Friday, 22 June 2012

Only a matter of time: All fall down - A Cabinet Resources Meeting

A bit of shuffling about now, then, and time for the Cabinet Resources meeting. What's the difference? Don't know, don't care. Different Chair: John Thomas, rather than Richard Cornelius, who now sits on the table with his colleagues.

Public Question Time: any questions? Only Mrs Angry. Up to the table then.

If you like, watch the ensuing match here, in the Barnet Bugle's film clip.

What is most amusing about this clip is the expressions on the face of Councillors Harper, and Cornelius: Laurel and Hardy. Mrs Angry's appearance at these things usually creates a fair amount of schoolboy behaviour amongst the committe: this was no exception ...

Watch Cllr Harper, gurning and trying to keep a straight face. And see leader Cornelius wriggling gleefully like a small child in class when someone else's mum has come into see the teacher, wearing a funny hat. Yes, that happened to me, when I was the infant Mrs Angry. My mother. In a hat she had made herself. I remind my children about this regularly, whenever they complain about the embarrassment I cause them. Anyway.

Out of shot is the Chair, Cllr Thomas - listen to his nonsense, but try not to be drawn into a trance by the sloe black, slow black dark night of his response, and its hypnotic, deadpan delivery. Clearly he thinks this is the perfect style for covering up the gaping holes in any of the One Barnet fantasy they want us to believe in. He is wrong.

Surprisingly, perhaps, John Thomas found himself allowing Mrs Angry to ask far more questions than she is supposed to. Either he was a. too scared to shut her up and tell her to sit down, which he usually tries with members of the public who extend their alloted time, or attempt to widen the question - or b. perhaps he was enjoying the experience, in some sort of masochistic way. So a supplementary question became somehow extended into well, if not a Leveson standard exchange, an interesting ( to Mrs Angry, anyway) piece of One Barnet rearguard action.

These were the questions:

"I refer the Committee to Item 12, Contract Procurement Plan, point 3.2, which states:

In support of the Council’s transparency agenda Officers have
developed for 2012/13 a separate Contract Procurement Plan for submission
to this committee as a stand alone item. This is intended to enhance its
visibility and to ensure that the Council’s planned procurement activity is given
due consideration in the light of its importance to the successful delivery of the
Council’s corporate objectives and the One Barnet agenda.

a.This authority is currently engaged in the competitive dialogue process for two massive outsourcing bids for almost all our council services, worth a staggering £1 billion, a project on a scale as yet unprecedented in the UK. If the council's procurement activity is, as the report asserts, of such importance to corporate objectives and the One Barnet agenda, why has the Cabinet not acted as any sensible administration would do in the circumstances, and instructed the senior management team to suspend the dialogue process until it can be established that the widespread failures in the management of procurement that have come to light, and continue to be exposed, have been proved to be fully identified, and addressed, and more importantly, that any new management systems have been shown to be fully competent?

and then:

b. The previous item on the agenda is concerned with the management of risk. I would like to draw the Chair's attention to the following definition in the risk matrix, 'Guidance for a description of impact for assigning a risk impact score', and the red light impact score which is defined by 'catastrophic'. Is this not the most accurate assessment of the inevitable impact of the One Barnet outsourcing programme, in view of the lack of proper preparation for the project, the lack of competence in procurement practices, the giant scale of the whole undertaking and the massive risk to which you are exposing the residents of this borough?"

These were the written answers:

a. The Procurement Controls and Monitoring Action Plan responded to key issues from the June 2011 Audit findings and corresponding recommendations. These actions have been followed up and systems, processes and management approach to procurement activity have been implemented and are continually monitored. The Contract Procurement Plan is one of the tools used to forward plan and actively manage future procurement processes. The outsourcing exercises are subject to full and proper project management and I do not agree that they should be stalled.


b. The risk register is used for the Council to highlight areas of focus where there is a probability of risk and to establish a mitigation plan to reduce probability or completely avoid the risk occurring. In this case the activity is highlighted as red in order that the associated risk is properly highlighted and mitigating action is carried out. The One Barnet risk register is regularly reviewed and was tabled at a recent scrutiny meeting where the discussion proved that risks are being robustly managed. Therefore, I do not agree that the inevitable impact will be 'catastrophic'.

Bear in mind that these answers could be supplied to the member of the public who had submitted the questions, by email, before the meeting, but are not: the answer is printed out and only available once you arrive at the meeting. This usually means that you have only a few minutes to digest the answer, and quickly formulate a supplementary question. This is of course a deliberate strategy to undermine the ability of any member of the public who is not an experienced QC, or Jeremy Paxman, to ask anything intelligent, or too embarrassing. Still, one tries one's best, winging it, and anyway it is almost always impossible to wrench any useful information out of any Barnet council committee. Almost.

Mrs Angry pointed out that leader Cornelius, in the earlier meeting, had thoughtfully reminded us all of the wisdom of learning to walk, before we attempt to run.

Was this not true of our rush to proceed with One Barnet, despite the massive incompetence in procurement that had been uncovered in the last year or more? Or, perhaps, is the situation not comparable to trying to build an enormous extension on a house which has just been discovered to have subsidence?

No: deputy leader John Thomas thought the house was in good order (clearly he is stuck inside listening to the cowboy builders, rather than out with the passerby in the street, who can see the alarming cracks in the rendering) and there are action plans bla bla bla, and internal and external audits and audit committees, dum di dum di dum ... oh yes, thought Mrs Angry. And how 'robust' are these internal and external audits, and how powerful the audit committee, when for example, they all failed to notice the almost total lack of compliance with the statutory regulations on procurement, contracting, etcetera, etcetera and left it to Mrs Angry and her fellow armchair auditors to uncover?

Of course Cllr Thomas could not be sure he is right, and, as he observed, in a hurried remark, it is a case of 'only a matter of time will confirm this'. Quite. And at the end of that time, it will be too late.

Mrs Angry wonders if, in the eventuality of the collapse or serious failure of a catastrophic outsourcing project like One Barnet, there are theoretically, at least, grounds for action in regard to any senior officers - or members - for failing properly to exercise their fiduciary duties, or broader responsibilities as elected representatives/ public servants? It's an interesting thought, isn't it?

Cllr Thomas burbled on seamlessly about an important difference being that the One Barnet outsourcing proposals are 'new contracts'.

Mrs Angry imagined that it was obvious to anyone but a fool or a complete knave that if Barnet cannot be sure even now that it has - ha - 'ownership' of the old contracts, or what passes for them in this authority, there is absolutely no reason to believe that the management team and members can cope with the stonking size of £1 billion worth of new contracts going to only one or two providers, whose concern will be to maximise profit, rather than observe the niceties of our contractual management.

Thomas mentioned the 'recent scrutiny committee' where a discussion had convinced him that the risks of One Barnet were being properly addressed.

You will note that this was not the One Barnet scrutiny committee, because, guess what: in line with its militantly anti-democratic policies which obstruct the process of consultation in this borough, the Cabinet has duly abolished the One Barnet scrutiny committee.

Mrs Angry asked about this meeting. When was it? He thought it was last month. He thought it had been a 'mature' discussion, with members of all parties involved.

Mrs Angry asked if he really thought a discussion was an adequate form of scrutiny: should the authority not follow the example of say, Edinburgh City Council, which commissioned auditors KPMG to produce an independent risk assessment? Edinburgh, of course, subsequently called an immediate halt to the programme, at the very last minute.

On the film clip at this point (4.48 mins in) leader Cornelius' expression is most amusing. His mildly attentive response is, oh no, I don't think so, really, thank you very much, as if Mrs Cornelius was asking him if he wanted anymore gravy with his Sunday lunch ... Well, why bother with commissioning a report which might prevent the loss of countless millions of taxpayers' money on a disastrous outsourcing project, when you can spend it on pointless consultancies urging you on in the opposite direction?

Think, Richard: just THINK IT THROUGH. Please.

We then moved on to the issue of the internal risk assessment. Why was this information not available to the public? Blogger Mr Mustard whispered to Mrs Angry before question time that he had made an FOI request for a copy, but half of it had been redacted: why?

Thomas admitted some risks were exempt from the public domain because of 'commercial sensitivity'.

Where have we heard this excuse before?

In fact this is how it will be, increasingly, almost everywhere, in the public sector, is already in regard to the NHS and the risk register which the Coalition government refuses to publish, in defiance of the decision of the Information Commissioner.

The government's localism policy is supposed to be all about empowering the local community, making local authorities more accountable to the electorate. In Barnet, in every way they can, our Tory council has acted in entirely the opposite way, closing down almost every opportunity for real engagement by residents, and even councillors. Residents Forums have been censored, committees abolished, restrictive new rules introduced, making it harder for residents to, for example, object to planning applications. The so called Citizens' Panel, from which Mrs Angry was mysteriously removed, is a complete farce, as is every act of 'consultation' stage managed by Barnet spin doctors.

Worst of all, though, is the complete, abject failure of the council properly to inform the residents of Barnet about the One Barnet agenda of outsourcing, and all the implications that it has for local services.

Barnet has no mandate for this policy: very few residents and voters have ever had any idea what it is, or what it will mean - and very few Tory councillors are any better informed.

The gestation of One Barnet, from the evil cradling as Mike Freer's 'easycouncil', and the burgeoning threat of 'Futureshape' has been a long, long process. A long, hugely costly process leaving us with the birth of an unwanted baby: a changeling. One Barnet was never wanted, and now here it lies on the doorstep, mewling and puking.

If the Tory councillors of Broken Barnet are so convinced of the benefits of the One Barnet sell off of our services, let them publish the full internal risk assessment.

Mrs Angry simply does not believe that commercially sensitive material can account for half the contents.

Politically sensitive, no doubt.

Or, in the absence of a full disclosure, allow a truly independent risk assessment to have full access to the information, and address the concerns of critics, including within the Tory group itself, that the programme is too big, too over ambitious, outdated, and doomed to fail.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it: if it is already broke, like Broken Barnet, you need to try fixing it, Richard, rather than smash it up even more.

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