Wednesday 31 July 2019

It's Official - I've Been Gagged. Why Capita's dismal performance must not be discussed

Last night Barnet Conservatives voted in favour of restricting public participation at council committee meetings. Cllr Melvin Cohen proposed the motion stating that the £42,000 a year they spend dealing with residents questions is money wasted. The report was factually incorrect stating the period in question was 5 months when it was in fact 6 months and over stating the number of questions asked by 100. But in Barnet facts don't matter, just say something often enough and people will believe it.

Cllr Cohen said that in Barnet they were far too generous in the time they gave to residents to ask questions and make comments so they had benchmarked themselves against the worst councils and were happy that the very restrained new rules were acceptable. Cllr Cohen said this would be a chance for more residents to ask questions. How he arrived at this twisted take on reality is beyond the logic of any sane person. The old rules allowed as many questions as could be dealt with in 30 minutes each person submitting a question got their chance for a supplementary question and only when everyone had asked one question would a second question from an individual be allowed. The new rule is one resident one question per agenda item. More than two residents asking about the same agenda item and their questions will be rejected - first come first served.  So when we get an agenda item about libraries across the borough which may be affected in different ways only two questions will be allowed. Same for the any budget cuts. There might be 20 different areas in the budget that residents want to ask about but 2 questions will be the limit. In terms of making a public comment, previously residents were allowed to speak for 3 minutes and had to give notice on which agenda item they wished to talk about. That has now been banned. You can submit a comment in writing of 100 words but you can't speak at the committee and most importantly councillors cannot question he speaker. It is also important to note that the comment counts toward one of the two questions per agenda item so if two residents submit their 100 word comments ahead of you then no questions will be allowed.

So why have Barnet Tories taken such desperate measures to gag Barnet's engaged and questioning residents. The truth is simple. Barnet residents scrutinise what the council does; they ask probing and difficult questions, they can see through spin and flim flam and they aren't willing to settle for a badly run council.

It is true that I ask a lot of questions. Like my fellow bloggers Broken Barnet,  Mr Mustard, Barnet Eye,  and Brent Cross Coalition, and engaged resident, Barbara Jacobson,  we all challenge Barnet and for very good reasons.

Yes there was one meeting where 158 questions were submitted but it was an exception. Eleven different residents submitted questions which included items such as:

  • The review of the Capita contracts - a unanimous committee decision had asked officers to prepare a business case for a range of options to bring services back in house. The reason for so many questions is that  residents were rightly concerned that officers had ignored the request and pressed ahead with their own plan and no business case.
  • The Brent Cross Cricklewood funding and delivery strategy - Brent Cross is a vast project which will disrupt many locals. The transport strategy has not been well thought through and Barnet have had to go to government with a begging bowl for a bail as we were on the hook for the construction cost of the Thameslink station after Hammersons scaled back their expansion plans. Residents were rightly concerned about the risks of the scheme.
  • The annual procurement plan which set out spending commitments that had not been discussed or approved by committees.
  • The medium term financial strategy - which set out the need for £68 million of budget cuts over the next 5 years.
  • The strategic performance report - which showed the 5 consecutive year of overspend on the outsourced legal contract.
None of the items were insignificant but the Capita contract review did attract the majority of the questions. If I look at another meeting cited in the report, the Audit Committee where 68 questions were submitted, again there was a very good reason for that situation. This was the first Audit Committee where the findings of the investigation carried out by Grant Thornton into the £2 million fraud were heard in a report published by the Chief Executive. The Grant Thornton report was a damning indictment of Capita's failures to enforce even the most basic of financial controls that allowed the fraud to take place. It was also critical of Barnet Council's poor scrutiny process so it is hardly surprising that residents had lots of questions. Another item on that same agenda related to the internal audit rating of "No Assurance", the worst possible rating, on the interim and agency contract administered by Capita. You can read the report here but it makes shocking reading.

Set out below is a chart showing all the questions asked during the period mentioned in the report and the issues that were raised at each of those meetings.

Now you may start to see a common theme developing and that is about the dismal performance of Capita and how they have failed to deliver in Barnet. That is not just me saying they have failed but the Council's own senior officers who commission services from Capita.

I spend a lot of time reviewing Capita's performance and how much they charge and that by its very nature generates a lot of questions. Take for example the performance of Capita on Pensions Administration. This has been a disaster with fines from The Pension Regulator and just last month the serving of a Draft Improvement Notice, which if Capita fail to deliver, could result in a £50,000 fine. Just 2 weeks ago Internal Audit gave Pensions Administration a "Limited Assurance" rating.

Yesterday, after some chasing, Capita published their Customer Service performance figures for the last nine months. What this showed is the abysmal performance of call answering in Barnet. Some calls receive an automated response which can prove exceptionally difficult to get through. However there are two areas where performance has been consistently bad throughout the term of the contract, call to Council Tax and calls to Housing Benefits. Set out below is a chart showing how many calls are answered within the 60 seconds service level agreement target (the red line). The target is 80%. The other element shows how many calls were abandoned - people who hung up after a prolonged wait to get through. The maximum queue time for calls to be answered in May was 50 minutes and 48 minutes in June - those are for the people who didn't hang up.

What the chart above illustrates is that in the last 15 months Capita have only met the target of 80% of calls answered within 60 seconds twice and in 6 of the months the figure was below 50%. What is also shocking is the number of abandoned calls which in March 2019 hit 2191. Now to be clear that isn't all calls to the Council just those calling about Council Tax.

Calls to Housing Benefit are equally poor again only just meeting the service level agreement target in 2 out of the last 15 months (they failed in every single quarter) and with large volumes of abandoned calls.

Indeed in the most recent quarter April - June 2019 there were 12,288 abandoned calls and the 80% target level was not met for any single service area. It is clear to me that Capita's performance is not getting better and to many it seems to be getting worse, even after 6  years of running the contract.

We can't escape the other massive issue and that is the cost of the Capita contract. In the first 6 years of the contract we have paid almost £146 million more than the original contract sum.

Capita's failure to perform and Barnet Conservatives ideological support of outsourcing mean that they hate people questioning both Capita's performance and their own failure to manage the contract adequately. In any other business Capita would have been sacked long ago but not in Barnet.

Don't get me wrong, there are lots of other things the council does that are just as bad and not directly linked to Capita. The downsizing of the libraries, the failings of children's services which have taken 2 years to recover, the on-going budget cuts, but one way or other they all link back to Capita and the culture it has imposed on the operation of the Council. Complacency and arrogance, a focus on money not service, a silo based culture where secrecy is the default and a disregard for residents seem to have become norm in Barnet.

Several, Conservative Cllrs have asked me why I bother asking so many questions and my response is because they don't ask enough or even any questions. If scrutiny was in good shape I wouldn't spend hours reading reports, preparing questions and travelling all the way over to Hendon to speak for three minutes when I could be at home with my family. I am sure the same is true for all the other people who regularly question the Council. Unlike Cllrs, we don't get paid for all the time we devote to making the council better.

Last night's decision to gag residents was simply a further reflection of this poisonous culture that have invaded what was a well run and respected Council. It has lost loyalty and trust and that will not change until there is a change of regime and a realisation that the culture of the council is inappropriate for a public service organisation.

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