Tuesday 31 January 2012

It’s Sandbanks time again!

It’s that time of the month when Barnet Council release their supplier payments for the previous month. The usual suspects are present on the list.

Agilisys, the Council’s One Barnet implementation partner, billed £182,774.75 last month bringing their running total for this financial year to just over £1,030,000 and there are still three months to go this financial year. When added to the £642,050.64 from last financial year it is clear that Barnet Council is a very lucrative contract for Agilisys.

Barnet Homes received £2.2 million this month and Barnet Lighting £541,970.39. Catalyst Housing received £572,834.04. I also noticed a payment of £3,920 to Newsquest(London) Limited which was for the four page cover to the Times Series newspaper to tell us all about the parking by phone service and the lovely new parking scratchcards - I have my 30 minute scratchcards, I just need to be able to drive again.

But what’s this I spy? It is the delightful Sandbanks Hotel again, a glorious venue for an education conference at the oh so modest cost of £16,416. Well, we all need a little break don’t we.

One unusual payment I did come across was for a company called AAndersen Limited carrying out consultancy work for the Deputy Chief Executive’s Office. At first I thought it was a typing mistake or some left over from the old Arthur Andersen. But no, this is a company run by a Mr Mohammed Sarfraz Khan whose principle activity, according to the amended accounts of 2010, was ‘Security Service’. Now the fees aren’t large, just £6,500 but this company was issued with a Striking Off notice which was discontinued. A previous company run by Mr Khan, Aanderseninformationsecurity&compliance Ltd, at the same address, was struck off and dissolved in August last year. I am intrigued to understand what services Mr Khan was providing to the Council.

Mr Reasonable will continue to keep an eye on supplier payments during 2012.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Barnet - a Council out of touch with its electorate

We all know how unhappy people are about the parking by phone system that was imposed without consultation or discussion. I had a card registered but it expired and since then I have had huge problems registering the new card. Yesterday morning I tried to buy some 30 minute scratchcard on line. I wonder how long they will take to arrive? We see the old ticket machines still languishing on the streets covered in black bin bags. If they had kept the machines but created incentives for people to use pay by phone I am sure over time many people would have gradually moved over to pay by phone. Barnet council say that the machines were always breaking down and that is why they had to be replaced but I had a look at the figures given in an FOI on this very subject and while there were a number that were problematic, the majority had only occasional failures. Yes, there were some occasion when a lot of machines went wrong but when I looked in detail at the dates it coincided with days when we had the snow last winter (which I think stopped the solar panels on top of the machines from working).

Another topic where the Council seems to be out of touch with residents is the proposal to let out the parks to private groups. In my local Oakhill Park there is an area by the cafe which has been designated for use by private parties. It also happens to be the cricket square during the summer and is an area widely used because it is flat and close to the cafe. At tonight’s council meeting a question has been asked about the consultation on this subject. Interestingly the reply states that:

“As of the 12th January 2012 the Council has received over 650 response to the consultation of those 464 have been analysed thus far, the breakdown is as follows 428 are against the policy, 9 are in favour and 47 have taken a neutral position”.

So that’s 92% opposed and just 1.9% in favour. Pretty clear cut in anybody’s terms but will the council listen or will they plough on regardless like they do on every other topic like selling the Church Farmhouse Museum and pushing through this mad outsourcing programme.

Barnet Council continues to distance itself from the people it is supposed to represent. This cannot continue much longer before something snaps. Either someone will try and stage a coup within the Council or the residents will start a revolt. Either way, the current approach of the cabinet doing what they want and arrogantly ignoring any public views is untenable.

Barnet Council - please start listening!

Saturday 21 January 2012

Barnet Outsourcing Leak - Update

Oh dear! Barnet Council have asked the Barnet Eye to remove the leaked document containing details of the Development and Regulatory Services tender shortlisting process. Roger T has complied pending further legal advice and as such I have removed my previous post containing commentary on the document.

What I would ask the Council to consider is just why everyone is so incensed by this process.

1. There is no democratic mandate for this massive outsourcing project. Back in 2010 I do not recall seeing any of the Conservative election leaflets talking about wholesale privatisation of the council to large commercial companies. Indeed Future Shape was actually about working collaboratively with other public authorities such as the NHS or Police. Just read Mike Freer's interview in the Guardian back in February 2010. Compare what was discussed then and what the residents of Barnet have had imposed on them and the difference is quite striking.

2.The lack of openness and transparency. There was one scrutiny committee that tried to hold the process to account but the council simply disbanded it. There is a great deal of concern about the way this whole process is being driven by faceless consultants who have no ties or committment to Barnet. These consultants are being paid millions of pounds yet we know nothing about them, their ties or relationships with other companies or where their loyalties lie. Given the value of the contract I would have liked the opportunity for the public to be able to question these consultants who are allegedly acting on our behalf.

3. The lack of robust evidence that it will actually work. The business case was incredibly weak, full of assumptions and aspiration but incredibly short on hard evidence. Indeed when the business case was reviewed by a independent expert and former Section 151 officer he said,

"During the thirty years that I have worked in local government finance as a local government officer and management consultant, including some time as Finance Director of a Borough Council, I have seen and written many business cases, business plans and options appraisals. This business case is remarkable for the apparent lack of robust evidence to support its main conclusions that £28million of savings and increased income is achievable and that this can only be delivered through outsourcing.”

4. Lack of public engagement. The council are unwilling to allow any public debate on the entire outsourcing project. Not allowed to discuss it at Residents forums, no public meetings on the topic, no scrutiny committee at which public could at least attend and ask questions.

There are 350,000 people in Barnet whose lives will be affected by this outsourcing project yet no more than a handful are privy to the detail or involved in the decision making. What is taking place here is wholly undemocratic so it is not in the least bit surprising that people are leaking details and even less surprising that there is a desire to make these leaked documents public. Rather than hassling Roger T perhaps the Council should be spending more time engaging with the residents to explain what the hell they are doing and asking why the staff are so unhappy that they feel the need to leak these documents. Doing long term mega-outsourcing deals without public consensus and scrutiny is a both a disgrace and, in the long term, politically unsustainable.

Friday 13 January 2012

Residents Forums-Reinforcing a Rotten System.

Last year Barnet Council sought to emasculate the residents forums by restricting the topics that could be discussed. Proposals were forward at the Special Committee (Constitution) which flew in the face of the council's own research and which ignored the views of speakers at the meeting. The new format Residents Forums have created a great deal of discontent with many of the attendees by restricting what they can say and refusing to discuss topics which are deemed “policy”.

I have challenged the Council to show me where in the Constitution it defines what can be discussed, because of course it doesn't. At the Special Committee meeting coming up next week, they are going insert a definition of what can be discussed into the constitution, merely reinforcing the chronically undemocratic structure that is now in place. There are also reinforcing the unhelpful start time set at six o'clock which precludes many people who work in central London from attending.

Given that the Residents Forums have become so unpopular, one would have thought that now would be a good time to review whether they are actually working effectively before reinforcing the old and discredited structure. There are a number of options they might consider. They could use them to test opinions on specific policies, they could use them to engage with the community and listen to what we have to say. Varying the start times with some in the day and some at weekends might give more sections of the community a chance to attend. But not in Barnet.

I remain convinced that the Council's underlying objective is to make the Residents Forums so impotent and unpopular they simply fizzle out due to frustration or lack of interest. That way the Council can quite happily ignore the view of the ratepayers and carry on regardless, just as they are use to doing.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Mr Reasonable's New Year Message

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.