Monday 31 December 2012

One Barnet costs us £450,000 in professional fees in November

Barnet's supplier payments for November are out and they reveal that, yet again, One Barnet has cost us a fortune. In addition to Trowers & Hamlin's bill for £202,058.87, our long standing Implementation Partner, Agilisys, billed £248,727.97 bringing the total billed by Agilisys to over £5 million with 10 months still to run on the contract. Not bad for a contract that was estimated to cost "circa" £2 million in September 2010.

It is also interesting to note that the legal service now outsourced to the London Borough of Harrow cost Barnet residents £348,947.62 last month. I wonder how that compares to what the service would have cost us if it was still in house.

Doesn't bode well for the Capita contract does it?

Friday 21 December 2012

Capita Week - Day 5 - Swindon

In 2009 Swindon Council's Internal Audit department published a report into the contract management of Capita. The report can be downloaded here.

Some of the issues identified in the report were as follows:
  • There have been prolonged performance issues with some services that have not always been resolved on a timely basis. In the case of the Benefits Service, continued performance failures against contractual targets have not been clearly escalated to the Partnership Executive for resolution, where service performance has not increased to contracted levels.
  • Key Performance Indicators are produced to measure performance of all transferred services. However, there are significant wider contractual obligations in the service output specifications that must also be delivered by Capita. There is not a consistent method of monitoring whether the partner is delivering these wider obligations.
  • It was also found that, in some areas, the client is spending time carrying out activities that should be managed by Capita. The Council needs to resolve these issues, through escalation if necessary and then benchmark the client function to determine if it is under, or over, resourced.
  • There is currently little validation of KPIs reported by the partner, but there is evidence of this taking place in Revenues and Benefits and Customer Services. There are three KPIs that are still not being reported, two years into the contract date, due to ongoing issues with management information.
  • The Auditor obtained reports on the implementation of similar strategic Capita partnerships in Southampton and Blackburn with Darwen Councils and noted that these Authorities have   experienced very similar issues in contract/relationship management and service delivery.
  • It is not clear whether all output specifications that were produced during the final stage of the contract negotiations are still relevant and are an effective mechanism to manage Capita service delivery against.
  • The Head of ICT has stated that he does not have the resource to check the number of PC’s replaced by Capita, that are charged to the Council each month as part of the PC replacement programme. This charge can be in excess of £100k each month, depending on the number of PCs claimed. The value of the supply is approximately £400k per annum, which is £6m over the life of the contract.

Some of the risks identified in the report include:
  • The Council pays for PCs that have not actually been replaced.
  • Focus is on delivery of KPIs and other contract obligations are not met by the Partner 
  • The Council does not know if the overall required level of service is being delivered. 
  • The Council pays for services that are not received.
Now overall this report suggests there are problems on both sides. What worries me is that in a contract of the size One Barnet, unless the Council are all over Capita, we may see exactly the same problems arise. That fact that the Internal Audit found that Southampton and Blackburn had experienced similar problems in contract management and service delivery as Swindon suggests that Barnet may also experience those problems. Given that Barnet are operating to the "thin client" model where monitoring resources are very limited if I were a betting man I would say it looks odds on that these problems will occur.

Experience leads me to have no confidence in Barnet's ability to monitor this contract successfully and therefore I suspect that role will yet again fall to the concerned residents rather than the senior officers or councillors who are rewarded handsomely for this role. We will all need to be all over Capita and the Councillors to ensure that residents get the services we need rather than what we are served up.

Thursday 20 December 2012

Capita Week - Day 4 - Why people are sometimes better than technology

Although by no means a regular Daily Mail  reader, I recently saw an interesting story about a new telephone system installed by Capita at Birmingham City Council. This automated voice recognition system cost £11 million and replaced 55 staff who were made redundant. However the problem is that the system doesn't recognise the local accent. this didn't just affect residents, Councillors also had problems getting through.  City councillor Mike Leddy said he spent a full half-hour grappling with the voice recognition system before giving up and the strategic director to sort it out. It is great that he has access to such senior staff; I suspect the humble resident does not have the luxury of that option.

This might sound like one of those funny light hearted stories favoured by the tabloids but this has a very serious side. Under the new NSCSO, contract customer services will be transferred to Darwen (in Lancashire not Australia). It is not clear whether Capita will introduce this style of technology to field the initial calls but given the reduction in numbers of staff it is something that I suspect may be used. In addition, any real people who may be answering the calls will be local to Darwen and will have no local knowledge of Barnet  or the context of what people are asking about. Sometimes it is much quicker and easier to speak to someone you can understand and has local knowledge than battle your way through an automated system or deal with a person in a remote call centre who knows nothing about Barnet.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Capita Week - Day Three - Staff Morale

With so many Barnet staff being transferred over to Capita  (along with 200+ being made redundant) I thought I would look and see what staff say about Capita. Some staff seem happy enough but many staff seem deeply dissatisfied.

This link is to a website of reviews by Capita staff. Some of the comments are good but many are not and include the following:

  • "Frustrating inability to deliver tools to do job"
  • "A living nightmare, apart from some good co workers"
  • "Under values employees, vast pay inequalities"
  • "Frustrating"
  • "Soulless business only interested in the number"
  • "Shambolic Management"
  • "Capita needs to be employee centric and not management centric"
  • "Good work/life balance however they pay extremely poor salaries"
  • "Good!! I spent 7 years with Capita & it is an experience I will remember for the rest of my life" (employee in Mumbai)
  • "Excellent place to work"
 In August this year Capita's IT services staff voted to go on strike after they were notified of redundancies as jobs are moved to India. At present there are no plans to move Barnet jobs overseas, but will that promise still hold when cost savings are under pressure?

Capita is a FTSE 100 PLC. It has shareholders to keep happy and as a result it will do what is right for them. However, that may conflict with the objectives of a local authority and it may offer a completely different culture for staff. I hope that Capita can deliver on the promises in their bid but I suspect that many of the comments above may be echoed around NLBP once Capita take over. Happy and motivated staff are best placed to deliver great service. If staff are unhappy it will be much harder for residents to receive the service they deserve. Maybe that is why there is a major focus on replacing people with technology.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Capita Week - Day Two - Revenue & Benefits

Last week someone kindly sent me an email regarding the blog I posted about Revenue and Benefits (Revs/Bens) and  Corporate Anti Fraud Team (CAFT). Set out below is what they said.

At the moment Revs/Bens is 2nd in the league table in London for performance indicators - this is the means by which the Department of Work & Pensions  (DWP) record our performance i.e how quickly we assess new claims and change of circumstances. 

Now bear with me here. Our new claim Performance Indicator (P.I.) is currently about 12 days which is outstanding, despite being massively understaffed. This has been helped by the face to face process introduced where by appointments are made and claims assessed directly at the point of submission.  Giving a low P.I. 
Now our friends at Crapita have promised, and I believe this is in the contract, to deliver 10 day P.I's for new claims made. Now the point here is they cannot use face to face facilities based in Blackburn. The only way to achieve such a P.I is to totally disregard the verification process. We expect claims to be processed via the phone. i.e you phone up state your circumstances - the claim is assessed and you write for the verification afterwards.
Open to fraud?! 
I know the Corporate Anti Fraud Team (CAFT) are very concerned about a potential lack of verification and no signature on a declaration. It is impossible to achieve a 10 day P.I any other way from outside the borough unless Crapita simply don't care and have no intention of making good that promise of course! 
Loads of fraud is flagged up through local knowledge. We know the tenants / landlords who are repeat offenders and addresses in the borough with history. 
I thought this needed a bit more digging so I had look at other Councils where Capita operate revenues and benefits. I came across a number of issues in Sheffield with people complaining about how long it took for Capita to deal with housing benefit claims.

There were some very sad cases of delays and unhelpful call centre staff here. More worryingly and linked to the issue of fraud, I came across some statements (which may be false) that last year Capita moved staff dealing with fraud over to dealing with new claims. My view always has been that KPIs can be a blunt tool that unduly focus attention on specific outcomes at the expense of other equally as important deliverables. If the contractor is rewarded for meeting a new claims KPI but not measured on fraud there is inevitably a risk that priorities will be changed.

While I was having a look at Sheffield I also came across their annual complaints report which can be downloaded here.

Table 1a: Complaints recorded on Council’s complaints management system
Complaints Received
Children, Young People and Families (CYPF)
Deputy Chief Executive’s
Place (exc. Street Force)
Resources (exc. Capita Revenues and Benefits)
Capita Revenues and Benefits

While complaints generally fell by 20% between 2010/11 and 2011/12, complaints about Capita Revenue and Benefits remained high and made up 30% of all the complaints received by the Council.

Yet again I wonder if our Councillors actually bothered to do their own research, did they go and speak with Councillors in Sheffield about Capita's performance, did they look into the issues of whether KPIs artificially skew resource priorities. Given the importance of this contract, that the decisions they take could have a massive impact on the most vulnerable in our community and that cabinet members are rewarded handsomely for their role they should have done their due diligence. 

Do I think they have done it. NO!

BTW if Capita would care to comment on any of the points raised I would be more than happy to publish their response.

Monday 17 December 2012

Capita Week - Today's Spotlight on Birmingham

Today's spotlight is on Capita's role at Birmingham City Council. Service Birmingham is a joint venture partnership between Capita and Birmingham City Council.  It provides information and communications technology (ICT) services and manage the council's revenue service and contact centre, as well as a number of other large and small scale IT enabled solutions to Birmingham City Council as part of the joint partnership agreement.

Between July and October 2012 a specialist consultancy organisation, Best Practice Group PLC, undertook a review of the Service Birmingham and  they published their findings in a report which you can download here.

The key findings were as follows:
  • SB Board governance needs strengthening; there was no independent chair or members on the board which is definitely not best practice. Worryingly, I suspect there will be similar governance issues for Barnet. There is only one councillor on the proposed Board overseeing the NSCSO contract and as far as I am aware no residents. Governance is an issue on which Barnet does not have a glowing track record, it is secretive and it does its best to shut out the views of residents.
  • Value for money/performance could be enhance; due to the secrecy in the One Barnet contract and the lack of a public sector comparator we will never know whether the NSCSO contract with Capita will represent true value for money.
  • Partnership working has improved but challenges remain; partnership working is always difficult where the two partners have such differing objectives. Barnet want services to be of a good standard and Capita want to deliver a high return on investment for their shareholders. Such conflicting objectives will always make for a tense relationship and that inevitably leads to a sub optimal solution.
  • Intelligent client function (ICF) team has more to offer; in Barnet we will have a thin client function and the risk is that it simply will not be sufficient to drive the contractor to innovate and enhance the service beyond what is specified in the contract. That could lead to ten years of inertia in terms of service improvements.
  • Innovation in the partnership needs reinvigorating; the problem with a ten year contract is that once the initial honeymoon period is over there is no incentive to keep innovating. If Barnet had chosen a five year contract there would be a greater incentive on Capita to keep innovating but with a long contract and a 5 year extension option, there is no real incentive for Capita.
  • Management of value in projects is not being maximised; in Birmingham, Capita had a duty to validate the value of both existing and on-going projects. If Capita do not have a financial incentive to do so why should they invest resources? In Barnet we are not clear in Capita have a similar role because we are not allowed to see the contract but I suspect that if there is no financial incentive for Capita to do anything outside the specification they won't.
  • Flexibility required for pass-through charging; basically SB get a fee when managing a contract even if BCC had all the expertise and set up the deal. This is always an issue in contracts where there is adherence to the letter of the contract rather than the spirit of the contract. I suspect that the naivety of Barnet will lead to similar situations arising.
  • Concerns over SAP project work being off-shored; although SAP has been implemented in Barnet there may be a risk at some time in the future that some of the data entry work may be off-shored. We have had some reassurances that call centres will not be off-shored but I do not recall the same assurance about data entry, software development, IT management etc. All I do know is that when contract costs come under pressure, Capita have a habit of off-shoring the work. Only time will tell.
The report also highlights some other serious issues. For example, it found that there was a significant reduction in the number of IT Support Staff. The reports states:

"There were 82 staff members leaving SB in the period, with only 32 joining. SOCITM (the professional society of Public Sector ICT Management) refer to this as ‘Staff Turmoil’. SOCITM define “turmoil” in this case as covering all the activity that is associated with the management of staff when they leave or join the organisation. Familiar activity can include exit interviews; advertisement; recruitment interviews internally and externally; consequential promotions; redistribution of workload and further interviews.
SOCITM caution “At low levels this turmoil can be helpful in bringing in fresh ideas, new experience and different skills to the organisation, but at higher levels (>10%) it becomes a drain on management resources and reduces overall productivity owing to the loss of information and experience, recruitment overhead and familiarisation of the new members of staff”. Without appropriate context from SB, such information can create uncertainty within the staff ranks."

In terms of procurement of IT the report states:

With the exception of desktop computers and based on the evidence provided to us at the time of writing this report, our analysis of the SOCITM benchmarking report indicates that SB could do much better with regards to the procurement of standard infrastructure (including laptops).
Based on the examples provided and the evidence from the SOCITM benchmarking survey, it is our view that generally, SB’s procurement capability is adequate when it comes to bulk purchase of standardised items. There is a lack of evidence to demonstrate that specialist project related purchases that fall into the £25,000 to £100,000 band (small to mid-range systems) are generating appropriate value.

Given that Capita will be responsible for Barnet Council's procurement function, I found this statement deeply worrying.

In terms of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) upon which the contractor's performance is judged, the report states:

Having briefly reviewed the KPIs against several months of performance data it is evidenced that, despite the odd ‘glitch’, on the whole these KPIs are being met and exceeded by SB. Given the concerns from BCC about maximising value, this would indicate that these KPIs are in need of urgent review in order to replace those not now appropriate. The opportunity should also be taken to increase the standards of those which are still relevant and are being reliably reached and exceeded.

My experience is that KPIs can be a blunt tool and that meeting them does not always mean that the contractor is delivering the best service. We are not privy to the detail of the KPIs set by Barnet but I suspect that we will run into exactly these problems in the NSCSO contract.

If you have a spare 30 minutes the report is well worth a read. My big concern is, did any of our councillors read this report? Did they go and talk to anyone from Birmingham in depth about the contract performance and if so what lessons did they learn. Sadly, the impression I get is that Councillors have been spoon fed with information from the external consultants and senior officers who all have a massive incentive to get this contract implemented.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Audit Committee - What's the point?

At last night's Audit Committee, One Barnet scarcely got a mention and only because I raised it in my questions. With just four members of the public in attendance (including Mr Mustard who took copious notes), a couple of officers and Richard Cornelius (who had been invited to attend by Lord Palmer) the meeting was a rather sad affair. Having submitted four questions and had the replies a few hours in advance, we went through the same old ritual. My first couple of questions related to the huge bill Grant Thornton had charged the council for dealing with electors questions. The answer came back that they had charged £30,400 to deal with questions from two electors and an objection to the accounts. Grant Thornton said that all these tricky questions had to be dealt with by Mr Hughes himself as he is licensed to deal with such matters Even at Mr Hughes' charge out rate of £325/hour that seems like a huge amount of time for such inadequate responses. Grant Thornton's fees for next year have been cut by 40% thanks to a re-tendering exercise and the reduction in the amount they have to pay to the Audit Commission. Perhaps it is in the extras where they will make back their money, a painful lesson that we will undoubted experience with One Barnet Outsourcing.

My next question related to the on-going role of the corporate anti fraud team  when revenue and benefits and procurement are outsourced. I was reassured that everything will be alright - where have I heard that before - and that new processes will be in place. I also managed to ascertain that yes these processes for fraud referral have been incorporated into the contract specification. I wonder however just how effective they will be compared to the current set up.

Interestingly, when this subject came up later on in the meeting, Cllr Sury Khatri also expressed concern about just how easy it would be to deal with fraud matters when the person is an employee of a different company 200 miles away. He gave an example of when his office was split with some people remaining in London while the majority were moved to Cardiff and just how difficult it had become to communicate effectively with them. It will be alright they kept saying but I think Cllr Khatri remained unconvinced.

My last question was about the "no assurance" finding for the regeneration programme. My concern was that if we have no assurance about the performance of this vital and strategically important service, it must represent a major risk if we outsource it now.  I then followed this up with the much bigger concern about Internal Audit no longer having a direct role in reviewing the performance of the outsourced services (that will be Capita's internal auditor's responsibility). Councillor Palmer, to his credit, noted the concerns and he made a point of saying that he had called in the Cabinet decision to appoint Capita at the Business Management Overview & Scrutiny Committee. Sadly it will have no effect and I think we now need to depend on the two Judicial Reviews to have any impact.

The events of last night showed me what an utterly toothless creature the Audit Committee has become and when most of our services are passed over to Capita (yes, I reckon they will get the DRS contract as well) it will be totally impotent.

Friday 7 December 2012

Like Buses - No legal action for ages then two Judicial Reviews come along together

In the last 24 hours we have seen two  Judicial Reviews launched against the deeply undemocratic One Barnet Outsourcing project. Yesterday saw a Pre Action Protocol letter served on Barnet Council on behalf of local resident Maria Nash. Today a second Pre Action Protocol was served on Barnet Council on behalf of Susan Sullivan who many people will know from her role in the film, The Billion Pound Gamble. Press releases for both actions are set out below.

Barnet Outsourcing is in deep trouble because at every step Barnet have stifled debate and refused to engage with the residents. They have also ignored the concerns of some of the most vulnerable in our community.  And it will get worse. I will be interested to see if BT or one of the other failed bidders (Serco and HCL Axon) launches a challenge against the contract award once the standstill "Alcatel" period starts in one weeks time. That really would put final nail in the coffin for this Frankenstein of a contract.

Barnet Alliance for Public Services Press Release:  6 December 2012
Pre-Action Letter - Proposed Claim for Judicial Review was served on Barnet council.
A Barnet resident, Maria Nash, has instructed lawyers to seek Judicial Review of the One Barnet Programme.   A pre-action protocol letter was sent to the Council today, prior to the Cabinet meeting tonight which plans to approve the appointment of Capita plc as preferred bidder for the first of the One Barnet contracts, worth £320 million.
The letter details the grounds on which a Judicial Review will be sought:
1.         Breach of the Council's duty to consult Barnet residents, businesses and community organisations about its plans, the result of which is that it has spent millions of pounds – the Agilisys contract alone has cost over £4m and is likely to rise to £6m – on professional consultants helping it to run the procurement process, but has not once asked local people for their views.
2.         Breach of councillors' duty to the residents in their area, to make sure that their decisions represent the best available value for public money. In order to be sure that they are getting best value out of this or any other contract the Council must compare the costs, benefits and risks of outsourcing with the costs, benefits and risks of retaining services in house but reforming the way they are provided to optimise value. Despite having been urged to do this, and despite the fact that it has been done by other local authorities, like Edinburgh, Barnet has refused to do it.
3.         Breach of the public sector equality duty: the Council must take issues of equality into account when making important decisions which affect people’s lives, like making radical changes in the way Council services are run.  The “equalities impact assessment” done in the One Barnet case was a pure paper exercise, which took no account of the views of people who would be affected by the changes.
4.         Breach of public procurement law, which requires that this contract be awarded to the company submitting the “most economically advantageous tender from the point of view of the public body”, i.e. the provider that gives the “best value for money” , taking into account the council’s responsibilities. Lack of consultation with local people, lack of consideration of equalities and lack of an in-house services comparator means the council cannot state that Capita gives the best value for money.  Such a breach of the public procurement rules leads to cases like West Coast Main Line.
5.         Breach of councillors’ duty to make up their own minds: Individual councillors must by law make up their own minds how to vote after informing themselves on the issues.  They are not allowed blindly to follow the party line.  Councillors have been starved of information and have not had the opportunity to understand the highly complex proposals for the contract, so they cannot legally vote to do anything other than defer a decision so that they can inform themselves and come to a proper view.

Notes for editors
1.                  Capita has been chosen as the preferred bidder for the New Support and Customer Services Organisation (NSCSO) contract with Barnet Council, worth at least £320 million over 10 years and advertised in the Official Journal of the European Union as worth between £600 and £750 million. A second contract covering Development and Regulatory Services (DRS) worth £275 million over 10 years is also being bid for by Capita Symonds and EC Harris; parking services were recently outsourced to NSL for £15 million (5-year contract).
2.                  Barnet Alliance for Public Services (BAPS) is a coalition of residents, trade unionists and community campaigners in the London Borough of Barnet, formed to defend and improve public services.
3.                  Maria Nash is unfortunately unable to talk to the press due to illness. She has asked BAPS representative to speak on her behalf.

Contact: Barnet Alliance tel: 07534 407703 - Vicki Morris tel: 07446 292994 – ;

Press Release – 7 DECEMBER 2012
Public Interest Lawyers, acting on behalf of Susan Sullivan, a concerned Barnet resident, has today notified Barnet Council (at 9.39am) of her intention to seek judicial review of the “One Barnet programme”. The pre-action protocol letter sets out her claim against the Council. She alleges that the Council is acting unlawfully, both as to the process it has adopted and the substance of its proposals. The One Barnet programme is unprecedented in its ambition and scale nationally, yet it has never been the subject of a consultation of Barnet residents nor an effective equalities impact assessment.
The letter seeks the immediate suspension of any further contracting decisions by the Council and the carrying out of a full and effective consultation and equalities assessment. She contends that the results of any such assessment/consultation would cause the Council to re-evaluate the ill-advised programme.
The Claimant argues that the Council has breached the following legal duties:
a) The Public Sector Equality Duty – this requires the Council to have “due regard” to equalities considerations and the impact of its decisions on protected equalities groups throughout its decision making process. The Council has failed to have regard to this duty both in relation to the timing of its equality impact assessments –postponed until too late in the contracting process; and in relation to the form of the few assessments that have been carried out. They have failed to evaluate the most important question: what is the impact of a wholesale and irreversible contracting out of the Council’s functions? High-flown contractual promises of bidders lack essential rigour and detail and are no answer to this question. There has been inadequate consideration of mitigating actions.
b) The ‘Best Value Duty’ in s3 Local Government Act 1999 – this duty requires the Council to obtain ‘best value’. This includes community as well as financial value. Statutory Guidance requires consultation to take place. This has not happened. An evaluation of value requires the consideration of maintaining in-house services. This has not happened.
c) Public law duties of consultation and information. In failing to consult, and to consider viable in-house alternatives, the Council has unlawfully closed its mind to valuable democratic considerations.
Speaking today, John Sullivan, the father of Susan Sullivan stated as follows:
“The Council has robbed Susan and her family of their democratic voice in failing to consult on what is a wholesale privatisation of local government. If this happened nationally, there would be outrage. Why should it be any different for our beloved Barnet? The national contract failure rate is 25%. When these contracts collapse, who will be left to pick up the pieces? No-one but the poor, the disabled and short-changed Barnet service users, residents and taxpayers.”
Speaking today, Daniel Carey of Public Interest Lawyers stated as follows:
“The law requires the Council to consult residents and carefully evaluate the impact of its decisions on equalities groups. Yet, in the biggest decision the Council could possibly take – to effectively cease to be a Council as we know it – it has failed to do so. I hope the Council will now listen to the legal arguments and give proper and lawful regard to residents and their concerns.”
For further information, contact:
Public Interest Lawyers
Daniel Carey, Solicitor
Telephone: 0121 515 5069
Mobile: 07815 089526

Who pressed the self destruct button - Barnet Cabinet

Last night Barnet's cabinet members voted for the award of the NSCSO contract to Capita and in so doing pressed that big red self-destruct button. They have successfully shown their complete disregard for the electorate by their resolute refusal to engage in debate, to inform residents, and involve them in the outsourcing process. When you see polite, knowledgeable, middle aged and mature voters incensed by the arrogance of the people who patronise or ignore them, you start to understand the massive gulf that has opened up in Barnet. Last night the cabinet went a step too far. They could have quite easily put the programme on hold and spent time explaining to residents much more of the detail in the NSCSO contract and listened to the very real concerns of residents. Instead they stuck two fingers up to the residents and pressed ahead with what will be a massive risk. Any references to the DRS contract last night were dismissed as not relevant to the NSCSO contract. However, the two are inextricably linked due to the IT and customer services that will be shared and, as a result, I suspect Capita will be awarded the DRS contract in just a few weeks time. 

I watched the Barnet Bugle's recording of the second half of the cabinet meeting held in private. I got a sense that some of the cabinet members still have some concerns but were subtly covering their backsides by shifting the responsibility to officers and consultants. There is one comment almost at the end (49mins 30 secs) where Cllr Cornelius is drafting a recommendation thanking officers for their help in "providing the information which we have relied on to make an informed decision." My immediate reaction was nice side step Richard, blame shifted to officers if and when it goes wrong. Well sorry but that won't wash because cabinet members rigidly ignored any concerns expressed by residents, unions or external experts such as APSE.

Indeed, over a week ago I wrote to my three ward councillors including two cabinet members, Joanna Tambourides and Robert Rams expressing my concerns and asking what steps they had taken to validate what they had been told by officers and external consultants. I think that it was a perfectly reasonable question and the one non cabinet member (Cllr Barry Evangeli) responded within a couple of hours with a courteous and considered response. However the two cabinet members have simply ignored my email. Such utter disregard for your own ward electors shows that council tax payers have become irreverent. Robert Rams has found plenty of time in the last week to tweet about his various activities including responding to an insulting email yet he has completely ignored the concerns of someone who has spent a great deal of time investigating the issues at stake.

Last night confirmed to me that cabinet members don't give a stuff about the people who voted for them. In so doing they pressed the self destruct button that will see them swept from control in 2014.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Once it's gone it's gone forever. Why One Barnet is such a Massive Gamble

Tonight the Cabinet members will be taking a massive gamble with the future of council services in Barnet. They claim that this is the only way to make savings. I have two responses to that:
  1. I don't believe you because I have identified how you could save £9.5 million a year; and
  2. What have you been doing for the last ten years to get to a situation where a private company can make all these savings, and pay a bl**dy great dividend to their shareholders.
What Cabinet members don't seem to grasp is this is a monster one way deal. Once the services are outsourced they will be gone forever. It will be impossible to reassemble these services because all of the staff will have been dispersed, the IT that runs the Council will be hosted on Capita's hardware infrastructure elsewhere and the lease on Building 4 at NLBP will have been terminated. A decision tonight will mean these services will stay outsourced forever, merely passing between companies as contracts come and go. That gives the outsourcing companies huge power and the Council no power whatsoever  other than to pick a different outsourcing company.

The decision tonight will irrevocable change Barnet and in my opinion not for the better. If you employ staff and they don't deliver you can re-train them or ultimately sack them and bring in new staff. You have direct and immediate control and influence over their priorities and focus. In difficult times staff can be redirected to focus on an emergency.  I remember back in 2009 when there was a massive problem with the gas in East Barnet lots of council staff were redirected to help make sure the elderly and vulnerable were cared for. Will that happen in the future with an outsourcing partner whose staff are in Belfast or Blackburn? With an outsourcing company you get what you are given and the only redress is financial penalties. In the long term that simply doesn't work because it puts a price on failure when actually what you want is success.

I am particularly angry because, with an enlighten leadership, a clear vision developed in conjunction with the community and communicated to staff and residents, Barnet could actually be one of the most progressive, effective and caring boroughs in the country. We have a massive untapped resource in our borough; the residents, who know what they want and the vast majority of the council staff who know exactly how to deliver it. Sadly the Council's current ruling group have managed to successfully alienate both groups and that is a massive lost opportunity. Mass outsourcing is not the long term sustainable solution we need, but the current ruling group are too short sighted, too obsessed with political dogma to see that.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Why asking questions can be expensive in Barnet

Reading through the papers for the Audit Committee I noticed in the Annual Audit Letter the fees charged by Grant Thornton. In addition to the Annual Audit Fee of  £373,500, Grant Thornton have billed Barnet an extra £30,400 to "deal with questions and objections from electors". Given that this represents 8% of their fee to audit the entire council it seems like rather a lot to me. In the certification fees analysis it states that the hourly rate for the Engagement Lead (the most senior staff member) was £325/hour. If audit is carried out on the same basis that suggest that dealing with questions and objections  took up 93.5 hours of the most senior person's time or two and a half weeks full time.

Part of me wonders if this figure was highlighted on purpose to try and stifle future debate on future audits or perhaps that is the cynic coming out in me.Either way it will not stop me closely examining the accounts and if necessary asking tough questions of the auditor. Perhaps if the Barnet took an more open approach to residents many of these questions would not be necessary in the first place.

Monday 3 December 2012

Sandbanks time again - Teachers have a £17,000 holiday in Poole

It that time of year again when the Assistant and Deputy head teachers of Barnet pop off to the delightful Sandbanks Hotels at Poole in Dorset. Barnet Council says that it doesn't cost the council anything because they sell places to schools. They did get quotes from other hotels but their quotes for a 24 hour delegate rate were considerably higher than Sandbanks.  I wonder which hotel wanted to charge £251.50 per day - it must have been rather nice.  However, given the period of austerity we are in, it does seem rather profligate to be spending £17,000 on a nice conference at the seaside when there are excellent non residential conference facilities right here in Barnet on North London Business Park. No expensive hotel charges and no travel costs. The details are set out in the delegated powers report here.