Sunday 10 January 2016

Something Went Wrong, or: the scrutiny of a Capita contract, in Broken Barnet

On Thursday night, Mrs Angry went to the Town Hall, to attend a meeting of the Performance and Contract Management Committee. 

(No - don't go anywhere: I had to sit through it - and now so do you).

Q: Mrs Angry: what is the Performance and Contract Management Committee?

A: The Performance and Contract Management committee is an ingenious mechanism devised by officers and Tory councillors of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, as a method of avoiding the Management of Performance and Contracts, in the London Borough of Broken Barnet.

This is usually easily accomplished by:

a. making sure the committee runs out of time to discuss things, as in the last meeting, or:

b. the Chair not being bothered, much, about anything that is raised as a criticism, and: 

c. the empty headed Tory councillors, as usual, obediently rubber stamping anything their officers tell them to. 

Until recently, this strategy worked pretty well, as it was still just about possible to maintain the rosy glow of satisfaction that flushed over the winsome faces of Barnet and Crapita, in that far away summer of love, in 2013, when the two massive contracts were approved and signed, and after what had been a long, drawn out period of courtship, our local services were sold into bondage to private profit, in what we were assured was a consensual, and mutually beneficial relationship.

Barnet and Capita, in happier times: but now - is the honeymoon over?

But the history of outsourcing has demonstrated, time and again, that inevitably, after a brief honeymoon period, when the contractual partners love each other desperately, and the commercial spouse is still keen to make a good impression, and fulfil all the promises whispered in the ear of the commissioning council at the time of bidding ... it all begins to Go Wrong.

And now it is clear that the honeymoon is over for the foolish Tory councillors of Broken Barnet, so easily seduced by Crapita, lured into this 'partnership', led by the nose by their own senior management and assorted accomplices, the shadowy consultants who live off the market of public sector outsourcing. 

We are now approaching the three year review point in the Crapita contractual agreement, and even the most bleary eyed, dopey Tory councillor can see that all is not well. Things Are Going Wrong. And they don't like it.

That they are even beginning to accept that Things Are Going Wrong, is due not to their own acts of scrutiny (they don't have a fecking clue), or even the exertions of the Labour group, try as they might. 

It is largely because of the analysis of one man, a resident and armchair auditor, the local blogger, John Dix, aka Mr Reasonable, a man of infinite wisdom, a wide range of experience, and a clear understanding of the mysteries of corporate finance, qualities markedly lacking in any of the members of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, and rather too many officers, come to that. 

John Dix has consistently presented the only stringent, evidence based evaluation of the contractual agreement, and the performance of Capita, in this borough. And at this week's meeting, due to consider the performance review of the CSG contract, he had submitted a series of questions in regard to that very subject, but began by speaking to the committee.

It should perhaps be mentioned that, despite this being a meeting of immense significance, we two were the only residents present, flanked to the rear by an assortment of anonymous, scowling senior officers and Crapita clones. 

During the meeting, one could not help but note, two of the more alert Tory members kept glancing, curiously, furtively, to watch our reactions to the more eyebrow raising parts of the proceedings - and the Chair kept nodding in our direction, happily entertaining Mrs Angry's unasked for observations, to the clear annoyance of officers, without telling her to shut up - and even replying. 

They know that we know what they know, but do not dare acknowledge, of course.

You are the guardians of this contract, Mr Reasonable reminded them: and this review is a massive test for you. But how many of you have read the contract in detail

Part of the Barnet Capita contract, carried lovingly down the stairs of Hendon Town Hall

He reminded them they had rejected a suggestion by Labour's Reema Patel that they should prioritise the KPIs, performance indicators, in such a way as to ensure they could better scrutinise the contract.

And, said John, you now need to seek independent advice to help you measure the real performance of these contracts. 

The Tory councillors looked on, uncomprehendingly. Why would they need to do that?

Veteran Tory, former MP for Hendon John Marshall, now a councillor for Hampstead Garden Suburb, is one of the few Tory members with anything approaching a reasonable degree of intellectual rigour. 

His demeanour throughout the meeting was most interesting: subdued, and unusually quiet. 

In itself, the negative shape created by his silence was perhaps a key performance indicator more useful than mere statistics.

Mr Dix was a frequent commentator on these matters, he observed: did he at least accept that the council had saved substantial sums of money from the contracts?

No, Mr Dix did not. 

He patiently explained, once again, that although the core contract appeared to guarantee savings, the real cost to the benighted taxpayers of Broken Barnet was hidden by the amount of money spent on other payouts: all the extra ways that Crapita's interminably long contract so cleverly allows, the add ons - the gainshare payments. You need to look at the figures as a whole, he said, and he said once more that he had not seen the evidence to support the claim that the contracts were saving money.

Look at those responses to the detailed questions asked by John Dix, and you will see how the real picture of profit and loss is concealed, so conveniently, behind a wall of secrecy, needless complexity, obfuscation - and the pretext of commercial sensitivity. 

The details of the gainshare payments are key to transparency over the contracts, revealing as they do the real balance of costs versus alleged savings: but we are not allowed to see them.

Marshall did not reply, and sat reflectively, clearly not prepared to dispute what John was saying. Anyone with any sense could not dispute it, of course. 

Tory councillor Peter Zinkin, who is a relatively new member, and obviously not yet steeped in the depth of cynicism that inevitably arises after a longer acquaintance with the finer points of governance, here in Broken Barnet, tried to suggest that there were enough officers in place, in whom we could happily rely, to carry out the necessary monitoring of the contracts. 

He and his fellow Tories, including the Chair, Antony Finn, tutted at the very idea of  spending money to bring in more consultants to advise on the scrutiny of these agreements.

Mrs Angry didn't know whether to laugh, or cry. 

The Tory members of Barnet Council continually sign off payments reaching into many millions of pounds per annum exactly to this purpose: paying exorbitant fees for unaccountable, secretive, and unchallenged legions of consultants whose favours we must support entirely so as to failitate the grand designs of the senior management team, and further prepare the way for more opportunities, at our expense, for private profit from outsourcing companies.

The Tories have allowed, at a time of budget restraints, and the loss of so many less well paid jobs, endless re-structuring and creation of management posts, new posts, preposterous new titles, with handsome salaries, all at our expense.

Yet they will not pay for one independent advisor to look at the performance of one of the most expensive contracts in local authority budget history, to ensure that they, and more importantly we, are not being deceived as to the efficiency of this partnership, and its performance.

Still: perhaps there are more important expenses.

Sitting at the table, Mrs Angry observed, in between becoming infuriated, but grossly amused, that Twitter's predictive text kept insisting the word she wanted to use was not Crapita, but 'cesspit' - sitting at the table was a tightly smiling officer she had not seen before, a Mr Hamburger, whose job title, she observed to Mr Reasonable, with some relish, and not a little sauce, was 'Relationship Partnership Manager'.

Ah, thought Mrs Angry, nodding to herself sagely. Has there been a falling out? Is the happy coupling of Barnet and Crapita already reaching the stage of silent sulks, slamming doors, and separate bedrooms? Is he here to mediate, and try to stop things getting to the point of Cornwall Council and BT, ending in court, to fight over a messy divorce settlement?

Hmm. Maybe. Let's see: oh, the job description (for which you get around £80K, which is why we can't afford independent advice on the actual contract, see ...) suggests the role is a bit more touchy feely than that, requiring the successful candidate to be able to:

"work from a holistic perspective, driving delivery of the contract by focusing on the bigger picture, without being dragged into the day to day minutiae ..."

Yes, it is a real drag, isn't it, the day to day minutiae? 

No! No, it isn't, Mr Hamburger, and Tory councillors: really, it isn't - the devil is in the detail, in fact, in that minutiae, and the bigger picture is right there, in your face, hidden in plain sight, hidden in that contract none of you could be bothered to read, if you will only look now, or ask someone to do it for you, if you are incapable. 

You were sold a pup, Tory councillors of Broken Barnet, and you are still being sold a pup, and it's time to acknowledge it, and put things right. 

And you can stop listening to the same people persuading you to launch a fatal assault on our library service, in a softening up exercise for more outsourcing.

And as the meeting progressed, and the Tory councillors' shifting, rather uneasy body language, suggestive of repressed dissatisfaction, and discomfort, (or possibly uncomfortable underwear, hard to tell) gave way, eventually, to ... expressed dissatisfaction, and a certain amount of, well:  yes - concern.

Discussion now of the council website, for which Crapita is of course responsible. Anyone who has tried to use it knows how awful it is: impossible to navigate, ugly, cumbersome - the perfect introduction, in fact, to the reality of life outsourced, in Broken Barnet. 

But it seems even our Tory members have noticed how bad it is, as they have to rely on it for their own purposes as councillors. This might be true largely because now they are reportedly encouraged not to do as they did in the past, and contact officers directly, but only through 'members' enquiries'. If true, yet another way in which unaccountable officers are limiting access to the democratic oversight of our local services. 

And members often report to Mrs Angry how frustrated they are in any search for the information they require to do their jobs as councillors. As much as anyone else, trying to use the hopeless contact centre (now apparently not only sent to Coventry, but with a semi automated system instead of response by human beings), or finding data on the website is infuriatingly difficult.

The Chair tried to dismiss concerns about those who might find the website, or any web based contact point with the council, as being in some way silly, and making a fuss about nothing. 

Casting a hurried glance at the two bloggers sitting in the public seats, tutting loudly and shaking their heads, officers whispered urgently to the Chair, pointing out, you might guess, that one must at least pretend, even in Broken Barnet, to try to be inclusive, and show lip service to the idea of equal access to all, including the elderly, disabled residents - oh and poor people, Tory councillors, you know, the ones who rely on IT access via their local libraries, which you are trying to cut off from as many people as possible ... 

The Chair nodded and dutifully muttered something about those who, erm, you know, found it a bit difficult, all that sort of thing.

A pair of Capita representatives were called to the table, their backs to us, the residents, to explain themselves to our elected members.

Labour's Geof Cooke got into his stride now. He remarked that Capita had presented itself as a leader in IT expertise. Now they 'had their feet under the table', it seemed they couldn't be bothered with demonstrating this much vaunted mastery of the subject. He posed a very interesting question to the Chair, which the Chair appeared to have trouble hearing:

Did he approve an extension in the contract variation in regard to these matters, or not?

No reply.

The officers from Capita burbled on smoothly about, in hindsight, you know, in hindsight ... more time was needed, for example for the data centre ...

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, but it is a thing that Capita apparently only buys in - one imagines from a subcontractor, or fee based consultant - after things have gone tits up, and they need an excuse for gullible Tory councillors. Oh, what was that? 

A problem, in April, last year, that was referred to in hushed tones. 

"Something Went Wrong ... " Looks were exchanged between the Crapitorial representatives, and the Tory members, who looked less than pleased, and rather constrained, as if they wanted to be more outspoken - but not enlarged upon. The 'something' that had gone Wrong would be 'looked at'. More cryptic references to audit, and - ah: PWC. Hmm.

Labour's Cllr Cooke, who is by far the most tenacious of opposition members in committee, was not going to shut up.

Did you, he demanded again of the Chair, approve of the extension of eleven months to comply?

Finn looked flustered. He ... didn't think ... that the Constitution said that he had to ... In other words, it seemed, he was not sure, or did not want to say whether he had, or not.

Pretty astonishing, you might think. But if you think that, then you must not understand how things are, here, in Broken Barnet: it is not the elected representatives who run this council - it is the senior officers. And that is entirely due to the laziness, apathy, and lack of courage of those members who have sat back, failed to hold officers to account, and allowed this to become the norm.

This situation inevitably developed because the Tories were too content to let the boring part of governance rest entirely with council staff - and too many long serving Labour members become institutionalised, and reluctant to ask difficult questions of senior officers, in case it upsets them, failing to see the difference between officers merely doing their jobs, and the senior officers who must be held to account.

The example of the information withheld from members over the depot purchase is a good example of the real state of things, in this borough, and the extent to which councillors are excluded from the process of decision making, and management.

Cooke continued, listing all the pretty promises made, pre-contract signing. Data management, the Observatory ... Capita had built its reputation on IT, and HR, so why, he demanded to know, were there so many problems? Problems, very often, raised by the opposition which never found their way into reports. And other problems which they were not 'pro-actively' told about. Problems we are still sorting out, two years later.

Finn tried to turn the tide of crashing reality washing over the committee table of the Performance and Contract Management Committee. 

He thought that the 'successes' of the contracts were being ignored. 

Mrs Angry remarked to Mr Reasonable, when we had stopped laughing, that Cllr Finn is blessed with a Pollyanna like ability only to see the best in everything, which is not necessarily the best quality for the Chair of any scrutiny committee. 

He has previously explained at a previous meeting, a couple of years ago - as pictured below - that the role of scrutiny, of course, is not to criticise, but to make positive contributions. Ha: no, really.

Tory Councillor Finn, and the art of scrutiny: accentuating the positive, eliminating the negative

In fact the report refers to successes, but failures are not mentioned. Oh, hang on, they come under the category of 'Challenges'. 

There are no failures, within the grasp of a Capita contract, see, only yes, challenges for the future. Or, even better - areas which 'require more focus moving forward' ...

Ok, said the Labour councillors: what about 'social value': how do we measure the degree to which promises about this intangible aim have been achieved?

Meh. Where is the profit, for Crapita, in social value?

Ah: and as for the report on their performance, Geof Cooke wanted to know: did they write it themselves?

Do you know, readers, Mrs Angry had suspected that just might be the case. It reads rather like a child writing his own school report, in fact. Not must do better: couldn't do better. Except focus more, while moving forward, of course.

And the report displays a breathtakingly romantic view of the impact of their annexation of Broken Barnet:

Since commencement the service has seen considerable transformation, with the relocation of service delivery staff to other locations whilst maintaining a seamless service delivery ...

Seamless? Really? 

And - relocation of staff: TUPEd out of existence, moved to Lancashire, or waved goodbye to, with a cheery grin. At one point, when one Tory councillor was dismissing the impact of ignoring in house bids for tenders, as was the case with the tender eventually won by Crapita, the normally well behaved (compared to Mrs Angry) John Dix interjected angrily to remind him: 

Hundreds of people lost their jobs!

Oh hello: time for Mr Hamburger to speak. Surprisingly, not so as to pour oil on troubled waters, and make soothing sounds of reconciliation, and mediation, and hope for the future, moving forward, with more focus, but to observe that the report was indeed written from Crapita's point of view. 


Well, you know, if you employ Capita to write a report on Capita, what the f*ck else do you expect?

Geof Cooke was quoting some of the most amusing, self satisfied conclusions of the report - reference, for example to the introduction of 'highly competent' Capita employees. Were employees not competent before, he asked?

The officers at the table struggled to formulate a response.

It's complex, said the Director of Resources, after some thought.

No: no, really it is not.

'Our resilient data centre ...', continued Cooke. 


A very general opinion, ventured the Head of Corporate Programmes and Resources.


Time then for more Capita officers to address the meeting: stepping up to the table was Catherine Lyon, head of Customer Services, for Capita Local Government. Smooth words about improvements, strategies, focus, bedding in, bla bla bla. They were far from complacent. 

No, she was serious. 

So serious she was clearly stumbling to find things to say. Absolutely recognising not performance to remain at.  Eh? Healthy place to start from. A reference to John Lewis. What? 

Aspirational mood music, one must assume. Tweed covered sofas, Orla Kiely, hats for royal garden parties. Good move: the Tories like aspiration. You might think Capita had more in common with Sports Direct, or Primark, but the Tory members have no idea. Shopping is for the womenfolk, after all.

The Chair decided to ask one of his faux naive questions: I am a member of the public, he began ... No: you are not, said Mrs Angry, firmly, worried that he had forgotten, yet again, poor old boy, that he was the Chair of a committee allegedly tasked with the role of scrutiny.

I am a member of the public, he said: ... why do I need the website? Rather than using the phone, for example, he explained.

Because you can never get through on the phone, observed Mrs Angry. He looked down the table at her, and nodded in agreement, which was nice, but really rather worrying - from the Chair of the committee allegedly tasked with the role of scrutiny.

The other woman from Crapita made an interesting admission, a conclusion from their own careful assessment of customer satisfaction: when they do better, she said, people liked it

Goodness me, thought Mrs Angry. Who would have thought it? And better still, the woman from Crapita thought that, in a year's time, things might be ... better. What, better even than sometimes better? 

No hurry. That will only be three years and more into a ten year contract. 

Mr Hamburger, the relationship manager left the room, at this point, Mrs Angry suspected in order to go to the gents, and have a good cry.

Tory councillor Sury Khatri, who voted with all his colleagues for the Capita contracts, and then complained about it, when it was all too late, now let rip, condemning something or other as being 'a dog's breakfast', and was also apparently cross about some printed forms, meant to be available as an alternative to the website, which had been promised to some of his elderly constituents, a year ago, but never arrived. 

And then: the normally unshakeable Councillor Zinkin, in a masterful display of the art of careful understatement, allowed himself the luxury of a criticism of Capita's performance:

A number of things had occurred, he said grimly, which could definitely have ... occurred better ...

Ah: that word again: even better. Who measures better, or best performance, in Broken Barnet? Not this committee, it seems.

Tory Shimon Ryde now dared to be critical too, sort of, worrying about something small, and safe, whether or not the system could cope with multiple library cards for one household. 

Mrs Angry pointed out, rather unkindly, that Shimon had nothing to worry about, in fact, as soon he and his colleagues would be cutting the libraries to the point where no one would need a card.

And this is the point, Tory members of the London Borough of Broken Barnet.

You need to wake up, shape up, and admit you've been had. 

Yes, we told you so, and you didn't listen, but it gives no one any satisfaction to be proved right. 

This is a tragic outcome for the residents of Barnet: a betrayal of their best interests, and their taxes, paid to you in trust for the administration of the services which support us all, every day, in good times, and bad times.

It's time to hold your contractors to account, and demand value for money: no more excuses, and if they don't, well, then: do what the rather more independent councillors in Cornwall, and Birmingham, and elsewhere have done, with their contractors, and tell them to take a running jump.

Will that happen? 

Mrs Angry thinks not. 

Labour members proposed that the working groups being set up to review the contract should be open to residents. The Tories insisted on excluding the public, when they wanted to. Of course they want to: they don't want residents, and voters, to cotton on to the fact that they have cocked up, to such a serious degree. Especially now, in the run up to the GLA and Mayoral elections.

The truth is too powerful, and too awful to acknowledge. And this is Broken Barnet: a place where it is better to accommodate a terrible lie, than reveal the ugly face of a dangerous truth.

The outsourcing of public services is nothing but an act of piracy, actioned by privateers, sanctioned by government, national and local.

And what is happening in Barnet today will happen to the rest of you, tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

Was there an outcome to the meeting? Anything to change, or was the meeting just another hoop for the council to sleepwalk through?

Mrs Angry said...

Clearly you are not familiar with corporate life in Broken Barnet, Anonymous. Outcome is not to be encouraged, from any committee meeting. Stalling, and delaying the resolution to problems is more traditional. More focus on the way forward, but admitting no failures, of course.

Anonymous said...

I see in the Barnet Press that £97 million is on offer for Brent Cross from the government.

Doesn't the Treasury realize what a risk it would be to give such an amount of money to this lot?

Red Sonia said...

Maybe this would be instructive for them: