Thursday 31 October 2013

Barnet's spin on the meaning of Transparency

Today Barnet Council published the Development and Regulatory Services contract more than two months after I requested it under the Freedom of information Act. Whilst pleased that the council had published the contract the level of redaction is huge and to make matters worse they have scanned in the redacted document. This means that you cannot search the document electronically and it makes the file size colossal. In total the DRS contract files amount to 749 MB with 4 files over 100MB each. That makes them pretty inaccessible to people with slow or capped internet connections.

The council have provided me with 17 pages of reasons for the redactions - which gives you a sense of just how many redactions there are. You can download them here. Capita have also set out all the clauses they want redacted which are set out below. For example schedule 28 sets out how Capita would manage conflicts of interest something which surely we should be allowed to read. But no, Capita believe we shouldn't read this because:

"This schedule was developed by Capita to address a contract consideration and reflects a detailed approach within Capita to manage conflict of interest considerations.  This forms part of the Capita business systems and therefore was provided in confidence as part of the evaluation process, and should not therefore be disclosed." 

So it is confidential how they manage conflicts of interest because they wrote it. And what does Barnet do? They roll over and accept what Capita says. Read all of Capita's comments below and then ask whose interest this contract is in. It certainly is't the residents of Barnet.

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Barnet residents - Who will really benefit from a change in the governance system?

Last night was the Constitution Ethics and Probity Committee a rather grandiose title for a navel gazing talking shop. One of the key agenda items was the proposed change to the governance system. "Cabinet bad committee good" seems to be the mantra but I am suspicious of their motives. The Council have proposed a new committee system which seems exceptionally complex and impenetrable. It will keep residents in the dark but maybe that is just the way that Councillors and officers like it. I spoke to the meeting but I got the impression that the decisions are made, the mindset fixed. There will be a public consultation meeting on 20th November 7pm at Hendon Town Hall so please try and get along if you can. If your voice isn't heard they will assume what they are doing has everyone's agreement. PLEASE NOTE. Yet again the council requires you to register in advance if you wish to attend this public meeting. Click on this link to register.
Set out below is my address to the committee:

"You set out on this review with four key principles in mind:
  •       Transparency;
  •          Accountability
  •          Inclusivity and engagement and
  •          Durability and flexibility

  You have before you a proposed structure with 18 committees, 6 subcommittees, 4 boards and a panel. That is a perfect recipe for obfuscation, deniability, exclusivity. I also suspect that with Barnet’s population rising to around 400,000 before this system can be changed again, it will also lack durability.

92% of citizen panel respondents have not attended any council meeting in the last 12 months and only 7% fully understand how the governance arrangements work. Shockingly 68% of respondents don’t even know who their councillor is. That suggests to me you have a major problem and from what I can see it is a problem you have either chosen to ignore or completely failed to recognise. The proposed structure will simply make the governance landscape even more confusing and inaccessible to the public. Based on the feedback I have received the council is body that imposes and dictates to residents not something which is there to listen and respond to residents. But I believe there is an alternative.

You have developed a system where committees are differentiated by function but it appears  that no consideration has been given to differentiation by location. What I mean by that is bringing the committee system closer to the people who it is there to represent and creating a structure that actively encourages engagement between councillors and the electorate. For example you could have developed a structure where a very limited number of strategic or statutory matters are considered at an authority level with as many other matters as possible dealt with at a local level, either groups of wards or along parliamentary constituency boundaries. Local decisions could be dealt with at a local level including planning and licensing with local councillors getting much more involved. By making issues more relevant for local people at a local level that should encourage increased engagement. Budgets could be devolved giving a much greater financial incentive for local people to get  involved with the way their council is run.  It would certainly make local councillors much more accountable. The views and recommendations from each local committee could then be integrated back into the council to give a strategic view and assist in clear decision making. That integration could be in the proposed Policy and Resources committee or some other strategic committee run by representatives of the local committees.

I know that this is the first stage in the process and that further consultation will take place but you are not giving people a real choice because you haven’t identified the all the options and therefore any views will be formulated within a framework that has already been set by you.

Ultimately the question is what is the change in governance system really for? Is it to make the system more efficient. Probably not because for all its failings the cabinet system is efficient. Is it to give every councillor a job, probably because with so many committees, sub committees, panels and boards I’m sure every one of the 63 councillors will have a committee role. Will it make the council more transparent or encourage engagement – definitely not.

As the saying goes plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, and that is what you are presenting us with tonight, change without really changing anything. Please consider a much more local structure as one of the options".

Monday 14 October 2013

Barnet's Governance System - The words Titanic and deckchairs spring to mind

How effective are the Barnet Council at engaging with residents? Based on the results of the recent consultation exercise into the proposed changes to the councils governance system, the answer would have to be utterly ineffective.

 Barnet Council are moving from a cabinet system where decisions about the way the council is run are in the hands of just 10 people, to a committee system where, in theory, there will be much more debate and most of the councillors will get involved. The council undertook an initial phase of consultation using a questionnaire survey distributed as follows:

"Respondents views were fed back via a link to an on-line survey incorporated on the Engage space (the council's consultation website)
Paper copies of survey were circulated in:

  • Council offices at North London Business Park, 
  • Barnet House, 
  • Burnt Oak, 
  • Hendon Town Hall; 
  • at the Arts Depot; 
  • Barnet libraries (including community libraries)

The survey was promoted via the council’s social media channels and was supported by a press release to the local media, who gave the project press coverage. In addition, the survey was circulated to local groups (via CommUNITY Barnet) and to key partners (Barnet Clinical Commissioning Group, Barnet and Southgate College, Middlesex University, Brent Cross Shopping Centre, Barnet Group, Metropolitan Police
Barnet, Capita and Job Centre Plus)".

And how many responses did all this activity elicit. Just 71. Out a population of 356,000 that doesn't seem like very many. Indeed it is just 0.02% which by any standards seems woeful.

They fared somewhat better with the Citizens Panel (a group of "1,600 Barnet residents, selected to be representative of the adult population of the borough in terms of ward, age, gender, ethnicity, housing tenure, faith and disability") where they had 504 responses. This high response rate might be because the council spent £2,440 posting the survey to recipients.

However when you start looking at the results, the answers are somewhat shocking. For example:
92% of Citizen Panel respondents had not attended any council meeting including residents forums in the last 12 months. When asked why, their responses were as follows:

1. Did not know where the meetings were held (61% / 283 out of 464)
2. Lack of time (48% / 223 out of 464)
3. Inconvenient time (34% / 158 out of 464)
4. Inconvenient location (21% / 97 out of 464 responses)
5. Issues considered not relevant to me (19% / 88 out of 464 responses)
6. Not interested (17% / 79 out of 464 responses)
7. Have attended before but did not find them useful (10% / 46 out of 464 responses)

7% (16 out of 464) of respondents to this question cited other reasons for not attending
a meeting, including ‘too infirm/ ill health’ (3.4%), ‘do not know what items were on the
agenda/do not know if relevant’ (1.9%) and ‘do not know if allowed/needed an
invitation’ (1.7%).

Even worse is when you look at the basic knowledge of the Citizen Panel respondents, with 68% saying they do not know who their ward councillor was. Of the 32% who said they did know who their councillor was less than half (45%) had ever contacted them. To me this suggests that councillors need to start working a bit harder for their £10,000 a year in allowances and start talking to the people they are supposed to represent.

In terms of understanding the current governance system, only 7% of Citizens Panel respondents said they understood the system fully. That is completely unacceptable and the council should hold its head in shame.

In my humble opinion the biggest problem here is that the council is completely out of touch with residents and that any changes to the governance system are being introduced for the benefit of the people who run the system i.e politicians,  not residents. From my perspective this should act as a wake up call for the council to stop navel gazing and start getting residents involved with the council. I have repeatedly asked for a resident engagement strategy to get people involved with what the council does and how it affects residents. Only when you have an informed constituency can you start to ask them about how it should be run more effectively.

Barnet should stop rearranging the deckchairs and focus on stopping the ship from sinking. Democracy is in real danger of disappearing unless the council takes positive and assertive steps to engage residents and starts a programme of educating residents as to what the council does and how it operates. Oh and by the way I would like to see a performance measure introduced for councillors where, if less than 75% of residents know who their councillor is, they don't get any allowance. That might make them engage a bit more.

Barnet Public Meeting Tomorrow Evening - Try and come along!

If you are a Barnet resident I would urge you to come along to the public meeting being held tomorrow evening at North London Business Park. I have reproduced the press notice below. You have to register your interest by emailing
Richard Cornelius, Leader of Barnet Council, will chair a public event in October at the council’s offices in North London Business Park, to discuss how the council can support the borough and its residents over next decade.
Over the next five years, Barnet Council will have to make a further £70 million of savings to match a reduced income.
As part of a wide-ranging review during the coming year, Barnet Council will be consulting with residents about their priorities for the borough and the council.
Councillor Richard Cornelius said: “The savings we make from the One Barnet programme will make a big difference in the short-term and it is important we make the best of those savings.
“But money is tight, and whatever the result of the next election, it is going to get tighter. We will obviously be prioritising services for those who most need our help, but there are other things the council can do that support the borough that don’t necessarily involve spending large sums of money.
“I’d like to hear from residents about what small interventions the council could make that could help make Barnet a better place to live.
“In the last few months we have developed a plan to introduce Wi-Fi to town centres at no cost to residents. We are encouraging residents to join the Big London Energy Switch which could save up to £120 on annual household bills.
“We have also seen excellent results from carefully targeting comparatively small amounts of support to young people who need help to join the jobs market.
“I’d like to hear proposals for how we might do more of this sort of thing.”
The event will be held at 7.00pm on October 15 at:
Barnet Council Offices, North London Business Park (NLBP)
Oakleigh Road South
N11 1NP
Residents can book a place by email.

Thursday 10 October 2013

Contract Monitoring in Barnet A wake up call for Capita

 I turned up slightly late for last night's Contract Monitoring committee meeting. Walking into the room I was shocked by the phalanx of men in suits. Capita were clearly keen to make a show of force. All I would say is that by the end of the evening Capita will have been left in no doubt that Barnet is going to be a challenging contract.

I only caught the tail end of public questions about Your Choice Barnet, asked by Janet Leifer. Sadly she did not get many sensible answers.

Next up was the Kier contract. They are the construction company who have built/rebuilt a number of schools in the borough. Everyone talked about what lovely buildings they were but I was surprised no one talked about value for money especially as Keir was one of the firms fined £1.7 m (reduced from the original fine of £17.9m on appeal) by the Office of Fair Trading back in 2008. This followed an investigation into what is called cover pricing where firms agree to inflate bids artificially and school construction was a specific sector where this practice took place. You can read more about it here.

Next up was HBLaw (London Borough of Harrow legal department), Barnet's outsourced  legal services provider. Cllr Schneiderman asked why the key performance Indicators (KPI's) were not in place when the contract was signed. Good question but no sensible answer. Cllr Cook asked how the contract could be identified as operating well if it was running over budget and customers believed it was underperforming. No real response. (Just wait till they see that HB Law billed the Council £1,078,247.08 in July).

It was then time for questioning of Barnet Homes. There was discussion about placing people in accommodation out of the borough and the rising debt of tenants who have been on the wrong end of the bedroom tax. Cllr Ross Houston made the obvious statement that the elephant in the room was the lack of affordable housing supply. Yes, he was right but the Councillors simply closed their eyes, held their noses and carried on regardless. Reference was also made to the tough new placement policy (potential tenants get one offer take it or leave it) and how this was affecting their ability to achieve their targets. Sadly tenants who have been hit by the bedroom tax are now £50,000 in arrears. That is a disaster for families who already struggling.

Next up were the NSCSO and DRS contracts. It was quickly established that this related to the pre-Capita stage so there was little questioning. Cllr Brian Salinger did remark that he had called the council and asked to speak to the Leader but no one knew what he was talking about. "We will look into it" was the response.

Finally we came to the highlight of the evening, the presentation from Capita which you can read for yourself here. Right from the start there was a tension, an unspoken sense of impending trouble. Mr Mark Wyllie introduced himself and his team. He started by talking about wanting to build a new relationship with residents . Oh dear, it was bit like treading on a landmine, an explosion of jeers from the public gallery. He then went on to talk about the £16 million Capita were investing in the services "Lies" was heard from the back (or was that me). We of course now know that actually it is Barnet Council who are stumping up that £16m for investment as confirmed to me in writing  by the Council's Chief Operating Officer. There were a number of questions from Councillors. Perhaps one of the most interesting related to the joint employment contracts. It relates to 82 staff who, for most of their time, will be Capita employees but for statutory duties will remain Barnet employees. When Mr Wyllie was asked how many other councils used these contract his reply was startlingly candid. "No other local authority has this type of contract, it is an entirely novel concept." He also disclosed that it was the Council's idea and the Council's legal advisors who had said it was legal so we know that when it all goes wrong Capita will take none of the blame. Capita then talked about all the proposals for increasing income. Oh dear tripwire coming up! "We are going to invest in Hendon cemetery and turn it into a green open space". Kerboom! Shouts of protest from the public gallery. Capita really do need to go back to tact and sensitivity classes. This was absolutely not the way to sell the idea of investment to the residents of Barnet.

Cllr Sury Khatri has obviously been reading my blog because he then asked about the £30 million that has already been paid to Capita. Oh dear, that really set off a grenade. Panic all round and lots of awkward looks. The council officer responsible said they would speak to Cllr Khatri outside of the meeting. I wonder how they explain that one away?

The meeting came to a close but I suspect Capita will have a debrief meeting to analyse just how badly the meeting went, why Conservative Councillors have at last woken up to the issues of One Barnet and are asking awkward questions and why so many of the council's officers who were responsible for this contract have now departed with no one around to blame except the leadership of the Council.

I look forward to the next meeting, sadly not until January, when the public will be able to start asking detailed questions about Capita's performance.

Wednesday 9 October 2013

Recycling Promoters will be knocking on your door.

First of all, thanks to a keen eyed New Barnet resident who tipped me off to this one. She pointed out that Barnet are using a company called Enventure to recruit 24 "enthusiastic individuals" to help promote recycling. Staff will be paid between £8.55 and £9.55 per hour plus a possible bonus and will be employed 35 hours a week for 9 weeks. You can read the job description here.This coincides with the introduction of the new blue recycling bins.

Now I am going to shock some readers - I think this is a good idea. I am sure that people respond much more when someone explains to them why they should do something and how it will benefit the entire community. I have long held the view, and expressed it repeatedly, that local community advocates can add real value, helping to engage with the community and to provide a cheery face to often dull or complex issues. What is such a shame is that the council have waited until they have spent £3.7 million on new bins to implement what they should have done three years ago when they brought in the blue box scheme. Perhaps if they have used this direct engagement model then, they wouldn't have needed to spend the £3.7 million.

Anyway, I hope Barnet monitor this project carefully and, if it is successful, use community advocates more widely.

Sunday 6 October 2013

Barnet's bad economics - Make people redundant while spending £1m a month on agency staff.

I constantly scratch my head at the way Barnet Council is run. Suppliers payments for August show that the council spent £996,000 on agency staff in August. That is down from £1.7 million spent  on agency staff in July but probably reflects that Capita were paid £700,00 to use their staff (part of the £14.7 million advance payment Capita received in July). What really irks me is that Capita start the consultation on the redundancy process tomorrow. So while they are making loyal staff,  who have a great deal of experience and knowledge, redundant they continue to pay temporary staff who have no continuity or in depth knowledge £1 million a month. Surely the logic would suggest that the first thing to cut is agency staff given their costs include a percentage of profit paid to the agency (Comensura) and try and redeploy as many council staff into those posts as possible. But in Barnet, logic is not something that seems to feature prominently in the way the Council is run.

Saturday 5 October 2013

Is One Barnet the most successful con job in local government history?

Since the outset, I have been questioning the length of the One Barnet contract. In particular, I have repeatedly asked why we needed a ten year contract. The response from the Council has been the length of contract is necessary to recover the investment made by the contractor. Indeed, I think this was the point made by that knowledge Councillor Rowan Quigley-Turner at the Business Management Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting last October

We have now found out that in fact Barnet Council have funded £16 million of investment. This is a fundamental change to the terms that were originally set out when the council made the decision to appoint Capita. Certainly there was absolutely no mention of the Council funding the investment when the decision was taken by Cabinet in December 2012.

I remain concerned that making such a fundamental change to the contract, post award, breaches EU tendering rules - unless it was previously agreed and cabinet were aware but the deal was kept secret. However, setting that aside, the response from the Council should have been to seek a reduction in the length of the contract. Limited investment = shorter contract term; that is standard business practice. This could have been Barnet's opportunity to cut the contract to, say, five years with a break clause at three years but this didn't happen. This is a serious and naive error demonstrating to me that there is a lack of financial rigour by those administering this contract.

As a final point, Barnet have now invested in excess of £26 million in this contract, including over £10 million on professional advisors. Just think what an in-house team could have delivered with just half that level of investment. But as we all know One Barnet has been one of the most successful con jobs in local government history.

Friday 4 October 2013

One Barnet Mythbuster

Over the last two years Barnet residents have received many promises and reassurances on the One Barnet outsourcing programme. Now the Capita contract is in place some of these myths are starting to unravel. Here are just a few that have come out in the last week:

Myth 1 "We need to invest but we have no money. That is why an in-house bid is not an option".
Barnet have handed over £16 million of cash (£10.5 million was paid in August) and will either come from reserves or from borrowing because it is cheaper for Barnet to borrow money that a private company. So it is okay to borrow money and give it to a FTSE 100 company but not to invest in your own in house team. This act will save Capita's shareholders around £1.1 million in interest annually.

Myth 2 "Capita will be subject to the same contract procedure rules as the Council"
Mr Travers, Barnet CEO has told me, "Capita will only be subject to the procurement regulations governing public sector bodies when it runs procurement for Council services that are outside the scope of the existing CSG contract".  So any purchase that is part of what Capita are contracted to do is not covered and they can appoint whoever they want without being subject to tenders or disclosure.To set this in context, Capita are responsible for collecting council tax and as part of that activity they need to appoint bailiffs, so that is why Capita can appoint whoever they want including a wholly owned subsidiary company.  This exemption will cover hundreds of contracts ranging from the supply of paper and office supplies through agency staff to IT spending so long as it is in connection with any of the service provided by Capita.

Myth 3 "There will be full transparency on purchases made or activity undertaken by Capita"
Part of the £15.2 million payment made to Capita in August included £4.7 million of  "Service Charge" paid quarterly in advance. So we will pay just under £20 million a year to Capita in "Service Charges" but we have absolutely no transparency as to why that has been paid. 

Myth 4 "There is a procedure in the contract to manage conflicts of interest"
Reading the 2,000+ pages of the Capita contract at Schedule 21, Conflicts of Interest Protocol,  it states that "within three month of the Agreement Date the Service Provider (capita) shall provide.. a draft protocol".So we have signed a contract that does not contain a procedure for managing conflicts of interest, merely an agreement that Capita will write one within three months so any conflicts that take place now are simply not covered and can go through unchallenged.

Myth 5 "At the heart of the One Barnet programme is a relentless drive for efficiency"
On 24th June the Cabinet Resources Committee agreed to the "Council entering into an interim contract with Capita up to a value of £14.7m to secure the business critical activities detailed in Section 9 of the report in order that the Council can continue to provide effective services. The arrangement will be in place until 31st January 2014 or until the outcome of the appeal is known." On the 1st July Barnet signed a cheque for £14.7 million up front. Subsequently the court date was brought forward, the appeal rejected and Barnet signed a 10 year contract with Capita. I have been told that, of the £14.7 million paid upfront, £0.7 million was actually spent so Capita are sitting on an advance payment f £14 million. At the minute the council are discussing with Capita if this will be refunded or offset against future charges (but not the £4.7m for the first quarter because that has already been paid). The benefit for Capita is that this overpayment will fund their company's cashflow and save them around £80,000 a month. handing over so much money unnecessarily does not strike me as efficient, or effective, or even very sensible.

In the first month of the One Barnet contract the truth is starting to come out and all the waffling reassurances have been shown to be nothing more than a large pile of bovine excreta.