Saturday 18 October 2014

Transparency Downgrade - Barnet's Rotten Website

On Friday evening, after work, I was going through Barnet's website as a vigilant resident when I noticed that the open data page had changed. This is where you can usually find important data about the council's performance. It includes things like the supplier payments and freedom of information requests.

Below is a screen shot of what you used to see on the FOI page:
A clear summary with a button you could click on to see more information.

What you get now is this:
You can't click for more information and the downloadable file simply down loads the summary as shown on the screen. There was also a disclosure log where you could sort through previous FOI requests but now all you get is:

Moving on to supplier payments this has also changed. In addition to being buried away it is now only downloadable in CSV format whereas previously it was also downloadable in excel and PDF format which are more familiar to most people.

Interestingly the supplier payments for August 2014 which were previously published have now disappeared and it is very difficult to find previous years' supplier payments as there are no links on the current year's page. 

Some may say I am paranoid but I do get a feeling that the changes are being made so that it is much harder for residents like me, the other bloggers and engaged residents to challenge the council on their spending, especially under the Capita contract. 

I have contacted the council so time will tell if they actually do something about restoring the limited transparency we previously received.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Barnet, a Borough of Contradictions

At tonight's Policy and Resources Committee the main feature will be the report in to Governance failure and the departure "by mutual consent" of the Monitoring Officer. However there are a few other items on the agenda which I hope do not get overlooked.

In particular there is a report on the introduction of Area Committee Budgets. This plan proposes to give each of the three area committee a budget of £100,000 per annum to give away in grants. The total of £1.2 million over the four years of this scheme will come from reserves. The criteria for these grants is that they should be one-off and do not require on going funding. Therefore they cannot be used for revenue support. Applications should be made via councillors and they will act as 'gatekeepers' for applications. The indicative range for the value of awards will be between £200 and £9,999.

The priorities for the awards are set out in the report and are included below:

"As a starting point, each application must demonstrate that the proposal supports one or more of the Council’s priority outcomes, as set out in the Corporate Plan. Currently, these are:
• To maintain a well-designed, attractive and accessible place, with sustainable infrastructure across the borough.
• To maintain the right environment for a strong and diverse local economy.
• To create better life chances for children and young people across the borough.
• To sustain a strong partnership with the local NHS, so that families and individuals can maintain and improve their physical and mental health.
• To promote a healthy, active, independent and informed over 55 population in the borough to encourage and support our residents to age well.
• To promote family and community well-being and encourage engaged, cohesive and safe communities."

Now you may be saying this sound like a good idea. However, at a time when funding for essential services is being cut it seems bizarre to be giving away £1.2 million in small grants. For example the priorities state that these grants should support the objective to create better life chances for children yet this week Moss Hall Nursery is facing a 50% funding cut   It also states that they want  these grants to promote a healthy active and informed over 55 population yet the leisure budget is being slashed. They want to promote a strong partnership with the NHS yet they are doing their best to drive Your Choice Barnet into the ground by cutting staff pay and reducing services to those with physical and learning disabilities.

In my opinion if Barnet has £1.2 million going spare it would be better used supporting the essential service that are being cut than to come up with vanity projects in the hope of buying votes at the next election.

Monday 13 October 2014

A Critical Week In Barnet

This week there are a number of meetings which may have an influence on who is running Barnet in the near future.
Tonight there are two committee meetings, the General Functions Committee and the Remuneration Committee. Both quite dull you might assume, but I think otherwise.

First is the General Functions Committee where they will be discussing a senior management restructure. The outcome of this restructure is a proposed saving of £100,000 a year, certainly not enough in my view. There is a great deal re-titling of posts but there are some new posts being created which, to my mind, are both flawed and indicative of the increasing remoteness of senior officers from the residents they are there to serve.

From my perspective we do not need both a Chief Executive and a Chief Operating Officer especially now as so much of the council is outsourced. My recommendation would be to do away with the Chief Operating Officer role, and to make the Deputy Chief Operating Officer the S151 Officer. If the current CEO was made redundant and the COO promoted into that role but on their current salary of £158,464, it would save the council £231,702 per annum, more than double the proposed savings. I also see no need for a new Strategic Director of Commissioning to sit above the four Commissioning Directors. If that new post was deleted that would save a further £195,703 per annum. It would also get the Commission Directors reporting direct to the Chief Executive which to my mind would be a positive step.

There is also a proposal to create a role entitled Director for Strategy and Communications at an annual cost of £140,600 profligate in my view especially as this is in addition to the Head of Communications and Marketing with an annual cost of  £98,129. I think the council has reached strategy saturation - what it needs are people to do front line jobs. Think how many care staff could be employed or nursery funding cuts reinstated with the £568,000 per annum that could be saved if only a degree of common sense was used.

It appear that straight after the General Functions Committee the Remuneration Committee will talk again about this restructure although quite why it needs two separate committees to discuss the same matter is beyond me.

Then on Tuesday we move on to the main feature of the week and the report by Claer Lloyd-Jones and the complete and utter failure of the Monitoring Officer role to actually provide the governance required by the Council. I won't go into the report in detail as Mrs Angry has done a far superior job than I could ever do so I suggest you read her blog here.

All I will say is that evidence continues to percolate out and the more that is revealed the worse it looks for those in charge of Barnet Council, both Leader and Chief Executive. The "has she/ hasn't she gone" debate that went on last week in the press was unedifying made worse by the response from Dan Thomas that Barnet is a super efficient council. Was she the only candidate on the list or were others dissuaded from applying by the deletion of the need for a legal qualification?

The next big question will focus on the decisions that have been made by the former monitoring officer since she was appointed back in 2012 and whether she was sufficiently qualified to make them. Barnet have had some major problems recently with their legal advice such as the parking charge increases being ruled illegal and millions having to be refunded to residents. More recently Andrew Dismore's various complaints to the leaders panel which were ruled out by the former monitoring officer in spite of the advice of the independent person who sits on the panel.

The Council seems to lurch from one crisis to another and from my perspective that stems from weak leadership. A vote of no confidence in both the leader and the Chief Executive is next and that may see both occupiers of those roles seeking new opportunities before the month is out.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Another Million for Capita - August Supplier Payments

Barnet's supplier payments for August are out and as ever there are some big payments to the usual culprits.

  • Barnet Lighting billed £1,186,455.15 for all those new street lights that we actually didn't need.
  • The Barnet Group billed £7,245,939.88;
  • London Borough of Harrow £7,167,500 Health authorities - Third Party Payment whatever that means;
  • Comensura who provide agency staff to the council billed £1,331,152.06. Yet again the bill is very high regardless of what was said at the Council meeting in July. Given that the an Internal Audit report earlier this year said that "There is no requirement for the order of agency staff on the Comensura system to be approved by a more senior officer. There is therefore a risk that agency staff may be appointed without appropriate approval." It is also interesting when looking back to four years ago before outsourcing was forced upon us when in 2010/11 the total annual bill for agency staff was £8.99 million or an average of £750,000 a month, almost £600,000 a month LOWER than under the 'wonderful' efficient commissioning council model.
  • Saracens were paid £50,385.50 in rents. I do find this a little surprising given that Mr Mustard uncovered that in July Saracens owed the council £380,000 for parking permits. I hope that £380k has now been paid.
  • And so we come to Capita. They billed £1,113,319.01 a sizeable bill  and one for which we have no transparency.
I hope our councillors scrutinise the payments as rigorously as the residents. (Oh yeh!)