Tuesday 31 May 2011

Terms of Endearment: outsourcing senior staff in Broken Barnet

Last week Barnet blogger Mr Mustard published a copy of the marriage contract between Andrew Travers, our £1,000 pounds a day deputy Chief Executive and Chief Finance officer, and his uxorious partner, the London Borough of Broken Barnet, a very detailed agreement for a post for which Mr Travers is highly - some might say over - qualified.

This was interesting on many levels, but perhaps first of all because, goodness me, there actually is a contract, and one that Mr Mustard was able to scrutinise. As we know, contracts in Broken Barnet ain't usually worth the paper they ain't written on, such as - oh dear, have to mention them again - in the case of MetPro, for example.

Last week, you may recall, Mrs Angry asked the council to provide details of the contracts of two other security companies used by the authority over several years, ie Magenta and Blue 9. Of course she is absolutely certain that there are contracts, and the fact that there has still been no response is not indicative of any irregularity.

As we know, Mr Andrew Travers is only one of an increasing number of senior officers working for Barnet who is not on the council pay roll, subject to the authority's standard rates of pay and conditions of service, like the rest of the drones, but employed as consultants in private arrangements, via agencies or directly with private companies, often private companies whose sole employee is the individual in question. This is perfectly legal and above board, of course, and increasingly common in local authorities.

These senior posts are usually described as being 'interim' posts. What, you may be thinking, does interim mean, Mrs Angry? Does it not imply a temporary status, one of short term duration - a stop gap, whose necessity is caused by a. advertising a post and being unable to fill it, and then b. filling it with someone for a limited time until the post can be readvertised and new candidates invited to apply? Foolish readers: why are you still so naive, after reading your way through so many of my blogposts? Please pay more attention.

Mrs Angry wonders if the councillors of Broken Barnet ever think to ask about the number of these highly paid interim officers, and question the circumstances of their employment? They arrive one day, out of the blue, like Mary Poppins with her carpet bag, turn everything upside down, and then, without warning: well no, unlike Mary Poppins, they don't float back up and away above the chim-chimineys of Broken Barnet, they outstay their welcome, like high maintenence houseguests, while the kitchen maid and the boots boy lose their jobs and end up in the new Barnet Workhouse (how's the planning application for that going, by the way, Mr Walkley? Hope you've put me on the books as a consultant?)

In sharp contrast to the ambiguities surrounding the 'arrangements' with certain private companies delivering outsourced services, like oh, you know, MetPro, the contracts with some of these more recent and interesting consultants are curiously carefully designed. Again, our man Mr Mustard has highlighted the issue of the credit arrangements with employees and service providers.

According to Mr M, who, in his earthly manifestation happens to have professional experience of such things, it it general practice in business for a period of 30-60 days to be given for payments. Nip over to his blog and see some of the terms negotiated by our borough with certain parties.

Deputy CE Mr Andrew Travers, via his company Halliford Associates, must not be kept waiting longer than ten days for his £1,000 daily reward.

Oh and Mr Chris Malyon, Assistant Director of Commercial Assurance, and therefore, I believe, in charge of the procurement process itself, requires nothing less than immediate payment. At the end of everyday, the Chief Finance officer attends his office, weighs him, divides the amount by the number of contracts signed, and pays him in gold, apparently.

So, is Barnet unusual in the number of 'interim' senior officers it employs, on marvellously rewarding salaries? No, is the answer. It seems to be that wherever you find easycouncil style regimes like we have here, and in Suffolk, for example, and in many authorities now around the country, there is a predictable pattern.

In our borough we have One Barnet: Suffolk, with its CE Andrea Hill currently on gardening leave on full pay of £218,000 a year has, or rather had, the now disowned 'New Strategic Direction'.

According to an interesting recent story in Private Eye, Kent County Council, with CE Katherine Kerswell in charge, on £197,000 per annum, the new corporate 'vision' ( and I use the word advisedly) is known in cultural revolutionary style as 'Change to Keep Succeeding' and 'Bold Steps for Kent'.

I had a quick look at some of the council's propaganda aimed at explaining this new thinking, and it seems, frankly, to be merely a clever justification for employing lots of senior officers, at market force rates, in order to push through the familiar, if now discredited, policies delivering huge budget cuts, in hand with all the usual dallying with outsourcing.

At Kent County Council, after a (well compensated) purge of senior officers associated with the previous CE's reign, very highly paid new 'interim' replacements have been drafted in, the usual 'consultants', and one interim post said to be on an eye watering daily rate of £1,250. Makes you realise what good value Mr Travers undoubtedly is. According to the Eye story, however, the full cost of revamping the senior management structure may be in the region of £4 million pounds.
Is this sort of extravagant makeover what is going on, via a sneaky campaign of stealth and low cunning, in the upper ranks of senior officers, here in Broken Barnet?

Councillors may wish to consider, in these circumstances, whether or not they think that the purpose of our local authority is to provide services for the residents and tax payers of our borough, or in order to facilitate the careers and aspirations of senior officers, while the frontline workers at the other end of the scale face a future of possible redundancy, or at best, a deterioration of conditions of service. Bold steps for Kent: Disastrous Leaps in the Wrong Direction for Barnet?

Saturday 28 May 2011

Running on Empty: Broken Barnet on the road to Contract City

Some weeks ago Mrs Angry submitted a formal complaint to the London Borough of Broken Barnet in regard to the council's unregulated use of the MetPro security companies, and the illicit filming that took place on the night of the March 1st budget meeting.

In breach of the council's own procedure, Mrs Angry did not receive any acknowledgement of her complaint within the stated time limit, and only received a response on registering a further complaint with the Chief Executive. The reply she received then merely referred her to the forthcoming audit committee meeting on 16th June, claiming that all the issues she had raised would be addressed by their 'investigation'.

This is Mrs Angry's response:

This reply is of course completely inadequate as a response to a formal complaint, as I am sure you know.

Firstly, Lord Palmer, chair of the Audit Committee, has stated with no uncertainty that the audit of the MetPro issue is just that, an audit, and categorically not an inquiry. We have not been given, despite requests, any detailed information in regard to the remit of this committee, but clearly it will address only the financial aspects of the matter.
This means that there is no real investigation by the authority, or anyone else, of the key questions that urgently need to be asked concerning the use of this unlicensed security company, without contract, tendering process, or proper scrutiny, throughout a five year period, at enormous cost to the local tax payer.

As to your assertion that MetPro had no permission to film and that such films that exist are not the property of the council, I think you know that this is nonsense: the authority has failed to regulate the terms of service of the company, failed to check the legally required licensing, or data protection requirements, and worst of all, the CRB credentials of employees. This is surely a serious and extended act of maladministration by the authority.

The authority has a duty of care to residents which it has evidently failed in regard to its casual use of this company. Notwithstanding the failure to prevent the filming, obtaining and destroying a copy of the film footage, as you consequently did, itself indicates an admission of responsibility in regard to the filming which took place. Unfortunately this responsibility has not extended as far as obtaining the other copies, and when I asked for contact details for the company in order to make the request myself, the authority was able only to pass on a generic email address, and this request has simply been ignored.

The lack of communication between the authority and the security company is inexcusable and is a serious failure in procedure. The authority clearly had a duty to hold a tender process, check the credentials of the company, award a contract, and monitor the delivery of service. It would appear evident that the authority has failed to do so in the case of MetPro, and this has directly caused the illicit filming of residents at the meeting on the night of March 1st.

Monroe Palmer, the LibDem chair of the Audit Committee, sent the following statement to Mrs Angry:

The Audit committee is carrying out an audit of this area of concern
It will be a wideranging audit covering, I hope, all the areas of concern you list.
The Committee will receive a Report. It will be available to the public. It will be discussed at the committee meeting in Public. There is a 30 minute slot for statements/questions from the public at start of the meeting.
Please do not think that I and my fellow committee members are not as concerned as you are.
However, we await the Audit Report before we make any recommendations.

We can be sure that Lord Palmer does hope the audit will cover all the areas of concern that it ought to address. It remains to be seen, however, if it will investigate in any depth such issues as the data protection implications of the secret filming, for example.

What powers will the audit committee have to take action on any serious failures that the report may discover? Will those responsible really be held to account, or, as is rumoured, and in a repeat of the Icelandic bank scandal, will some less senior officer be marked out and led to the blood stained One Barnet sacrificial altar?

And the problem with the audit committee's involvement in all this is that in theory, it should already have picked up the warning signs of this failure to regulate the payment of a private contract. If there were no systems in place which would have revealed the long term existence of the use of a private company without the regulation of a contract, then it suggests that this is a serious failure of the audit process. The wider implications are immensely important: if Barnet Council cannot run the contract process properly with the companies it uses now, how on earth can it be trusted with the enormous risk of the One Barnet outsourcing programme? External auditors Grant Thornton have ripped apart the authority's preparations for the launch of this scheme: the lack of risk assessment, the lack of any credible business plan: how are they able seriously to propose further privatisation of our local services when they are clearly so incompetent?

And the situation may in fact be far worse than we first thought. The question must be posed: are there other companies used in casual arrangements by Barnet untendered and unregulated by contract?

On Monday Mrs Angry submitted a question to the press office of Barnet Council regarding the two other security companies used by the borough. When, she asked, were contracts awarded to Blue 9 and Magenta, the companies now being used instead of MetPro, both of which seem to have been used by the authority, in varying degrees, at least since 2006, the same year MetPro was first employed.

After two days with no response, Mrs Angry made further enquiries and was rather surprised to get a reply from a Mr Chris Palmer, assistant Director of Communications at Barnet, (no relation, presumably, to his Lordship) keen to assure her that a response would be forthcoming. He is of course a big fan of Mrs Angry, despite once barring her from the Barnet Facebook page for making comments which were considered by Mr Palmer to be - oops - of a political nature, or rather of a nature critical of the infallible policies of correct One Barnet thinking.

Mr Palmer is one of the increasing number of senior officers employed by our authority on private contracts. He is employed via a company called Renouval, costing us £44,325 in July to September, and £31,248 October to December, and another £9,072 in January, £9,571 in February, £11,592 in March. Funnily enough, he does not appear to have been paid in April - as Mr Reasonable points out in his latest post, quite a few of Barnet's consultant and agency employees are missing in action. Perhaps they are giving a month's free work as some sort of Big Society contribution?

Blogger Mr Mustard this week revealed that another lucky senior officer, Deputy CE Andrew Travers, only gets out of bed for the handsome amount of £1,000 a day, in his 'interim' post. I'm not sure how long 'interim' means in Broken Barnet: approximately as long as the duration of the Roman Empire, I'm guessing.

You might think that some of our councillors might ask why, at a time when we are being told of the need for radical budget reductions, and so many council workers on low salaries are facing redundancy, we still need to to spend so much money on the long term use of very highly paid senior officers working in private arrangements with the authority. Is this really the best use of resources? Let's be grateful, though: at least Mr Travers' terms of service have been shown to be sanctioned by contract, even at such a price.

Mrs Angry is at a loss to understand why she has not received information about contracts for Blue 9 and Magenta. Er - there are contracts, aren't there? Those naughty people who suggest that there are more companies other than MetPro who have not had their 'arrangements' sanctified by contract are surely mistaken, aren't they? And these tales of an unfortunate habit in our financial department of invoices being paid before orders, or paid twice, must be completely wrong, without a shadow of a doubt, and we are confident that the Audit Committee report will be able to clarify any misapprehensions on this score. If contracts do exist for Magenta and Blue 9, Mrs Angry will be pleased to publish the details here - if she receives a response.

Perhaps we should see no reason for alarm, anyway. Yes, we have a billion pound budget, here in Broken Barnet, and we are just about to throw much of it in the way of private companies in a One Barnet outsourcing free for all, but just because we cannot manage to regulate the 'arrangements' we already have, this does not mean that it bodes ill for the future of privatised services in our borough. There is nothing wrong in public services being given to any friendly company willing to accommodate the wishes of our Tory administration. We don't need all that bureaucratic red tape and rubbish about safeguarding, and risk assessment, do we?

Equally, Mrs Angry is happy for her council tax to be spent on the monthly bills of private consultancies and agencies employing senior officers, on long term interim posts which are never filled, or made subject to council pay scales, and conditions of service. If we have to pay over the odds for these people, well: this is how market forces work. This is how we do things in One Barnet. Private enterprise has been slowly sliding its hand upwards along the trembling leg of the public sector, and we have been told we must learn to close our eyes and put up with it.

Oh: thing is, all around the country, the many mutant versions of easycouncil/One Barnet/New Strategic Direction are beginning to fall out of favour - look what has happened in Suffolk, where the massive outsourcing agenda has now unceremoniously been given the old heave ho: this is what new Leader Mark Bee had to say:

“The days of the council being a ‘light’ council, being an ‘easy’ council approach which I think underpins the New Strategic Direction, are over. It is now about working with Suffolk to come up with Suffolk solutions.”

The latest thinking on outsourcing generally is of course that, hello - big surprise: it doesn't actually provide the profits we were all once promised. Private sector seducers are getting their wrists slapped. Easy councils are not quite as easy as they once seemed.

Here in Broken Barnet, a significant number of senior officers have legged it, over the past few months. Why the rush to leave Barnet, a successful London borough? Well: it's pretty clear that they do not want to be associated with the collapse of the One Barnet programme. Like canaries down a coal mine, they are the first indicators of a disaster waiting to happen: they are getting out before it's too late, and their careers are hopelessly compromised.

Tory councillors of Broken Barnet: in the next couple of weeks there will be a leadership vote: this gives you an opportunity to stop the One Barnet programme in its tracks. You must know that so much is at stake now: not only are huge numbers of loyal council staff facing terrible uncertainty over the future of their jobs, vital frontline services here in this borough are going to be put at risk. Those who will be affected will be the most dependent and vulnerable members of our community.

Look at what is happening around the country, not just in other local authorities, but with examples of private companies given the responsibility of delivering public services. Look at the perilous state of care homes providers Southern Cross, and the fire service company AssetCo: remember MetPro, and the legionella scandal in local care homes: making profit from public services comes at a cost, and that cost is borne by the residents who have no option but to rely on a deteriorating standard of service.

It's up to you, Tory councillors: in your first year in office, as we know, you have not exactly covered yourselves in glory. Here is a chance to redeem yourselves in the eyes of your constituents. Elect a new leader who is courageous enough to call a halt to the One Barnet programme, and save us all from the disaster waiting to happen.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Follow my leader, says Mrs Angry

Sshh ... it's the middle of the night ... Take Mrs Angry's hand and come with her, up, up into the inky black skies, and let us fly over the silent streets of Broken Barnet.

Look down below - see the residents sleeping soundly, curled up in their beds, dreaming of a better life, far away from the daily grind, the relentless drive for efficiency, in this our beloved, successful London borough.

And now - what do we see, as we peer through the grimy window of a certain charity owned first floor flat in Finchley Central, - in the feeble light of a flickering candle, here is a familiar portly figure, in a threadbare nightgown, kneeling devoutly by the side of his bed, hands clasped together and eyes raised beseechingly towards heaven.

Hush, hush, whisper who dares,
Councillor Coleman is saying his prayers ...

Can you hear?

"I want to be leader of Barnet Council. I must be leader of Barnet council. Please make me leader of Barnet Council ... "

What was that? A noise in the dark corner of the room ...

"Who is there?" demands Brian. A figure steps out from the shadows. "Who are you?"

"I am the Prince of Darkness."

"Peter? I thought I told you never to ... "
"Mr Walkley, I really must protest at this unwarranted intrusion ..."
"Old Nick ..."

A smell of sulphur fills the room. Brian thinks ruefully about his indigestible lunch with the men from AssetCo, who had the cheek to ask him, in the light of the shares crash, to pay the bill and even worse, if he could start sending them hampers, for a change.

"I see: I assume you've come to offer me a deal for the sale of my soul?"

The devil shakes his head. "Soul? You having a laugh, Coleman? You're on your own, now, pal. No: I've just come to give you a word of warning ..."


"Be sure of what you wish for, Brian, lest it come true ..."

Oh, dear: whatever does he mean?

And where now? Ah, look: we are in Hampstead Garden Suburb ... see the defaced CPZ notices, and the torn up Conservative Party membership cards? Here's Saif Gaddafi's house, the cause of so much anxiety to local councillor, anti squatting campaigner, and deputy Leader of Barnet Council, Andrew Harper.

And here is Andrew's bedroom window: shall we? Uh oh: there he lies, still awake, stirring restlessly in his Austin Reed pyjamas, tossing from side to side all night long ...

Not only is he deputy Leader, he is the acting Leader, and Cabinet member for Education, Children and Families, don't you know, and the ever increasing demands of his portfolio are never far from his thoughts: always with him, last thing at night, and in the morning, well: you can imagine, can't you, ladies?

Andrew wants it badly. He must get it. He will do anything to get his hands on it. He wants to be Leader, too: desperately.

Will they vote for him, though? Some nasty councillor is going around saying he isn't up to it. Some say he has made such a cock up of the MetPro mess, it shows he would make a hopeless leader. Disaffected back bench Tory councillors don't want a One Barnet hardliner in power. How can he persuade them to support him, without backtracking and looking even more desperate?

Ah well. Enough: time for one last flight over the rooftops of Broken Barnet, one more visit to another Tory councillor. Here we are in Totteridge, where residents sleep safely in the knowledge that Barnet's own former security company, MetPro Emergency Response, is on constant patrol, up and down the Lane, not filming anything.

See, clutching his duvet under his oddly saturnine chin, and grinning in his sleep with that inappropriate expression of mirth that seems to be permanently tattooed on his face, here lies Richard Cornelius, side by side with loyal wife and fellow Totteridge councillor Alison Cornelius, like a knight and his lady on a medieval tomb.

Councillor Richard Cornelius is dreaming of winning the leadership contest. It might be awfully good fun: and think of the money. If they would appoint Alison to deputy leader as well: double whammy. He knows he isn't the brightest button in the One Barnet box: but then he doesn't really want to be in the One Barnet box, because, frankly, he doesn't understand the One Barnet concept. Who does?

Other councillors may not want to understand it: Richard does, but just can't see how it all works. He likes to sit on committees and smile, and nod, and ask disingenuous questions, and make silly remarks - yes, go on, you remember - such as telling us how many people have thrived on a background of poverty ... Councillor Cornelius's dopeyness makes him the perfect compromise candidate for the Tory party leadership contest, therefore: sound old school Tory views, a lack of rigorous intellect, a cheery smile, a willingness to do as he is told. But will he stand?

And what, you may ask, do you think, Mrs Angry? Which candidate do you endorse?

Oh, come on. The man who would cause his own party the most embarrassment, and provide the bloggers of Broken Barnet with a never ending supply of entertainment: there is only one choice. There is no alternative.

Don't worry, Brian: I'm backing you, all the way - and here is Mrs Angry's official endorsement, sealed with a kiss - come here, don't be shy ... no, no: don't run away ... see - you don't need 'Bing' Crosby working on your campaigns, when you have Mrs Angry and all the Barnet bloggers behind you!

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Blood on the Tracks

Last week it was revealed that Barnet, shamefully, currently holds the record for the highest number of road deaths in London. Last year in this borough nine people lost their lives, and a staggering total of 1,520 people were injured, including 241 pedestrians.

Now who do we turn to for a response to this unwelcome news? Step forward Barnet's road czar: Councillor and Assembly Member Brian Coleman, who bears responsibility for such matters in his capacity as Cabinet Member for the Environment.

Brian is, as we know, is a firm supporter of the right of drivers to move swiftly around the streets of Broken Barnet with no obstruction, especially if driving in a car or taxi charged (at our expense) with the honour of carrying his divine being from one social function to another. Brian, no doubt, would prefer to be conveyed at top speed around the borough, in presidential style, with MetPro outriders, in his own designated traffic lane, admired by gawping residents, waving handkerchiefs and wishing him godspeed on his journey.

And Brian knows what he is talking about on the subject of safety and speed limits, of course. He is an expert, in fact, having himself lost his own licence, not so many years ago - for speeding.

Councillor Coleman is not so supportive, you may have noticed, of the rights of drivers with cars that are not moving, ie parked outside a resident's house. Because he only approves of cars moving around unimpeded, stationary cars must be fined, and firmly encouraged to get back on the road. So keen is Brian on this vital flow of traffic, in fact, pour encourager les autres, he has actually hiked all parking charges up to an exorbitant level, and removed free car parking spaces from CPZ zones, thus providing a welcome addition to the perpetual motion of vehicle movement here in Broken Barnet. A brilliant strategy, we must agree.

In 2003, Coleman was described by Richard Littlejohn in The Sun as 'a hero' for his stated determination to make Barnet a hump free zone within five years. The then Leader corrected this statement by asserting that removals would be done on a case by case basis. Since then, Coleman has continued his war against traffic calming, of course. He has done his bit in other ways, too, for the cause of traffic flow: seeing no contradication in suggesting that all roadwork temporary traffic lights should be banned from the borough and replaced at whatever cost by workers with stop and go signs, because the lights annoy drivers in a hurry, whilst sanctioning the loss of funding to lollipop attendants at our primary schools, with stop and go signs, who are protecting the lives of small children.

Richard Littlejohn has recently recanted his admiration for Brian after a tragic incident involving an obstinate One Barnet parking ticket machine outside a fish and chip shop in Finchley Central. And I wonder what Mr Littlejohn thinks of our not so heroic record breaking road death record now?

On local BBC news yesterday there was an item about Barnet's road accident figures. Local residents such as Dr Julia Hines and Dollis School headteacher Colin Dowland spoke of their concerns about traffic safety: Mr Dowland's petition in regard to his lollipop crossing attendant appears simply to have been ignored by the council, which is shameful, if predictable.

It had been expected that Brian Coleman would take part in this discussion. Strangely, he was unavailable for comment: not like our Brian to miss a media opportunity, but then perhaps his advisors have their sweaty little hands over his rentagob utterances these days.

Council spokespersons have spoken, however, and suggested, in a wincemaking headline story in the local Times group paper that it is 'inevitable' road deaths will be high in Barnet. Really? How so? Oh, because we have a lot of roads. I see. And anyway, shrugs our Tory council, those nasty big roads are the responsibility of Transport for London, and if they are dangerous, well: no good blaming Barnet, no blood on their hands, is there?

Yes, actually, I think there is.

I agree that it is inevitable that road deaths will be high in Barnet. It will be so as long as we have in power a smug, self satisfied Tory administration which puts the rights and well being of speeding drivers before the lives and safety of children and vulnerable residents.

Drivers convicted of careless driving and other offences are sometimes sent on courses where they have to watch footage showing in graphic detail the fatal consequences of such irresponsible behaviour. I think it should be a requirement of all councillors in charge of road safety to do the same.

Those who defend the removal of all traffic calming measures are usually reluctant to think about the results of injuries caused by speeding drivers. If you try to discuss this, you will be accused by the militant driving lobby of being subjective and emotive. (Just wait for the comments here: warning - Mrs Angry has her blue pencil out).

I really don't give a damn: I've had to witness two deaths from accidents caused by selfish, cowardly drivers driving in residential areas at unbelievable speeds. In both cases those responsible fled the scene, leaving their victim to die.

Take it from me, helplessly watching the life ebbing away from the eyes of someone thrown out of a car hit by a manically speeding hit and run killer is all it takes to leave you with a lifelong loathing of irresponsible driving, and I don't care if this is a subjective reaction: of course it bloody well is. This category of selfish, unscrupulous driver has to be deterred from speeding, and traffic calming does this. It is not just a matter of humps and crossings, and mini roundabouts - there are many different approaches, and yes, I would say on a case by case basis, each location requiring individual consideration.

There is barely a week goes by in this borough without a serious road accident: only yesterday there was a crash in Hendon involving no fewer than five cars. It's time our Tory councillors shook themselves out of their complacency and took urgent action to make the roads of Broken Barnet a safer place. Perhaps if they spent less time and energy devoted to One Barnet schemes for making money out of traffic management, and more devoted to the well being of the residents they are supposed to represent, we might actually start to think they are worthy of the job we pay them to do.

Sunday 22 May 2011

MetPro Inquiry: now you see it, now you don't

If you cast your mind back to the last but one full Barnet council meeting, you may recall that an emergency motion calling for an urgent public inquiry into the MetPro scandal was thrown out by a unanimous Tory vote, and we were informed by acting leader Andrew Harper that such an inquiry was totally unneccessary, as the matter was being referred for investigation by the internal audit committee.

Since then there has been no further public statement, no announcement of the date of the meeting, (16th June), no explanation of the remit of the committee, its scope, or powers of investigation. The only information we have has been chiselled out of individual councillors, after efforts made by local bloggers. After asking Lord Palmer for information, he made it clear that he was not entirely certain of the direction of the investigation, and told bloggers that he needed 'space' in which to take on board his duties and reflect on the committee's approach.

We now have the clearest indication possible of the committee's approach. Blogger Mr Reasonable was sent the following clarification as to the terms of reference on Friday by Lord Palmer:

"This is not an ‘inquiry’ but a detailed internal audit

The report will be published as all Council committee reports are published. Members of the Public can apply to speak prior to the committee discussing the audit report."

So there we have it. No inquiry: an audit. And therefore, we can be sure, the only view of the whole stinking heap of shite that this committee will take, with their One Barnet pegs on noses, will be from a financial point of view. Errors in procedure will be found to have been made, unsanctioned by senior officers and councillors, some poor sod lower down the scale will get the blame, and those really responsible will get off scot free.

All other aspects of this matter will be deemed beyond the remit of an audit committee: the lack of licensing and CRB checks, the covert filming of residents, the failure of the council to obtain the original footage, the secret destruction of the copy they were given.

There will be no answers given to the most interesting questions of all, such as: how did MetPro come to be taken on by Barnet in the first place? Oh - and were there any councillors or senior council officers involved in the introduction and approval of the company?

Worst of all, perhaps is the fact that the committee which is holding the audit could be held responsible itself for failing to out into place the very procedures which allowed the irregular use of this company to continue unchallenged for five years.

I took a look at the minutes of the last Audit Committee meeting in March. What I found hardly inspired me with any confidence as to the rigour of its scrutiny or its powers to change the ways in which council finances are organised. Look at the following extract, which comes from a meeting of the committee which was informed by Tom Foster, from external auditors Grant Thornton, that out of twenty audit reports undertaken between November 2010 and January 2011, no fewer than eight were graded as 'below satisfactory assurance'. That's 40% of all audit reports ... According to Item 9:

INTERNAL AUDIT, RISK MANAGEMENT AND CORPORATE ANTI FRAUD TEAM (CAFT) ANNUAL PLAN 2011-12 (Report of the Assistant Director of Finance, Audit and Risk Management – Agenda Item 9) The Assistant Director of Finance, Audit and Risk Management introduced the report. The Committee discussed whether consideration could be given to request that for all Council outsourced contracts of high risk or above a certain total value, for example £500,000, the Council retains a right to obtain assurances from the company, if the Council considers this appropriate. The Committee requested that they should receive a presentation from the relevant Directorate on the expected governance/assurance arrangements of the One Barnet projects that are outsourced.

Why is Barnet Council, already committed to enormous private contracts, and about to embark on a mammoth launch of further outsourcing of services, only now considering the safeguards it might need to have in place? It is absolutely unbelievable, isn't it?

I don't doubt the integrity of Monroe Palmer: I am sure that he was as shocked as anyone by the MetPro debacle. It is clear, however, that the audit committee is simply not capable of taking on this issue and giving an adequate and objective assessment of what went wrong, or what should be done about it.

As I was navigating the council website, this neat little example of One Barnet doublespeak caught my eye - according to our masters at NLBP:

Governance is ‘The highest standard of transparency, integrity and accountability in the way in which the Council and its partners operate, embodied in a set of rules and procedures'.

Hmm, that may well be true, but this is not exactly how we do things here, is it, Mr Walkley?

Friday 20 May 2011

Broken Barnet: Apocalypse Now

On Wednesday, as we know, Tory councillor Andrew Harper astounded us all by making a somewhat unnecessarily hasty and undignified lunge for the vacant leadership of Barnet Council.

Such a move is a little premature, you might well think, coming so soon, indeed, after the previous night's meeting ... but perhaps we might have predicted that, in his case. Let's hope that it doesn't all go horribly wrong: Mrs Angry would hate to see you end up as a member without a portfolio, Andrew ...

And then yesterday .... ha ha: yesterday the local Times published a story:

"Coleman does not rule himself out of council leadership bid"

In Colemanspeak this means our Brian wants to be leader, deserves to be leader, all the other boys at the GLA have been leaders, it isn't fair, but he is not entirely confident yet of being able to wangle enough votes to make it worthwhile to risk the potential embarrassment of badly losing the contest.

Oh dear. Mrs Angry is torn. On the one hand, as a blogger, she would love Brian to be leader, as this would guarantee an eternal supply of stories and amusement. On the other hand, as a resident, she shrinks in horror at the thought of what the consequences would be for us if he was in control.

There will be an awful lot of busy phone lines, this weekend, here in Broken Barnet - would be candidates will be ringing around the quaking Tory councillors, with all sorts of indecent proposals. I am reliably informed that what usually happens is that most councillors secretly promise their support to all of the candidates, so the outcome is hard to predict.

This may all be academic anyway, as of course this weekend is going to be disrupted by events of enormous significance. No, not more engineering work on the Northern Line. Citizens: in case no one has warned you, don't make any plans for tomorrow, after 6pm, as apparently the world is ending.

According to Californian minister Harold Camping, before the end comes tomorrow, just between 'So you think you can dance' and Dr Who, we will see the day of Rapture, when the Lord returns to earth, there will be bit of pointing of fingers and judgement and all that kind of hard core stuff, and sadly, only two per cent of you will then be taken up to heaven, along with Mrs Angry and, oh not sure who else, actually. Mr Reasonable, possibly. The rest will be moved to Haringey.

We know this is going to happen because there have been signs and portents. One of the indications, of course, is the sudden revelation of the identity of the false prophet: the Beast. Hmm.

I love the smell of burning bridges in the morning, don't you?

*Update: tune in to BBC Radio London, tonight, Friday, 6.20pm, to hear local resident Julia Hines debate with Brian Coleman the thorny subject of Barnet's appalling road traffic record.
**Update: Mr Toad is now unavailable, for some reason ...
***Update Saturday, 7.15pm: Mrs Angry apologises for any confusion: apparently the world has not ended, or at least if it has, heaven is not all its cracked up to be ... or am I in Haringey?

Thursday 19 May 2011

What a difference a day makes ...

Tuesday evening's council meeting, and the installation of the new Mayor of Barnet, was as we know, overshadowed by the news of the illness of Tory leader Lynne Hillan, who is suffering from lung cancer, and has stood down from her position.

At the meeting, deputy Andrew Harper was appointed interim leader, and led tributes to Ms Hillan, remarking, at some length, upon the sombre mood of the evening, and stating with emphasis that 'no one can feel more sombre than I do ...' He said that he was taking on the role of interim leader 'with deep humility'.

The Barnet bloggers, and anti cuts activists, have all tried very hard to act with sensitivity after the news of Ms Hillan's illness was broken. The protest which was to have taken place before the meeting on Tuesday night was cancelled for that reason. On a personal level I feel particularly sorry for the former leader, as my own mother died not so many years ago from lung cancer, and I know what a huge fight she is facing, and the distress that her son must be feeling.

Like fellow blogger Roger T, therefore, I was frankly staggered to see the news story, published online yesterday, Wednesday, at 5.10 pm in the local Times group paper, headlined: 'Councillor Andrew Harper announces bid for Barnet Council Leadership'.

Less than 24 hours after his solemn address to the council chamber, Mr Harper is cheerily described as being the first to 'throw his hat into the ring' for the leadership contest.

The story is accompanied by a ludicrous picture of Mr Harper smiling happily - squatting, as it happens - by a pair of recycling boxes full of shoes, empty bottles and other rubbish. Perhaps this is a library picture, and perhaps he did not intend this story to appear so quickly in the press, but in that case I really would have thought it might have been appropriate to keep his mouth firmly shut about his own or anyone else's political intentions until a decent interval had elapsed.

Evidently we are going to see a desperate and undignified struggle here in Barnet now for the vacant leader's post. So much is at stake, after all.

It is of course an opportunity for someone to step up, take responsibility for the mess this administration has landed us all in, and - as has happened in Suffolk - put a halt to the programme of massive outsourcing of services that has been foisted on us, before it is all too late.

I really hope that this will happen, and I urge the long excluded, disaffected back bench members of the Tory group to do their duty to the residents of this borough, and elect a new leader who will not only bring a new direction to the management of this borough, but is capable of rebuilding the dysfunctional relationship that now exists between the local authority and the people it is supposed to represent.

Sadly, the leadership contest that has started with such unseemly haste is only likely to be viewed by the candidates amongst this Tory group as an opportunity for their own political ambitions and self interest.

Business as usual, then, here in Broken Barnet.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Rites of Passage: the annual council meeting

When Mrs Angry arrived at the Town Hall tonight, there were very few people waiting outside for entry to the public gallery, and a load of police officers were driving away in a mini bus. Was this a good sign, or a bad one? The Chief Executive came out and waved cheekily at Mrs Angry, and yelled something at her about goats and sheep - and grass. Not now, thank you, need to concentrate. Actually, at first she thought he was perhaps having some sort of out of body experience and might be in need of a lie down before the council meeting, but it turned out a local farm had come to protest outside about something, with a few of the occupants let loose on the patch of lawn by the entrance.

When we were allowed in, once again the way was flanked with a completely over the top escort of security staff (very, very polite ones, mind you) and council officers: the arrangements for the Queen's visit to Dublin pales into insignificance, in comparison, frankly.

The public gallery was already stuffed full with guests of councillors, all come to see the enthronement of the new Mayor. Tonight Anthony Finn was passing over his duties to Toyah Wilcox lookalike Lisa Rutter. This ludicrous spectacle took an eternity, most of the evening in fact, and was deeply comical, in a way that only the councillors of Broken Barnet can manage.

Moth eaten old robes, the aged footmen in their breeches, bowing and scraping, waving maces around, walking backwards and forwards, the public made to stand up and sit down, stand up and sit down. All the Tory councillors were wearing trimmed Hogwarts Academy style gowns, and the Labour lot were sporting red roses. Speeches, more speeches, thanks, congratulations, thank you for your congratulations.

And guess who was all blinged up, with that swimming medal on a ribbon he likes to wear: little Brian Coleman, who took a major role in the proceedings, rather like the Archbishop of Canterbury at a coronation. At one point, he solemnly escorted Lisa Rutter into a sideroom where he did things to her, don't know what exactly, some sort of anointing with holy oil, I imagine. When she emerged, anyway, she was wearing the Mayor's gear, and a startled expression.

Mrs Rutter was given the gold chain of office and before anyone could stop him, Mr Jeff Lustig, the Director of Corporate Governance, started fondling her long blonde hair, the old fox, right there, in front of everyone, including a couple of sea cadets, mind you. Shameless. It was a moment of palpable erotic tension, and the whole chamber held its breath. He pretended her hair was caught in the chain, then, of course.

The new Mayor made a speech. 'Your Eminence', she began. I do think Brian is getting a little above himself, don't you? She thought the role of civic Mayor was a wonderful thing. 'Hear, hear', grunted His Eminence.

Then it was time for the Deputy Mayor to be inducted into the arcane mysteries of his new office. Yes, biscuit loving Councillor Barry Evangeli was led off to the side room where it was his turn for the initiation ceremony, and a plate of hobnobs.

Of course a few of the Tory councillors are -ssh - masons, and this sort of thing is run of the mill for them. They love all the ritual, and vows, and walking around in daft costumes. For the rest of us it was a pointless, outdated and timewasting exercise.

More speeches. God help us.

The evening then took on a more sombre tone, as the Chief Executive read out a letter from the absent council leader, Lynne Hillan. Ms Hillan is gravely ill in hospital and has decided to stand down as leader. Her colleagues and members of all parties paid tribute to her and wished her well.

The Director of Corporate Governance announced that there was now a vacancy for council leader, which would be temporarily filled by deputy Andrew Harper, until the next council meeting and an opportunity to vote for a replacement.

At last, some council business. Unfortunately, it was the formal vote for the approval of the constitutional 'reforms' mentioned in the previous post. Labour's Alison Moore and LibDem Jack Cohen tried to plead for some last moment reconsideration of alternative model three, for a sense of remorse over the anti-democratic nature of the new measures, the erosion of rights held by councillors, on behalf of their constituents, held for fifty years or more. Opposition councillors protested about the stifling of debate, the further concentration of power to the Cabinet at the expense of the wider involvement of the other councillors.

And then a most peculiar thing happened. Mrs Angry could hardly believe it. Councillor Brian Coleman stood up and suggested that the 'reforms' didn't really signify anyway, as the new Localism bill was on its way. Good grief: and then, he suddenly announced that - and I hope I understood this, as it seems so unlikely - that he was now in favour of abandoning the executive/Cabinet system and a return to the previous committee based direction.

Er: really? This from the man who submitted the constitutional proposal that will ensure that in future, only the leader of the council and the opposition leader will have the right to speak on motions, policy items and committee reports? How very odd. Has Eric Pickles been giving our Brian a hard time, do you think? Or has the anxiety of the next twelve months campaigning for the GLA elections frightened him out of his usual gung ho political stance into a new, warmer, touchy feely, inclusive Brian Coleman?

Oh hang on. At this point I need to issue a warning. Are you sitting down?

Rumour has it that - ha ha: 'friends' of Brian (as if) are 'urging' him to stand for the leadership of Barnet Council. Yeah, right. Mrs Angry can believe that Mr Toad would love to be leader: after all, he must realise that he is very likely to lose his GLA post to Andrew Dismore, and will lose a whopping amount of his income and all of his larger power base. Being leader of Barnet pays very nicely, and is a doddle: leave all the work to council officers, blame them if it goes wrong, take the credit if it doesn't. So, is he trying to build bridges with the wider Tory group in Barnet? Vote for me and I will bring you all back into the process of government?

Hmm. Thing is, our Brian is not exactly revered and adored by his fellow Tories in Barnet. In fact, Mrs Angry can exclusively reveal that before the Labour nomination for the GLA campaign was secured by Andrew Dismore, local Tories were alleged to be backing Dismore themselves, whispering in the corridors with unexpected allies, and praying that Labour would choose the most credible rival to their own Tory candidate.

Coleman is seen as a -what is the word - a maverick by most Tories, in fact: his pomposity, all the travelling expenses, his Assetco hamper, his continual networking and enjoyment of wining and dining, his frequently tactless utterances, his behaviour during the firefighters' dispute: all this headline grabbing nonsense has had an incremental effect on his chances for re-election. In Barnet, the chances of persuading his colleagues to back him for leadership must be,well, minimal, at best.

In the meanwhile, deputy leader Andrew Harper is stepping up to the mark. He must so want the permanent post. Here he is, backing the reform proposals and model one. Boy, is he keen. He has mentioned his increased portfolio again tonight, and frankly, it really is enormous now: Mrs Angry wonders how he can fit it all in. He says he is rising to support the plans. Er, it is premature, though -uh oh - to think about executive arrangements. No, stop thinking about executive arrangements, too much of a turn on, think about something else - always works. Michael Gove, or Jeremy Clarkson, or the price of fish, or oh, oops, too late: never mind.

The Tories' motion was carried of course, and democracy in Broken Barnet has had a right kick in the teeth are a result. What did you expect?

Tonight's meeting was also the preamble to the rearrangement of committee membership, and the new membership of other bodies was announced by the Mayor. If Mrs Angry's admittedly unreliable hearing was correct, Councillor Robert Rams has been elected to a position with the Friends of Barnet Libraries: ha, yes, really, and get this: Andrew Harper is taking part in the Youth Games - what?

The committee appointments will be announced in the next few days: much anticipation from the lucky winners, of course. Last year, when this muncipal patronage was being handed out, the phones at NLBP were red hot with greedy little councillors desperate to know how much their extra allowances were. I am sure the same is true now.

If you remember, last year we were assured by the Tory Cabinet that, in line with allowance increases, councillors would be subjected to performance appraisal. Here we are, twelve months later, and there is still absolutely no sign of this promise being honoured. But then honour is not a quality we associate with the Tory councillors of Broken Barnet is it?

MetPro: the inquiry they don't want you to know about - and isn't an inquiry anyway

Just to follow up on yesterday's post: Mrs Angry's spies tell her that the long promised internal audit committee 'inquiry' into the MetPro scandal is to be quietly wedged into a meeting on the 16th June, alongside the normal business of the agenda, such as items relating to accounts. High priority, as you see.

LibDem councillor Lord Palmer, who chairs this committee, has said that he wants members of the public to be able to contribute to this inquiry, yet, as we have pointed out, no publicity whatever has been given to the date or arrangements for the meeting, no explanation as to the scope and terms of reference, no announcement or press release inviting any residents who may wish to take part either in person or by writing to make themselves known.

Members of the public will receive no information regarding the committee until the papers are published, within days of the meeting itself. And unless you are so short of entertainment that you are regularly in the habit of reading the council's meeting schedules online, you won't know these papers have been published. Which is how they want it, of course, because this is how we engage with residents, in this borough, keeping them in the dark as much as possible, and covering our tracks when we cock things up.

You might feel that any self respecting council might be ashamed to be caught casually using an unlicensed collection of bouncers to spy on residents, and hang around council offices, boasting in publicity of their 'compassionate steel' approach - at an annual cost of £1.2 million pounds of tax payers money.

You might feel the council would be keen to show that it is capable of investigating such a mess with some honesty, competence and credibility. But this is Broken Barnet, where there is no shame in being incompetent and dishonest, and credibility is irrelevant.

Never fear, Mrs Angry is here, and happy to provide you with some pointers, should you wish to take part in this stage managed inquiry. On your behalf she tried to checkout the membership of the audit committee, and track down the names of the officers who belong to the council's own audit team. You might be asking why this team hasn't already spotted the payments to a non contracted private company, but there you go ...

She should tell you that it was not easy to find out these contact details: on the council's website listing of committees, audit is strangely missing, and the only information about officers appears to be three years out of date. But then a nice officer in Corporate Governance said he would try to find the links she needed.

The information, he said, (and here Mrs Angry had to apologise to him for laughing), would normally be available from someone called the 'Transparency and Openness' manager' - (there's another non job for you, eh, Mr Mustard ... )but she is on holiday and therefore ( and I am paraphrasing, obviously, what little transparency and openness Barnet might pretend to have is temporarily unavailable. The officer has also reminded Mrs Angry of an interesting fact: that tonight's annual council meeting will appoint new committee memberships.

Over at the Barnet Eye blog Mr Tichborne reminds us of this too: committee membership, and especially the position of chair of said committees, is where good little councillors get their rewards for toeing the party line and keeping their heads down. If you remember, and it is always worth repeating this, last year the councillors voted in a 54% pay rise for the lucky Chairs. In some cases the committees meet only twice a year, now earning the fortunate individual some £14k of tax payers' money for the privilege. One Barnet: a relentless drive for efficiency, better services for less money - unless you are a Tory councillor.

At tonight's annual council meeting there was to have been a protest organised by the Barnet Alliance Against the Cuts. In view of the sad news of the very serious illness of council leader Lynne Hillan, the protest has been cancelled.

The meeting will proceed as normal, however, and it is important that residents attend. At this meeting the Tory councillors of our borough will be voting through a raft of consitutional 'reforms', as reported in April post ' The Usual Suspects: or how to silence debate in Broken Barnet'.

These indefensibly undemocratic new measures will effectively remove the rights of councillors other than Cabinet members to speak in meetings or submit motions, as well further undermine the rights of members of the public to engage in the democratic process. In a magnificent display of One Barnet censorship, new rules on Residents' Forums will now prevent the discussion of issues other than a small list of council approved topics. Not all bad news, though, if you are a developer and some troublemaking resident objects to your plans, Barnet's Tory councillors are going to let you address the planning meeting ...

And let us not forget the other big change: in order, we are told, 'to facilitate timely decision making', the Cabinet will now have powers to spend up to £2.5 million pounds at a go, no questions asked, rather than be restricted to a trifling £250,000 to £1 million.

Your MetPro loving council, so generous with your money, safe in their hands.

Saturday 14 May 2011

Carry On MetPro - The Thick Blue Line

One sunny lunchtime last week, Mrs Angry was sitting idly with a companion outside the Orange Tree in Totteridge, sipping a glass of nicely chilled Chenin Blanc, and thinking, as she frequently does, about nothing of any significance, when she was distracted by the sight of an oddly familiar vehicle driving by.

Yes, look: MetPro Emergency Response, as bold as you like, driving up and down Totteridge Lane, still on duty, protecting the householders of N20 from, well, from what exactly? From dangerous anarchists, agents provacateurs and potential criminals like Mrs Angry, no doubt. Later on, she noted, there was also a MetPro bike parked outside St Edward's College, further down the lane - MetPro keeping a beady eye on those naughty White Father missionaries, presumably. If there are any left. I have to inform you that as she passed the scene, some covert filming took place, in a brilliantly orchestrated hit and run drive-by manoeuvre. Don't tell Senior Officer Sharkey. If he wants a copy, he can kiss Mrs Angry's a***e.

Over the last couple of weeks, as it happens, Mrs Angry has been contacted by rather a lot of people wanting to know why MetPro, which so recently lost its contract, no, no, sorry, not a contract, what was the word ... its 'arrangement' with Barnet Council, is apparently still very much in business in the Totteridge/Whetstone area.

Many are puzzled by the fact that, although the company has apparently been using unlicensed employees, and illicitly filming innocent members of the public at council meetings, it is still visible on the mean streets of Totteridge, driving around in those fabulous MetPro ANPR facilitated cars and bikes, and its operatives are often to be seen stationed on full alert, in the familiar black shirts, combat gear, stab vests, handcuffs, and trousers still sweetly tucked into boots, chilling outside Costa in Whetstone, guarding their skinny lattes, with impressive dedication, for hours on end.

No sightings of the helicopter recently, but maybe the liquidator kept that?

As we know, working unlicensed as a security employee in most circumstances is illegal. A criminal offence. So why is this company still able to operate? Well, Mrs Angry has made enquiries, and is very happy to tell readers that there have been assurances made by the company that for this sort of work, ie aimlessly driving up and Totteridge lane, trying to look hard, apparently, licenses are not necessary. Only necessary, it seems, is a certain number of worried and affluent householders willing to part with substantial amounts of cash for the privilege of their services.

Oh, are you worrying about the data protection issues of filming people without their consent? No: it's ok. Those cameras you might have seen on the vehicles driving up and down - we are told that they are not plugged in! And we believe this, don't we?

In fact, so impressive is the service offered by this company that Mrs Angry is wondering whether or not to suggest to the senior police officers of Broken Barnet (see above, on a recent visit to Whetstone Police Station) that they should seriously consider outsourcing all safer neighbourhood duties and perhaps even the borough's emergency response to them, in a sort of One Barnet style joint private venture enterprise? Who needs the Met, when you can have MetPro?

After all, according to their website, the company offers to provide services such as crime response: arrest and detention of intruders, emergency medical care, fire attack and evacuation (just like AssetCo): think of the years of training they must undergo - what more could you ask for? This would take a huge burden off our local police, who could, oh I don't know, spend more time sitting with their feet up on their desks, with a nice cup of tea, reading the local blogs, safe in the knowledge that MetPro are doing their work for them.

MetPro also says they will respond to security alarms, as keyholders, with officers - ah, hang on, it says officers equipped with body worn cctv which records everything they see and hear on arrival. Hmm. Obviously they can't do that now, can they? Maybe they could take notes instead.

There might be one or two niggling little details to clear up first. After advice from the Information Commissioner, who is investigating the whole sorry business, Mrs Angry wrote a subject access request from MetPro for the film footage the company has from the infamous council meeting of March 1st. She hasn't had a reply. This is not very good, is it, Mr MetPro?

Perhaps she was given the wrong address by Barnet's Director of Corporate Governance, who, despite the £1.2 million pounds of our money paid annually to the company, claims to have no other contact point other than a generic email address. One might wonder how MetPro's monthly bills used to be settled. In a brown envelope, slid across the table at Costa?

In the meanwhile, citizens of Totteridge Lane, sleeping on your mattresses stuffed with freshly laundered euros and quivering behind your gated driveways, if you have any questions about the company, or need a reference, Mrs Angry suggests you contact your local councillor, Brian Coleman, whom she is confident will be only too pleased to reassure you, in his usual modest and helpful manner. Why not drop him an email?

While you are at it, why not ask him what has happened to the internal audit committee/cover up we were promised into the MetPro affair by the Chief Executive, Nick Walkley, now nearly six weeks ago, in lieu of what is really necessary, ie a full, open and independent inquiry? Absolutely no public statement regarding the date or arrangements for this excuse for an investigation has been made.

Is there some reason, do you think, why Barnet Council is trying to delay any scrutiny of the way in which this company was used, without a tender process, contract, or any regular assessment of its performance in delivery of service?

I cannot think what that might be, can you?

Only Connect - BT and the cult of Vital Vision

As we know, one of the many curious links between the Tory run local authorities of Broken Barnet and beleaguered Suffolk County Council is the fact that several key players from both authorities have been part of a program run by BT known as 'Vital Vision'. One key player, a BT employee on long term secondment, has, in fact moved from Barnet to Suffolk.

The Vital Vision program identifies certain leading public sector figures, invites them to the US to attend a couple of courses and encourages them to think about new ways of doing business. At the end of this, they are given a certificate -( look Mum, I've got an MBA!) - and sent home, with a head full of bewildering new thoughts, and promises of follow up events in the UK.

There are two ways of looking at this sort of hospitality. Perhaps it is just a harmless sort of entertainment, like sending your kids to football camp in the school holidays, to keep them out of mischief, and collect a few plastic trophies. Alternatively, it might be thought that it is much more than that, and rather less innocuous: more like some sort of cult movement, a training camp, hidden away in the corporate foothills, created to indoctrinate impressionable or easily flattered individuals and replace them as sleeper agents in the public sector, primed and ready to unload a campaign of business friendly strategies wherever they work. Maybe. No doubt, as usual, the truth lies somewhere in between.

And they work in all sorts of areas now, these Vital Vision graduates, or, tellingly, as they are referred to in BT speak, these 'visionaries'. Stop sniggering. Find them now, these prophets of profit, in central government departments, in local government, the NHS, the police, all over the UK. A trawl on the internet readily reveals a number of people, well known and less high profile, who have attended the programme - having asked taxpayers, via their local authorities or employers, to pay thousands of pounds from training budgets in order to cover costs.

And look what else you can find on the internet, relating to Vital Vision. Some rather perplexing documents, in fact.

A BT 'programme sponsor' is quoted in one online editorial (www2.bt.com/application/vitalvision ) as follows:

"Vital Vision brings together a unique mix of senior Government decision-makers, BT research partners, and leading academic institutions including Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford and MIT.

The goal is to explore current business thinking and how it can best be applied to Government. The process is enhanced by the quality of the participants, and the stimulating, interactive environment they create. It is designed to be 'of the participants, by the participants and is most definitely not a sales event." (my emphasis in bold print)

Not a sales event. Note that.

Now then. Mrs Angry has discovered another BT document, a pdf file entitled Vital Vision Final, dating from 2005, a rather revelatory publication. (*Update October 2012: this document disappeared from the web shortly after this post was published, for some reason ... ) Mrs Angry can't help thinking that it was never intended for public access, in view of much of the material. Here are some interesting extracts:

"A typical “Vital Visionary” is a forward thinking chief executive officer (CEO) or someone who is seen as on the “fast track” to CEO. They must be the kind of person who will shape the views of others and contribute their intellect unstintingly. This is key because this ensures that the impact of Vital Vision reaches far beyond those that actually attend. The participants design vital Vision so their contribution is a necessity – this is not a passive experience. The relationship impact is clearly documented here, with various examples from clients involved in the program and from BT senior managers responsible for those relationships. The revenue link is also clearly measured and demonstrated along with some unforeseen bonuses delivered by Vital Vision.The revenue link is also clearly measured and demonstrated along with some unforeseen bonuses delivered by Vital Vision." (again, my emphasis in bold) "

The document goes on to explain how the program works:

"The participant is inducted as a “Vital Visionary” by a personal in-depth interview where we determine the key issues with which they are grappling. This information is amalgamated to ensure that the content of the program is designed to be as relevant as possible for the group. We also explore the individual’s personality profile, learning profile and emotional intelligence to help us to determine the best method for delivery."

(I'm guessing that some of the more intellectually challenged 'Visionaries' we know about here in Broken Barnet may have had to have been sat down in front of a blackboard, with chalk diagrams, and milk and biscuits at playtime, in that case ...)

What is the content of the program itself?

"The programme encompasses visits to BT’s partner business schools in the US, as well as workshops and briefings in the UK to create a strong relationship between BT senior managers and senior clients. The “hot-house” environment successfully recreates a collegiate atmosphere of “work hard - play hard”, encouraging delegates to bond more quickly and to a deeper level than is experienced in usual business, or even hospitality situations."

Frankly, there is nothing on the proposed schedule for that year which could not be read in a 'Public Sector Management for Dummies' manual. One day's heavy MIT/Harvard timetable is - Morning: 'Engaging the Citizen'. Lunch. 'Leadership in the Public Sector'. Dinner in the Aquarium. (wet suits provided, presumably). Another day: 'Morning: 'Change is a Risky Dance' (American Smooth?). Lunch. 'The Digital Divide'. Theatre visit.' And for this you get an MBA? ... But what is clear is what is important is not the message, but the medium: attendees are made to feel important, hand picked, respected for their perceived intellect and leadership qualities. No, no, you cynic, don't laugh behind your hand: and remember, this is not a sales opportunity.

As with any well run cult, the Vital Vision program will pursue its acolytes even unto death, or rather what passes for corporate life in the UK:

"After this initial induction year we run an alumni program of one-day events throughout the year. This ensures that we remain engaged and continue to leverage these relationships on an ongoing basis."

Underneath a graph detailing business won by BT as a result of the program, there is a listing of the all round benefits of the scheme:

"The benefits to BT include: -

• Increasing the perception of BT as the kind of
company that will work with the public sector to use
ICT to address business issues - Ok, if you say so.

• To open debates about business issues from the
CEO perspective - Fair enough.

• Improving the credibility of BT as an innovative
ICT supplier - Yes, alright, and -

• Improvement in win rate on over £1bn of business
(contract value) annuall - Ah ...

Influencing the thinking of the chief executives to
shape their agenda - Er, why? What business is it of yours, BT?

The generation of £7m worth of PR including
Channel 4 news and the national press along with
radio and internet coverage." - Really? Channel 4 News? No shit. Class.

Appendix 1 in this document is a listing of nominated attendees to the 2005/6 program, individuals from all parts of the public sector: did they want to be listed in such detail, one wonders? There is also a reference to ... a total opportunity value of £1.7 billion pounds.

Next to the names of the lucky people nominated, are further details of BT's 'opportunities', under columns marked 'Sales Stage' - either 'Create Awareness' or 'Develop Solution', and then the individual issues of each attendee, such as videoconferencing, or data storage, or broadband supply. We then find columns with 'Expected close date', and ah: 'Contract Value' - and even 'Probability'.

Now Mrs Angry is happy to emphasise that in the course of providing this Vital Vision program, BT is acting perfectly legally and above board, and the nominated attendees naturally join the program with perfectly open and honest expectations. I am sure that they leave in the same happy state, with their innocence intact. There is nothing to suggest in this document that any pressure was brought to bear on attendees to give business to BT, or that any business was given as a result of any inducement or hospitality. All contracts in the public sector are, as we know, subject to stringent procurement, tendering and contract regulation. (Except, sshh, in Broken Barnet. MetPro, anyone?)

The details in this document are clearly five or six years old. It may well be that since then sales targeting has been completely abandoned in favour of a totally altruistic, educational program by BT, as some sort of charitable enterprise, working philanthropically with the more academically disadvantaged members of our corporate community. Well, it's always possible, isn't it?

But in Mrs Angry's considered view, it is not possible to feel comfortable with the idea of the largest provider of ICT to the public sector forging such intimate relations with so many well placed executives and leaders and seeking to exert such lasting and profound influence through them in their areas of work. Both in terms of access to the potential clients, and the ability to shape policy decisions, this is surely not in the best interests of transparency and accountability in public office. Why should any one private company, of any size, be in such a powerful and favourable position when so much public investment is at stake?

If there is any evidence supporting doubt about the benefit to tax payers of any outsourced service, whether in terms of value, or safety, or performance, the suspicion might reasonably arise that the contract may not have been awarded entirely on the basis of merit. And can the other bidders in any tender process resort to such priviliged access to potential clients?

Apart from the lack of clarity over the award of contracts, what influence has the Vital Vision program had on the shaping of policy in councils now favourable to massive outsourcing and all the opportunities it brings to the private sector, in the widest sense, not just in terms of BT/ ICT and telecom services? These are all valid questions which someone should be asking. Has anyone actually done this?

Of course the private sector wants to see the advance of outsourcing, and the huge market expansion that will come with it, bringing endless opportunities for profit from the tax payer. All the more reason why, wherever possible, we must be vigilant, and closely scrutinise the processes that deliver huge contracts into the hands of companies, not just the global masters like BT, but of all sizes. And here in Broken Barnet, we have more reason than others to be concerned about how much scrutiny will be necessary, don't we?

Friday 13 May 2011

Lost blog

Oh dear: thanks to blogger crashing yesterday, Mrs Angry has lost the last published blogpost, ie Only connect: BT and the cult of Vital Vision.
Mrs Angry is not in a very good mood.
She will endeavour to rewrite the post when she is feeling less irritable.

Update Saturday: Mrs Angry's sanity has been saved by the foresight of a reader, who kept a copy, now reinstated. Many thanks David.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Outsourcing: an open letter to the councillors of Broken Barnet

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Time to pull back from the One Barnet Programme

Dear councillor,

Next Tuesday 17 May is the council’s AGM. As residents we see this as an opportunity for the Council to do some stocktaking and signal a change of direction.

The One Barnet Programme (OBP) was initially presented as the new and innovative approach to the future of Council services. However, as soon as the first reports were published it became clear that there was little evidence behind many of the exaggerated claims being made by the consultants paid to advise on the programme.

We are aware that many councillors doubt whether OBP can deliver the savings and improved services Barnet residents expect. We share those anxieties.

Last week saw the publication of a number of articles in the mainstream press supporting the view that mass outsourcing does not save money, is high risk, and has a negative impact on staff morale. We hope you will take the time to read the extracts from some of those articles which follow.

The fate of Suffolk County Council

Suffolk County Council last September declared its intention to become the first “virtual council”. The Chief Executive pushing this programme, under the name New Strategic Direction (NSD), was being supported by Max Wide, on secondment from BT. As you know, Wide was one of the architects of Future Shape/One Barnet.

Since announcing their intention to outsource most services, Suffolk has been dogged by controversy. In December they were accused of ignoring a £100 million overspend on a deal with BT. (See article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/dec/16/suffolk-council-bt-overspend.)

In the last few days there have been big changes in the Conservative Party in Suffolk as a result of concerns about NSD, and the scheme has been halted. The Guardian newspaper reports:

The previous council leader, Jeremy Pembroke, who helped oversee the plans... stepped down in April amid concern about the deeply unpopular changes. An inquiry was begun into morale at the council's legal department after an anonymous whistleblowing letter, sent to councillors, and believed to be from an employee, alleged staff there had been put under "unbearable pressure". The letter refers to "the poisonous atmosphere that exists at present" in the council.

(Full article here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/may/04/suffolk-virtual-council-plan.)

The BBC has reported on its website:

MPs were concerned that Suffolk County Council chief executive's policies threatened to "rip the heart out" of local communities. Negotiations are reported to be going on between the council and its chief executive Andrea Hill who has not returned to work after a holiday and is now reported to be on "extended leave". Suffolk Central Conservative MP Dr Dan Poulter said he and fellow MPs had been worried about the direction the council was taking under Ms Hill.

(To see the BBC interview with Poulter visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-suffolk-13312597.)

Outsourcing should not be the automatic response to austerity.

The public sector IT managers’ association SOCITM has published a research briefing called Costs of outsourcing: uncovering the real risks.

The report’s author, Martin Greenwood, warns:

Outsourcing should not be considered an inevitable response to austerity. Even smaller organisations that need to gain economies of scale, and struggle to keep up with technological development, should consider collaboration and sharing with other local public services as a genuine alternative. If they do take the plunge into outsourcing, they should make sure they are aware of the pitfalls and know how to avoid them. ...It is a myth that outsourcing is cheaper, across most areas it is more expensive and people outsource for a range of reasons other than cost.

The report reveals that “when comparing the costs for any service, most elements will be more expensive if outsourced. The risks associated with benchmarking begin at the tender stage when suppliers will benefit from being experts at the process of negotiating contract terms, in contrast with the local authority that will go to market only rarely for a major outsourcing.”

(More details: http://www.socitm.net/news/article/76/new_briefing_highlighs_outsourcing_risks.)

The government is rowing back on mass outsourcing of public services.

The BBC reported a recent meeting between the CBI and the minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, where the minister explained:

...the government is committed to transforming services, but this would not be a return to the 1990s with wholesale outsourcing to the private sector – this would be unpalatable to the present administration. The government was not prepared to run the political risk of fully transferring services to the private sector with the result that they could be accused of being naive or allowing excess profitmaking by private sector firms. [Note of meeting by CBI]

(Read more here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-13273932.)

The articles above point to the folly of schemes such as the One Barnet Programme.

In the last two months the Council’s poor procurement and contract monitoring capacity has been demonstrated by the MetPro, Catalyst (legionella bacterium) and SAP cases. These have all harmed the Council’s reputation. Yet these are small contracts when compared to what OBP is proposing. With OBP the risks will be much higher.

We are asking the Conservative administration to bring OBP to a close before it is too late.

Millions of pounds of public money has already been spent on consultants, with no discernible savings achieved, and the losses could well be multiplied many fold going forward. Residents and Barnet council staff are increasingly anxious about the future of Barnet council services. Councillors should be too.

Last September the Leader said “I would always listen to the community” when she reversed the decision to increase councillors’ allowances. We are asking you to listen now.

There is still time to put the brakes on the One Barnet Programme. We urge you to do so.

Yours sincerely,

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne

Saturday 7 May 2011

Mrs Angry: enemy of the state

After the last blogpost, on the subject of Suffolk, Barnet and the BT Vital Vision links, Mrs Angry has noted some rather unusual visitors calling by. Goodness me, so many visits from a corporate BT intranet blogwatch: why is that, do you think? Hmm: and then, she noticed a very odd thing - visits from a site with a curious marker. Mrs Angry did some poking about to see what she could find out about this IP, and do you know, readers, if she were of a paranoid disposition, she might be feeling slightly concerned. Again.

This caller's IP is associated by some with a certain type of official snooping activity. Now, Mrs Angry is in a position to know that in fact blogs are subject to scrutiny by such enterprises (don't ask me how I know, as I will have to kill you all, and I can't really spare the time - too much ironing & stuff). This sort of thing is often kicked off by key word triggers. Oh dear. Things like 'surveillance' in combination with other words. Yes: one search by this site brought someone here via a certain politician's name and that word in a blog post - which actually was about the illicit filming of residents by our council's former security company, MetPro, rather than, say, stalking certain Tory MPs, shall we say - rather amusing, don't you think?

Some of the imaginative people who subscribe to the conspiracy theory view of life speculate about this sort of internet scrutiny and this particular IP, and link it, for example, to the use of undercover cops to infiltrate activist movements targeting corporate and government bodies, & who are alleged to get up to all sorts of mischief. Agent Provocateur is the word. Oh dear again. Of course, Mrs Angry has mentioned this term recently. Hands up. And sorry to disappoint, because actually, (& don't tell Dave Hill) it was in relation to a discussion of ladies' lingerie, rather than inciting anarchist violence (see the comments stream, 'Mrs Angry, never knowingly underplayed' ...)

So just to make it perfectly clear to visiting snoopers: Mrs Angry is not a rabid anarchist, plotting the downfall of capitalism. She is too lazy, too bourgeois, and too easily distracted. Oh, and the last time she got into trouble for misbehaviour in Trafalgar Square was when she was about four years old, tried to push her annoying cousin Christopher into the fountain, and laughed when a pigeon shat all over her grandmother - see above, the infant Mrs Angry, being firmly kettled by granny.

And er, haven't you got more important things to worry about at the moment?

Now, all joking aside, although Mrs Angry is amused by the attention she is receiving, she is also resolute in her belief that we citizen journalists have a perfect right, and indeed a duty, to raise issues of public interest, including ones that are critical of politicians and major corporations, and she will continue to do so, thank you very much. Since stumbling into this business, she is frankly staggered by the extent of dubious acitivity within the secret world of local government - and not just here in the badlands of Broken Barnet. As the push for private outsourcing rolls relentlessly on, all the more reason for constant vigilance of the workings of our politicians, senior officers, and would be contractors.

In the last couple of blogs we have mentioned the interesting developments at Suffolk County Council, where another Tory council has, like our lunatic administration here in Broken Barnet, dedicated itself to a programme of massive outsourcing and privatisation of council services. On the brink of electoral disaster, the Tory backbenchers on Suffolk council revolted, and the leader resigned, followed shortly by the announcement that there would be an interval of 'reflection' and that the controversial Chief Executive, Andrea Hill, will now be enjoying an extended period of 'gardening leave'.

According to a BBC story today, Ms Hill's leave coincides with an investigation into allegations related to 'whistle-blowing' complaints. She is sorely missed, apparently.

A friend has brought to my attention some amusing verses about Ms Hill written by the performance poet Luke Wright, which include lines such as:

"The last time we saw you your eyes were like ice
your mouth like a festering stab wound, not nice
insisting you keep your extortionate fees
while parts of your county are brought to its knees ...

"Ms Andrea Hill, the people of Suffolk
have seen your PR and they want you to stuff it
they’re still licking wounds from this right-wing insanity
they take little comfort from your doe-eyed vanity."

Mrs Angry has picked up her One Barnet biro, and is chewing the end thoughtfully, thinking naughtily about our CE, Mr Nick Walkley, and waiting for inspiration.

In fact, rumour has it that Ms Andrea Hill was interested in the Barnet CE job, so perhaps we should all be grateful for a lucky escape. He appears not to have been asked on the Vital Vision junkets, (by invitation only, don't you know) which I would take as a compliment, if I were he.

Anyway. The Guardian's Patrick Butler reports in his recent Cuts Blog (apologies, link problems still) that the electoral results from Thursday show the LibDems deflecting much of the Tory's flak for the Coalition's more unpopular traits, and suggesting that many Tory authorities are avoiding the worst effects of drastic cuts in budget by benefiting from generous grants from that nice Mr Pickles.

What is significant, however, is that it seems in areas where Tory ideological 'reforms' are being stuffed down electors' throats, there has been a disastrous reaction in the polls. Hello: Suffolk County Council got a kicking after all, thanks to the now discredited 'virtual council'/'New Strategic Direction' overseen by Ms Hill. And down in Brighton and Hove, the Tories' 'intelligent commissioning' plans were given two fingers by unappreciative voters, leading to a loss of eight seats.

Bearing in mind that such reaction is happening long before the cuts have really started to bite, or the massive scale of outsourcing begun, one might think that any Tory council that dares to continue along this line is writing its own death warrant. This difficult thought will of course take a long time to filter through the One Barnet bilge floating about in the otherwise empty heads of the dimwit Tory councillors in this borough. One or two of the more politically astute might just begin to worry about the personal consequences to their brilliant careers, though, and maybe, just maybe, we will start to see some argument amongst our Tory friends about the extent of their commitment to the outsourcing agenda?