Sunday 30 November 2014

What Barnet Tories said about Libraries in their manifesto just 6 months ago

With the massive cuts to Barnet's library services I thought it would be interesting to see what they said just before the election earlier this year. Take a look for yourself here but this is what they said about Libraries in their manifesto:

Barnet’s Libraries are in good shape.
We have:

  • Kept Barnet’s libraries open – neighbouring Brent closed half theirs.
  • Established two community libraries.
  • Provided all libraries with free wifi.
  • Installed RFID technology e.g. self-service kiosks in many of our libraries

We will:

  • Pledge not to sell the Friern Barnet library building.
  • Deliver improvements to library buildings where required and have new buildings planned e.g. Finchley Church End library.
  • Examine the potential for libraries to expand their offer and become community spaces.
  • Look at community involvement and assist local people to actively support their libraries.

Yet six month on they are planning to decimate the libraries. Where was that in their manifesto? Just like the second phase of outsourcing they are planning, it was silent on the subject. They said that out libraries are in good shape - so why do they want to turn them into large living rooms just 20 ft by 27 ft?

It just shows that you should never believe anything a politician tells you. I was at the East Barnet Library consultation on Friday and the level of mistrust in the Council was off the scale. No one believes a word the Council says any more.

Friday 21 November 2014

Kerr-ching! More money for Capita on the One Barnet Contract

Back in October 2012 Cllr Hugh Rayner spoke some prophetic words:

"I let out contracts myself to various customers and what I learnt in the contract is the word change or variance, because I know they are tied into me for the contract and this where I make all my profit and make up for the low price at the beginning"

And so it is proving true for Capita's contract with Barnet. Buried away on the Council's decisions page is a notice of contract variation which states:

"This contract variation will increase the Contract Charges by £301,508 in Year 1 and £152,072 in Year 2 (Total £453,580) and will be reviewed after 2 years against the revised Contract Baselines in line with the Payment Mechanism set out in Schedule 4 of the Contract".

The variation includes libraries calls, along with children’s service duty rota and fostering calls, although I imagine that the vast majority of these calls are for libraries. The increase charges will fund:

  • Year 1 of the contract - additional 7 FTE to be put in place within the service.
  • From Year 2 this will reduce to 6.0 FTE

Although this decision was made in May 2014 it was only published on 10 November. This causes me great anxiety that we have to wait 6 months to find out what the council is doing.

More to the point what benefit does provide for the people of Barnet? Having called to ask about book availability I went through to the main Capita call centre. Could they help me with my enquiry - absolutely not. After much faffing around they put me through to East Barnet library who I had wanted to speak to in the first place where my enquiry was dealt with quickly and efficiently - no, the book was not in stock at East Barnet but there was a copy at Chipping Barnet library.

Was my experience a one off  - well no actually because according to the Capita call centre performance data for September 2014 only 29.8% of library calls dealt with by the Coventry call centre were resolved.  I have always questioned why so many library calls are routed through the Capita call centre in Coventry when actually the people I want to talk to are in the actual library. Now we know that it is costing us £453,000, including a nice mark up on the salary costs. To my mind that is money wasted that could have been used to support our libraries instead of closing them.

When will Barnet Councillors wake up and realise just how wasteful this One Barnet Contract really is and start questioning the underlying principles of outsourcing everything.

Monday 17 November 2014

Were all these cuts really necessary - Barnet's failed Council Tax policy

Since 2010 Barnet Council have had a policy of freezing Council Tax and this year, just before the election, a Council Tax cut. Sounds good for Barnet Council tax payers but it is simply not sustainable. Costs that the Council has to pay are still rising and many contracts have RPI increase clauses.

Barnet could have increased the council tax by 1.99% without triggering the need for a referendum and in 2013 41% of Councils in England did increase their Council Tax. This year 43%  decided to have modest Council tax rises. Not Barnet. They insisted on cutting council tax just weeks before the election. Up to a couple of months ago it seemed that One Barnet was paying for this freeze but now the reality has hit home and we face massive cuts to key services like libraries.

Set out below is a chart which illustrates the impacts of the cuts

The Council has received a subsidy from the government to help take the pain out of the freeze but these grants are discretionary and will not last indefinitely. I have calculated the difference between what the Council could have collected with 1.99% annual increases and the current policy of freeze and including the central government subsidy the council have received. Based on my calculations Barnet has missed out on £38 million of revenue since 2010 and this year alone, including central government subsidy, the difference is approximately £12.9 million.

Nobody wants to pay too much council tax but ultimately people need to decide if they want to keep essential service like the libraries and pay a little more each year to ensure they are maintained or have lower council tax and poor services. Sadly residents were never given that choice and the political idealogues have pursued their low tax philosophy without any checks or balances.

The unsustainable situation it has created has led to cuts, cuts which many people say are unacceptable and the only people to blame are Barnet Conservatives. Let's have an open dialogue about the services people want and are prepared to pay for, not what we are told we can have by the ruling politicians.

Saturday 15 November 2014

Barnet Council's flawed library strategy - ideology trumps hard evidence and common sense yet again

Yet again Barnet have shown their complete adherence to a political dogma. They have started a consultation which I would urge everyone to read and give their views They start off with a question asking people to say whether you agree with their objectives which are set out below:

1. A library service that provides children and adults with reading, literacy and learning opportunities.
2. A library service that engages with communities.
3. A library service that makes knowledge and information easily accessible.
4. A library service that can withstand current and future financial challenges and safeguard services for vulnerable people.

Asking whether you agree or disagree  with the first three objectives is entirely fruitless. For example who is going to say  they want a library service that makes knowledge and information difficult to access or a service that doesn't engage with the community. Then you reach objective four, a carefully constructed statement which follows the classic "when did you stop beating your wife" format. Which ever way you answer this question the council will use it against you. If you agree because you want to safeguard services for vulnerable people it sends them a green light to cut the service to all but a few key libraries. If you disagree because you are concerned about the financial threats to the services they will say that people don't care about safeguarding services for the vulnerable.

Later on in the survey it asks which days of the week would you prefer libraries to be staffed, ranking which day is most important and which day is least important - surely every day is important.  

It then makes an interesting statement "Relocating the library would make it possible to rent out the existing site, generating income which could then subsidise the running costs of the services. Alternatively the council could generate income by redeveloping or selling existing sites". However Barnet don't exactly have a good track record at this. Remember the complete mess they made with the "Landmark Library" at North Finchley. After paying consultants to carry out a feasibility study they found out that the idea was immensely costly so it was scrapped. Also remember the Church Farmhouse Museum which the Council said they could sell or rent out for a profit, yet so far no one has taken up the lease and it has cost a fortune in security costs to keep it closed. Looking at my own local library in East Barnet, the space they propose to use for the new small self service library is less than a quarter of the ground floor space. But how much will it cost to convert and who one earth is going to rent the rest, especially as the library has a serious subsidence problem.

And this is where I have the biggest problem with the entire crazy project and that is the lack of proper financial and operational data. It sets out the reduction in staff numbers but says nothing about what the costs of library conversions would be, how much rent tenants would pay, what each site would realise if sold and, most importantly, how many library users would be lost by adopting each of the strategies. In fact the only financial numbers I have see so far is the £200,350 it will cost to undertake the consultation exercise and report back in April.

This is symptomatic of the council's approach. Spend a fortune on fruitless consultation exercises which they will ignore anyway and press ahead with ideological plans which have no detailed supporting evidence. I urge everyone to make their views known as silence on this subject will be interpreted as acceptance by the council.

Monday 10 November 2014

Hanging on the telephone - Coventry call centre not performing

Tomorrow is the Performance and Contract Management Committee meeting. One of the items relates to the performance of the Capita in answering the telephone. This is an area which has received significant scrutiny in the past (see Mrs Angry's post from June) with Capita admitting that they have used call capping to dump calls when the lines get too busy.

At this week's meeting the report says that Capita answered 78.1% of calls within 20 seconds for the quarter, below the KPI target of 80% but only just. As always I like to understand what is going on behind the figures and the raw data is now published here. What I found was quite a mixed picture. I have focused on September figures as they are the most recent.

In September 90.5% of calls to the Coventry switchboard were answered within 20 seconds and only 2.1% of calls were abandoned. By contrast, only 36.9% of calls to Adult Social Work were answered within 20 seconds and 22% of calls were abandoned. This equates to 479 people who simply gave up. Worse, the maximum queue time for calls to adult social work was 57 minutes 41 seconds - no wonder people gave in and hung up. Set out below are a few more examples from September:
  • For Housing Benefits only 56.4% of calls were answered within 20 seconds and 914 calls were abandoned with a maximum queue time of 25 minutes 23 seconds.
  • For Council Tax 54.6% of calls were answered within 20 seconds and 842 calls were abandoned with a maximum queue time of 31 minutes 53 seconds.
  • For School Admissions 63.5% of calls were answered within 20 seconds and 606 calls were abandoned with a maximum queue time of 53 minutes 19 seconds.
Did any of these figures make their way into the report  - I don't think so.

Now maybe I am being a bit negative. OK, so some people had to wait nearly an hour to have their calls answered but surely once they got through, their problems were resolved. Well actually when you look at the data on call resolution that doesn't make good reading either.

Set out below is a chart which shows the calls resolved, unresolved and outcome  not recorded.

What this illustrates is that in some areas more than half the calls are going unresolved and in Children's services 94% of calls are unresolved. It is unsurprising that 71% of council tax queries get resolved as this is a key performance measure which Capita are judged on and on which Capita have provided a guaranteed collection rate. 56% of Street Based Services and 59% of Adult Occupational Therapy calls are not being resolved.

Next I had a look at wait times at both Barnet House and at Burnt Oak Library. While Barnet House initial wait times are an average of just 1 minute 26 seconds, the average initial wait time at Burnt Oak is 26 minutes 27 seconds.  Indeed, pity the poor 144 people in September who had to wait at least 45 minutes at Burnt Oak Library including one person who had an initial wait time of a shocking 81 minutes.

Perhaps responding to emails is better? No. In fact in September 32% of emails were not responded to in 10 days, surely long enough for anyone to provide a response.

So do Councillors get a better service? Well in September only 58% of members enquires were dealt with within the Service Level Agreement time of 5 days, with Education & Skills and Adults enquiries fairing particularly badly.

Will any of this get discussed at the meeting on Tuesday. I doubt it especially if  Cllr Finn is chairing the meeting doing his best to suppress any criticism of Capita and the Council's failing and destructive policy of outsourcing everything.

It is about time somebody started holding Capita to account and if our Councillors won't do it then we need to get someone who will.

Saturday 1 November 2014

Another month another £6.7 million for Capita in Barnet

 September supplier payments have been published here showing that Capita were paid a whopping £6,691,280.30. The bill would have been just over £7 million but there is a credit of £313,479 I will have to see why so much was previously over paid.

Other large payments include Comensura who received £1,166,913.31, This is for a contract which is supposed to be reducing but which so far has cost Barnet £6.9 million in the first six months of the year.

The Barnet Group covering both Barnet Homes and Your Choice Barnet were paid £6.2 million in September. I would suggest anyone who is interested should read the papers for the forthcoming Audit Committee which has a limited assurance report on Your Choice Barnet.

Barnet Lighting, the hugely expensive streetlighting contract cost £704,141,41 in September and continues to represent a badly thought through contract.

City Suburban Tree Surgeons were paid £245,195.49. Given that last year they were paid a total of £593k this does seem a particularly high bill for just one month.

There was one interesting supplier, a company called Crowd Technologies who received a modest £2,040 for 5 software licences when looking a little further at this company I found that they provide amongst other thing social media monitoring. Perhaps they are monitoring this blog.