    I think that what Barnet Council are afraid of is that the other 5 volunteers might all be bloggers who have a much greater insight into the council's affairs than many (not all) councillors and that the Officers will be shown to have no clothes. The One Barnet programme is an illusion that will be shattered.

    Standing shoulder to shoulder with you Mr Reasonable.

    ( The verification word was "press" ! )

  3. Of course the other thing Mr Reasonable is that the over £500 lists are fiddled not to put it too finely. The payments to consultants, like the £1,000 a day to Halliford Associates, are now being billed through Hays, which will cost extra, and even then there are not any invoices big enough in the Hays list to be any of the numerous well overpaid consultants.

    And the secretive council wonder why I have to fire in so many FOI requests. Xmas is coming, work will be quiet, I can indulge my hobbies ( Change is one of my favouriites! ).

  4. Well done so far for your persistence, Mr R.

    (MY verification word was "broom".
    As in "New"!)

  5. Hello Mr Reasonable. Look it's 1:22 and here I am poring over local government detail. Bloggers won't rest until One Barnet is kicked firmly into the long grass without a equally useless replacement and all the consultants go home.

  6. "All the consultants driven home, by liveried chauffeurs, in some luxury", surely Mr M?