Over the Christmas period Mr Reasonable has been indisposed and somewhat incapacitated. While being indisposed it has given me plenty of time to think about what is taking place in Barnet, about the key instigators within Barnet Council and how they are de-constructing Council services which have taken decades to develop.
This year we will see a large number of council services being outsourced yet the evidence to support this process is either sketchy or missing altogether. I work in a business world where evidence, facts and benchmark data prevail. Sadly what I've seen in the business cases for outsourcing is assumptions, aspirations and desires; not the strongest base for critical decision-making. Looking at the underlying drivers for outsourcing they seem to be based on thinking which is many years out of date. Back in the 1980s when Mr Reasonable was at business school, the lean organisation which outsourced most of the services was flavour of the month. That can work for manufacturing organisations and we have seen many of them ship their production overseas to low-cost nations such as China, India and the Far East, leaving the research and development and marketing functions here in the UK. While this has given us cheap commodities it has caused major social consequences with the UK manufacturing base being decimated and the former industrial areas of Britain with high levels of unemployment and an over-dependence on the public sector jobs. “It must be right”, cry so many, yet in Germany they still have an immensely powerful manufacturing base. Why have they managed to buck the trend and remain so successful?
So now we see the move to outsourcing of the service sector and, in particular, of local authorities. There is a fundamental difference between a manufacturing organisation which is sourcing an incredibly well defined tangible product manufactured to a detailed specification and, for example, a planning department which requires a high level of judgement and common sense and skill based locally. Yet in Barnet we are seeing these highly technical services being outsourced to companies which have little or no experience in operating these functions. Another example is Environmental Health which has statutory responsibilities to ensure the health and well-being of local people. I am struggling to understand how any external organisation can provide services such as environmental health or planning or a number of other regulatory services significantly more cost effectively without cutting the skilled people who undertake these roles. Ironically when these departments were benchmarked they typically came out well above the average, yet the in house team have been precluded from bidding. I remain puzzled as to how the Council can demonstrate best value has been achieved without allowing the high performing in house teams to submit a bid. I suspect the Council may face a legal challenge on that one later in the year.
I have asked numerous questions over the last 2 years, none of which have been answered satisfactorily. Even worse, the one avenue for challenging the outsourcing process, the One Barnet Overview and Scrutiny Panel, was scrapped. The cost of consultants supporting this outsourcing programme has been immense, millions of pounds to dozens of consultancy firms.
My biggest complaint however, is that the senior management of Barnet Council have spent far too long focusing on the One Barnet programme, and far too little time focusing on the day-to-day running of the Council. As a result of the misaligned management objectives, we have seen significant problems with the IT systems, hundreds of suppliers without a contract, significant concerns about the procurement system and a parking system implemented without detailed consultation, consideration or common sense. There was the case of the £2 million of pension contributions that the council "forgot to collect" a sum of money that could have delivered a great deal of care to many of the most vulnerable. Sadly it is those most vulnerable, the elderly and disabled in the borough who have been most affected. They have been slapped with huge increases in charges for care services which many simply cannot afford. Laughably called the “Fairer Contributions Policy” we have seen the number of people liable to pay a contribution to the social care rise from a third to 59%. Of that 59%, almost half (44%) have to pay the full contribution which is, on average, £84 a week. Imagine if your elderly relative was suddenly faced with a bill of £400 a month for care charges out of their fixed pension, how would you feel? I attended one of the consultation events where people made it clear to the council that these charges would be a major problem for many elderly people but their comments, as usual, were ignored.
In addition, this year we face the prospect of London hosting the Olympic Games while at the same time Barnet Council are closing leisure facilities, something which sends a dreadful signal to the youth of this borough. Perhaps a greater focus on getting the basics right, not spending millions on consultants, and running a much leaner senior management team may have reduced the need for cuts to these services.
This year will be a tipping point the Barnet Council. Many residents feel increasingly estranged and disengaged from the council and what it is trying to do. Councillors appear increasingly remote and irrelevant. When the consequences of outsourcing start to bite, hundreds of people are made redundant, and services disappear or decline I wonder what councillors will be telling us then. The Greater London Authority elections may give us the signal as to how the residents of Barnet perceive the current regime. I hope everyone's sake of the electorate send a very clear signal that our councillors are out of control, out of touch and out of step with the nation. Only time will tell.