Friday 11 March 2016

Barnet Libraries' meltdown: we apologise for any inconvenience - but not for the catastrophic cuts we're about to introduce ...

Cuts in Barnet's library service appear to have arrived rather quicker than we expected ...

Updated below, with press statement from Barnet's Labour group on the IT crash: and again Monday:

Later this month, devastating new plans to cut Barnet's library service are due to be considered by the Children, Education and Libraries committee. 

It is expected this decision will be referred up to Full Council, where it will be expected to be approved by our treacherous Tory councillors, and the destruction of Barnet libraries officially sanctioned. 

And it will be destruction: what will remain of the service will be nothing comparable to most library user's expectation of what it should be, what it has been. Plans are already in motion to hack the library buildings to pieces, and cull the library book stock, as well as reduce the staffing levels to the absolute minimum. 

For some months now, a bogus pilot trial of the new unstaffed library system that will be imposed on users has been in place. We say bogus, because it is not a pilot of the system as it will be in reality, watched over as it is by security staff, who will not be available when these dangerous experimental libraries are introduced for real. 

And yes: they are experimental, in this context, despite the absurd and inaccurate information given by officers to members and residents claiming that unstaffed libraries are the 'standard approach' in 'Scandinavia'. This claim, in truth, is as about as much rooted in reality as the Moomins, or the easy assurance of the build it yourself guide that comes with a flat packed bookcase from IKEA.

Last month Barnet Unison published a statement from librarians' representative in Denmark, the only country which has a limited use of 'technology enabled' libraries, in some rural areas, which makes it quite clear that such a system works only in a particular context, in support of properly resourced, full time and professionally staffed libraries, not as a replacement: 

Statement from Tine Jorgensen, Chair of the Danish Union of Librarians

“Libraries play a crucial role in a modern, democratic society as cultural, social and educational institutions. Libraries offer access to information, literature (fiction and non-fiction) and digital resources and engaging the population in active citizenship regardless of social and economic differences.

Libraries support learning activities in terms of reading, information seeking and validation of search results. Studies show that children who are keen readers in their spare time read considerably better than those who do not show interest in reading.  Librarians support this with their knowledge of books and reading levels.

Libraries also play a role in terms of digital resources. When the Danish Business Authority introduced the digital mailbox the libraries and library staff supported the digital strategy by offering assistance and learning activities for the citizens 

Therefore self-serviced or unstaffed libraries are only to be seen as an enhancement of the opening hours, not as a replacement for the important tasks that librarians, information professionals and other library workers perform every day.”

We have yet to see any evidence of a successful, widespread and long term use of such a system in use in urban or metropolitan areas in any part of the world, in fact. For obvious reasons: no one with any sense would resort to such a practice. Even in the few libraries in Denmark where technology extends normal opening hours there have been problems with 'misuse' of the facility by an increasing number of homeless people, and also with the entry systems.

And Barnet Tories' library plans to use open libraries are as replacement, to cover a frenzied assault of savage cuts in staffing, book stock, library space, study space, and the shrinkage of the service, most definitely not in any way as 'enhancement'.

I've already written about the council's own risk assessment of the pilot, which was not put to members before they approved the present options for 'consultation', despite the potentially catastrophic danger inherent in such a system - and campaigners have demonstrated clearly the possibilities for disaster that lie in wait should unstaffed libraries become the norm.

And now, this week, we have further incontrovertible proof of the risks of this bonkers idea: and indeed proof which is far reaching by implication, beyond the issue of the 'open' library, or libraries themselves, but to the performance, now under review, of our contractual bondage with Capita.

For more than a week now, our library service has been in crisis, due to a massive IT failure which has thrown the entire system into a state of chaos. 

This happened after Capita took the system down, supposedly for scheduled maintenance - reportedly on the evening of March 2nd - and then were unable to retrieve it. 

It is now believed that the system will be down for perhaps as long as another three weeks: and it is rumoured that there has been - and here is that word again - a catastrophic loss of data. One story claims the loss may extend as far back as December, another suggests as much as two years. 

Mrs Angry has asked Tory leader Richard Cornelius and Library Cutter in Chief Reuben Thompstone to comment on the current crisis, but has not as yet received a reply. She does not expect to receive a reply, but will update the post, if so.

The council has tried to minimise the impact of this meltdown, of course, as much as it can  - the website explains the loss of services as follows:

Due to a server failure, extended hours at Edgware are currently not available as of Friday 4 March. All libraries are open during normal staffed time. User logins and item availability for our Online Catalogue are not functioning and this has also affected Overdrive and reservation access. Adult PCs and Wifi are working at all of our 14 libraries. Fines for overdue books due during this outage will be waived.  We apologise for any inconvenience.

Ah. A server failure. Hmm. Whose fault is that, by the way? No, don't be shy, speak up? Is it your private contractors? Or is it an Act of God? 

What the council doesn't say is that it is impossible to process books at the moment, or calculate fines, and that there is significant loss of revenue, as well as huge backlogs of stock piling up in every branch. Agency staff will probably have to be employed to deal with that, when the system come back. If it does.

If data on loans has been irretrievably lost, for any period, that could mean it would be impossible to track any books or other material currently on loan. 

Has user data been lost? 

Has there been a breach of data protection requirements?

We do not know.

The coy reference in the council's statement to 'extended hours at Edgware' is deliberately disingenuous. This is of course not extended hours of normal library service, but the unstaffed library pilot scheme, that isn't a pilot scheme - and is now, it seems, inoperable.

The timing of the IT failure is very interesting: just before the crucial library proposal votes take place. 

It might even cause some to wonder if the crisis will be spun as proof that Barnet libraries are in need of that 'modernisation' our Tory councillors pretend their catalogue of cuts represents. 

Of course this would be an absolute misrepresentation of the truth, as IT provision is the responsibility of the current contractors, ie Capita.

It is nearly three years now since the Capita contracts began. 

In that time, dissatisfaction with, for example, the contact centre, the phone system, councillors' email and other IT services have all been raised, and dismissed with promises of improvement. We are always 'working towards a better outcome', here in Capitaville: the promise of a new dawn that somehow never breaks on the blasted landscape of Broken Barnet, where we live in perpetual shadow, and the fear of worse to come.

We now have a failure on a massive scale that perfectly demonstrates all the risks that campaigners have highlighted in their long battle against more and more privatisation of council services. 

Most acutely, in this case, it reveals the literal, physical and theoretical risk of unstaffed libraries, in which residents will become vulnerable to the inevitable failure of technology, and the absence of any help from library staff.

On a wider point, this breakdown also demonstrates the fundamentally flawed basis of the case given for this contractual agreement. 

The deal with Capita was promoted as being with one of the market leaders in IT provision, and necessary because it would provide the investment in IT that we could not otherwise afford. 

An in house option was categorically refused for consideration, in fact, on the basis of the need for that capital investment. 

It was stated that Capita would be providing Barnet with £16 million of capital investment, upfront.

It then transpired that - oh dear - on the contrary, we, the residents and taxpayers of Broken Barnet would have to pay Capita the £16 million. Upfront. More on this here:

There's a good chap ... Just write the cheque out for £16 million, to Capita Plc...

The excuse given, in response to protest about this turnaround, was that we would get the money back in the shape of those eternally elusive 'savings'. 

Of course, aside from the core cost of the contract, Barnet has paid and will continue to make, massive extra payments to Capita which mean this feeble excuse is exposed as a total myth.

And where, anyway, did our investment go? Clearly it has not been spent on technology, software, or processes that prevented the most calamitous failure in the library system: a failure on a scale unprecedented in any time before the present contracts were in place. 

Tory councillors of Broken Barnet: we were promised better services, for less money. 

Where is the proof of that, three years in to this contract you so easily approved, without reading the small print?

Apparently the Labour opposition has asked for a briefing on the current crisis: all enquiries from elected members of all parties now have to go through a filtered, officer run scheme, 'Members Enquiries', rather than allow a member to speak directly to an officer - but at the time of writing, no response has emerged from the senior management of Barnet Council.

I wonder why not?

Updated 9pm:

Barnet's Labour councillors have just issued a press release about the library crisis:

Labour demand answers on failed library IT system

Barnet Labour’s Libraries spokesperson, Cllr Anne Hutton has criticised the Council's handling of IT services, after the library services' core ‘Vubis’ system crashed last week during an update taking other systems offline as well.

Cllr Hutton said:

"Many library services have been unavailable to the public for over a week now, including the on-line catalogue and the e-library and children can’t access the computers.  Many cannot renew books with the result that the council is losing up to £200 a day in fines.

“This is totally unacceptable, given that the Barnet Tories want to leave our libraries unstaffed and rely on this technology to prop up the service, it beggars belief that the system would collapse like this. It shows that the council must rethink their plans.”

Labour Spokesperson for Performance & Contract Management Cllr Geof Cooke added:

"This is another failure of Capita’s management of the IT service. When the contract was in negotiation and being scrutinised we were promised only the best systems, and told that Capita were the best in the world at delivering IT. Well this shows those promises to be completely hollow.

“We need to know how this happened, why there was no back-up system, when it will finally be resolved, how much money has been lost and who will be paying for it. As the core system has been corrupted we need to know what data loss has occurred, and we need to be clear that security has not been breached and there are no data protection issues. We have asked for an urgent briefing on these issues."

Monday update: 

The system is still crashed, senior officers have until today ignored Labour councillors requests for information, and the information given today is mystifying: the failure 'just happened', they weren't doing anything: look, wasn't me, Mum, and officers claim that there was no loss of data, in the sense that it didn’t 'go anywhere’. So, in other words, data has not been stolen, but is merely lost: very reassuring.

Tory leader Richard Cornelius has not replied to Mrs Angry (he is always too scared to engage in debate with her, and is anyway probably lying down in a darkened room, dreading tonight's BBC documentary on the faux regeneration of West Hendon, for which he was filmed - 10.45pm, BBC 1 - not to be missed).

Library cutter in Chief, Reuben Thompstone has been very brave, however, and replied to Mrs Angry's question to him:

Can you please explain to me why it is that, despite the £16 million the residents and taxpayers of Barnet were obliged to give Capita for investment in our IT systems - an investment we were initially told was to be made to us, and not by us - and the assurances given about the wonderful standard of service the Capita contracts would bring, our libraries are now in a state of crisis, with a systems failure on a massive scale, and a catastrophic loss of data?

Can you also please explain why you think the unstaffed library system you want to impose on this borough is such a marvellous idea when the pilot experiment has failed, for the same reasons as the IT network?

What penalties will you be demanding from Capita as a result of this meltdown?

Brace yourselves, here is the reply:

We are currently fully focussed on restoring all elements of the library service to residents. Once this has been achieved there will be an opportunity to look more closely at what caused the issues and what lessons can be learned. Steps will then be taken to ensure the system is more robust for the future. In the meantime, all of our libraries remain open and people are still able to borrow books as normal.

Mmm. Libraries are open, yes: wide open ... except the 'open' (unstaffed) library pilot, which is ... erm ... shut.

This terrible invention is entirely dependent, in the absence of any staff on the premises, on technology, which has catastrophically failed, and we now see demonstrated, with perfect timing, just before the library cuts vote, exactly why it is so dangerous.

People are not able to borrow books as usual, or use libraries, as usual: they can take books home, and if they feel like it, they can bring them back again - but no one can do anything else, use the catalogue, check readers's records, reserve books; revenue is being lost, children cannot use the computers, because there is no parental filter, and backlogs of unprocessed books are piling up after nearly two weeks of no IT system.

There must be an urgent, thorough and independent investigation into the failure of the library IT system - and this must form a central part of the three year review of the Capita contract. If the contract is not performing as we were promised, the way forward is clear. Pull the plug.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Now we don't want the working classes (sic) in the Borough to be literate, so let us closed down all the libraries. That'll teach 'em!