Thursday, 1 May 2014
Understanding the landscape - or: One Barnet, and gambling that disaster's not going to happen - the last audit meeting
After the Audit meeting, the retiring chair, Lord Palmer, was invited to the bloggers' retreat, the Greyhound pub, round the corner from the Town Hall - and adjacent to the Church Farmhouse, our former museum, now ransacked, closed and up for sale, an apt metaphor for the policies of the Barnet Tory party, as chronicled here, over the last four years.
I never have a drink before a meeting, commented Monroe. Mrs Angry thought wistfully of the occasion on which she had survived an Audit meeting completely anaesthetised by an undoubtedly over generous amount of champagne, which had made the whole experience so much more bearable - and almost interesting, apart from the end, by which time she was thinking about lying on the floor, and going to sleep.
Most audit meetings are - for Mrs Angry at least - far too long and frankly rather tedious, and no amount of self medication can make the evening pass any quicker.
Mrs Angry did her best to try to prepare for the inevitable by - like most of the councillors - not reading too many of the reports, and trying not to think in any depth about any of the relevant issues beforehand, but slipped up, ultimately, by failing to resist submitting a few questions, purely to upset the officers, and to test the resolve of the external auditor, Mr Paul Hughes, of Grant Thornton.
Alas, Mr Paul Hughes, of Grant Thornton, was there only in spirit, his place-name laid at the table, in tribute to our absent friend. No fun to be had, then, thought Mrs Angry, filled with gloom.
Wednesday night's meeting, however, would require more than usually focused attention, as it had some very important and significant findings to be considered: as summarised in a Labour party press release:
The reports going to the committee had flagged up several very serious findings of no or limited assurance, including questions of real risk to sensitive data, and highlighting deep flaws in the management of our contracted services.
Public questions began.
Celebrity blogger and vexatious council interrogator Mr Mustard busied himself asking about his favourite subject, ie the NSL parking contract.
Parking, observed Lord Palmer, with masterful understatement, does excite many people in the London Borough of Barnet ...
This contract, and the way in which it has been managed - or not - is a very pertinent indicator of how Barnet's whopping contracts with Crapita will also be managed - or not.
One worrying trend, audited by Mr Mustard, is the way in which failures to reach agreed KPIs - performance targets - by NSL appear to have been left unchallenged and unpenalised.
From one of his questions here it emerged that at last, last month, these failures were not likely to result in the financial penalties that are supposed to follow such poor performance. The answer last night said that since last month, 'an agreement was reached' after discussions during which 'NSL made a strong case why they should have been granted relief'.
The council then rolled over and at least partially accepted their sob story and 'allowed a degree of relief'.
Mrs Angry next, and a few awkward questions:
Did Grant Thornton assess the internal auditing of Highways expenditure, and would any proven disproportionate allocation of funds, in the opinion of the external auditors, raise a potential risk of unlawful expenditure, or any other breach of regulations?
The written response said Highways expenditure is not reviewed 'year on year' by internal audit, which seemed surprising. But Mrs Angry was informed that if she felt expenditure was unlawful, she could raise an objection with the external auditor, ie Grant Thornton.
Oh dear. In Mrs Angry's experience, the external auditor is not naturally inclined to give any weighty consideration to any complaint made by Mrs Angry. In fact, it is hard to imagine exactly what sort of apocalyptic audit-related horror might cause even the slightest frown of disapproval to appear on the shiny, eager, Pollyanna-like visage of Mr Paul Hughes, or any of his colleagues.
As a supplementary question, Mrs Angry asked if the Chair was of the opinion that the internal audit process was adequately robust, if it could leave unscrutinised expenditure of such evident disproportion?
The Chair had some views of his own on some of the curious characteristics of this funding, which, as Mrs Angry reminded him, had resulted this year in the Cabinet Member's own ward receiving £1 million, and the Labour ward of Colindale not one penny ...
Next question on the worrying lack of assurance re 'People Management' and the failure of the authority to ensure that Comensura, the agency with a contract to provide staff to the council, had carried out the relevant safeguarding checks on new recruits. The written answer said no staff had been identified as failing checks. But, asked Mrs Angry, have you actually looked? Have all these posts been assessed? Because otherwise, clearly vulnerable residents have been left at risk.
Answer: no one knew. Oh. They would check, to see if checks had been made on the checks in question. Once again: echoes of the MetPro scandal, and lessons not learned.
The evidence in this report relating to limited assurances, and findings with no assurance, proves that not only does the authority continue to demonstrate incompetence in managing longer term contracts such as with Comensura and NSL, it has not addressed the most fundamental security issues created by the wholescale privatisation of our council services by Capita.
Perhaps the Chair will remember, at the beginning of the current administration, the outcome of the Metpro scandal, and the revelation that the authority was failing to exercise its obligations to the taxpayers of this borough by presiding over a culture of gross incompetence in the management of procurement and contractual activities.
Does the Chair agree with me that there is a grave risk that the authority will continue to fail the taxpayers of this borough by failing now effectively to manage the Capita contracts, and to ensure that the aspirational savings and benefits so often celebrated by the Conservative administration become reality, rather than the empty promises of a door to door salesman, desperate for a quick buck?
Let Mrs Angry give you the written answer, by the Chair, and then the answer which she has learnt was the one the officers had produced.
Monroe's response was diplomatic:
No doubt the Members of the committee, including the Chair, will comment on the report when discussing the report with relevant Officers. My concern, as Audit Chair, is the length of the contracts. I trust that Internal and External Audit will continue to be transparent in their Audit Opinions.
The original response, however, from an unknown senior officer, or senior officers, a response dismissed by Lord Palmer, was:
Mrs Angry pointed out that the issue, really, was not the length of the contract so much as the fact that the reports submitted to the committee indicated that the authority was unlikely to be able to manage contracts of the scale of the Capita takeover, if they are unable to deal with the smaller arrangements - not to mention the issues which are already occurring.
And the truth, the unpalatable truth, is that in four years, over the course of this administration, we have gone full circle, from an audit that revealed the state of gross incompetence presided over by senior management and Tory executive, one that allowed a management culture with no control over the procurement and scrutiny of its contracted suppliers, to an audit of a commissioning council which has procured itself into a state of virtual bondage to Capita, and adopted a position of abject servitude to the new 'partner', from which the act of scrutiny is all but impossible.
Time for John Dix, blogger Mr Reasonable, to speak to the committee.
John is a management consultant by profession, wwith many years experience in dealing with outsourcing and corporate matters.
Beneath an increasingly more fragile veneer of Reasonableness, he visibly struggles to contain his emotions at Audit meetings: departing at times from a default mode of continual exasperation, and head shaking, to deep, abiding despair, interspersed with moments of semi-hysteria - and at times, frankly, appearing almost to be hovering on the edge of tears. It is slightly unnerving if you are sitting next to him, and listening to the litany of his muttered insults and pithy observations, all the way through the meeting. But he is always very kind and patient with Mrs Angry, and explains the auditing issues in words of one syllable, and in ways her feeble blogging mind can almost grasp.
Yet again, he told the committee, we are presented with a shocking report. He listed the awful assurance ratings, the threat to IT security, the risk of irreplaceable data loss, the law contract bill, the failure properly to manage the Comensura and NSL contracts - what have you been doing, in all this time? They've spent £8 million with consultants masquerading as 'implementation partners' for the Capita deal, we have a Chief Executive and Chief Operating Officer paid fabulous salaries and look: the most basic foundations of all these contracts are still not addressed.
The council's interface with Capita, as demonstrated by the reports, is anything but seamless. If Capita want to say the issues arose prior to the start of the contracts, who is then to blame? Management? The eagerness to push One Barnet, said Mr Reasonable, has swamped all other priorities, yet senior management sees no problems, and no one takes responsibility. What steps, he asked, are you taking to see we don't find ourselves in further difficulties?
The response from councillors? Only Labour's Geof Cooke asks a question. What can the Audit Committee do? What is the way forward?
Hold senior management to account, suggested Mr Reasonable, once again exhibiting the patience of a saint. You are the Audit Committee, he explained ... you should be able to hold them to account. The Tory councillors looked across the table at him blankly, incomprehendingly.
A revolutionary proposal, for the elected members of Barnet Council, and one which, if observed over the last few years, would almost certainly have prevented the imposition of the Capita contracts.
Lord Palmer commented that the Audit Committee used to be graced by the presence of the Chief Executive. But even when he suggested that A Former Cabinet Member (guess who) should come to the committee to explain himself over some controversial issue or other, he was told he could only ask him to come, and not require him. Obviously the Former Cabinet Member did not turn up. The Leader, he thought, had come once.
Time for the report from the Corporate Anti Fraud Team. This is given a lot of attention and respect by the Tory members, who sit up, visibly enthused by the prospect of pointing the finger at benefit scroungers and any other assorted individuals (other than Tory councillors) wanting a free ride from the boroughs' taxpayers.
Mrs Angry's sympathies are not engaged as fully as they might be with this report, a fact possibly not entirely unrelated to the excruciating grammar, or lack of it, in the 'am I bovvered' presentation of the officer concerned. And what a shame that the council does not apply the same resources and attention to the support needed by tenants who are perfectly law abiding but have no security of tenure, or prospect of accommodation.
Trying not to listen too closely to this item, it was impossible to avoid the volley of corporate cliches which punctuate more and more frequently the meetings of our council: yawn ... direction of travel ... benchmarking ... low hanging fruit, suggested Cllr Old, awake now and keen to show his credentials.
Audit Plan next. Sitting at the top of the table, beaming with satisfaction - and sure why wouldn't he be, Mrs Angry - was a man from Capita, perfectly named: Mr Thorogood. How thoroughly good at his job he really is, we do not know yet, but he seemed to be enjoying the meeting. Mr Thorogood was feeling pleased because the man from Grant Thornton was saying their audit was producing 'promising and positive results, so far' ... Who would have guessed? The man from Grant Thornton now had something else to say. He reminded everyone of their fee, rather tactless, thought Mrs Angry, like an escort hired for the evening demanding his money upfront, before being invited in for coffee and - a discussion of limited assurance.
Tory councillor Sury Khatri, who has reinvented himself, after the contracts were signed and it was all too late, as a One Barnet sceptic, asked why both contracts were not mentioned in the report? Why refer to one but not the other? Officer John Hooton mumbled something about 'a broader picture' .... 'focus on certain issues' ... Why not mention both contracts, he persisted. Monitoring Officer Maryellen Salter intervened, referring the matter to internal audit, yet again with an abruptness which appeared disrespectful, even if not intended - and which raised a certain amount of indignation in the room.
The Chair ruled rather intemperately that officers should 'go away and look at that again'.
As for the internal audit: 32% of findings had less than satisfactory assurance.
Officers including Mr Hooton and Anna Earnshaw from Capita were called to the table to discuss the IT problems.
Tory Cllr Old expressed the fond hope that the important issues were being addressed.
A lot of the issues, we heard, were 'historic in nature'. Ah. Of course.
Work was ongoing. Good, good.
We need, said the woman from Capita, ridiculously, to 'understand the IT landscape'.
Mrs Angry had a tragic vision of forlorn crapitorial officers lost, like nymphs and shepherds in an arcadian scene, looking to the far foothills where the gods of commerce arranged their fates, beyond the control of mere mortals. It was a charming fantasy.
Understanding, clearly, from the perspective of Capita, is a hard won thing, and takes a very long time. Possibly as long as the contracts themselves, or beyond. Still: these officers hoped to return to the next Audit Committee with satisfactory assurances, we heard.
Can we minute that, asked Lord Palmer, showing a distinctly unromantic lack of ttrust in the easycouncil promises of Capita and our senior management team?
Geof Cooke was even less impressed. These issues have all been flagged up before, long ago: why were they not addressed? Was it due to the actions of people who are no longer with us?
Mr Hooton agreed that Capita was not with us, in the earlier age of Broken Barnet, before time began. Of course, thought Mrs Angry, but you were there, Mr Hooton, were you not?
He thought the resolution to the IT problems was going to take 'a couple more months'.
But we have known about these problems, repeated Cllr Cooke, for at least the last two years, and you decided not to address them - because Capita was coming in?
Yes, agreed Mr Reasonable, from the public gallery.
The issues about IT security, as the steely eyed independent committee member Debra Lewis observed, is 'pretty basic stuff'. Officers agreed there was a risk. More than a risk, she replied, tersely. Just because a risk was there, she was told, does not necessarily mean it will occur.
But it might, she repeated.
Cllr Cooke commented that despite all the reams and reams of paper that the Capita contracts are written on, it was clear there was no proper service agreement in place, and it was pretty unlikely we are going to get what we ask for from this arrangement.
Mr Hooton, apparently missing the point, said they were 'clear' about their roles and responsibilities.
As to the failing Swift and Wisdom systems: the excuse was that these have not been updated due to 'challenges'. As Mr Reasonable points out here, there is a real and urgent risk that all adult social care client data could be lost:
... and as Cllr Cooke reminded the committee, with barely concealed fury, these matters have been known for years - and deliberately avoided. It was a political decision, said Cooke, not to invest in dealing with these problems.
Now cast your minds back, readers, to the interesting story revealed here last year regarding the now you see it, now you don't, capital investment of £16 million that we were promised by our Tory councillors was coming, as an upfront payment from Capita, to cover our IT needs.
This capital investment was the very reason, we were told, that we had to go for mass privatisation, and could not even consider the option of retaining our own services and making efficiencies that way.
It then transpired that the so called up front investment was nothing of the sort, and would be supplied by us, to Capita, like a surrendering of the spoils of war, as soon as they walked into North London Business Park.
What was that payment for, if not for this? If not now, when?
How long will it take Capita to sort this out?
How many more times will they come to the Audit Committee, or the Contract Monitoring Committee, with prefabricated excuses, and promises always to be delivered in a future that never quite materialises?
How much of the aspirational savings will become reality - or is the truth that this mythical figure can never become reality because there will always be an argument, as there was with NSL, why performance targets cannot be met, but full penalties not applied?
And furthermore: will we, the taxpayer lose out even more because we will be expected to stump up more funding to resolve issues, whether IT or regarding infrastructure or other resources which our new 'partners' insist are historical, and not their responsibilities?
An even worse scenario presents itself. Read on.
The next consideration of limited assurance: business continuity.
Discussions about 'disaster recovery plans'. What if NLBP went up in flames? If some catastrophe led to the downfall of Capita's Re and CSG systems? Has this eventuality been assessed?
There had been, we were informed, no testing other than by events occurring.
The only event that had occurred, however, that they could produce in support of this testing was, were ... the Olympics. Eh? They had thought a bit about what might happen, if staff could not get to work, during the games. Ah. And? And nothing.
Lord Palmer ventured his own thought in conclusion. It would seem, he said, in the opinion of many of us, that if disaster did happen, the preparations are not ... very robust. In fact they were gambling, he reflected, that disaster is not going to happen.
There was an uncomfortable moment as all of us in the room thought in silence to ourselves: shit - disaster is going to happen. It's all going up in flames.
Watch it all burn.
Four years, from MetPro to Capita: events occurring - armchair audited, chronicled, all laid before you, the final committee. Mrs Angry's findings? No assurance. None whatsoever. But it's up to you now, and whatever you decide to do next month, on May 22nd.
When the council reforms in May, it will have a new committee structure, and the Audit Committee will have a new Chair. Let's hope the new appointee is as independently minded as Monroe Palmer, and let us wish him a happy retirement, relieved of the burden of trying, at least, to hold the Tory administration of this council to account for what has been a record of unparalleled incompetence, swivel eyed lunacy, and merciless, mindlessly stupid policies.