Friday 17 June 2011

MetPro Part Three: Black Holes

It was now time for the MetPro audit report to be presented formally to the committee. Lord Palmer asked the Chief Executive,Nick Walkley, who had been hiding in the audience, to sit on the table with the other officers. The room was silent as Mary Ellen Salter, the head of internal audit, proceeded to read out her summary of the report, in her laconic Australian accent, a long, long, terrible litany of failure upon failure, breaches of regulations, mistake after mistake. The senior officers of Broken Barnet stared at the table. The councillors and the two independent members looked on in ill concealed horror.

John Dix, aka blogger Mr Reasonable, now addressed the committee. The report, he said, was shocking. An authority with a one billion pound budget had ignored the most basic procedures. But what is also signifcant is what is not in the report: the issues of safeguarding and data protection - who was going to address the matter of the destroyed footage, for example?

All these issues left uninvestigated were not going to go away, they would prove to be a festering sore. And then there is the question of who is to blame? There is an extensive and highly paid management team, and yet not one of them had taken responsibility. Who is going to be disciplined? He noted, by the way, that the bloggers who had uncovered all this had gone unacknowledged in the report.

In Mr Reasonable's view, the report's recommendations were ill conceived and utterly ineffectual. The problem was a flawed management culture. The language of change is everywhere, but the management team had taken their eye off the daily processes of administration. He went on to criticise the council's over dependence on so many supposedly short term and extravagantly paid consultants. At this point, Mrs Angry noted, deputy CE and Chief Finance Officer Andrew Travers, an interim officer on a contract of £1,000 a day, had the grace to sit back in his seat, and look embarrassed.

If you think MetPro is bad, continued Mr Reasonable, wait for the arrival of One Barnet and massive outsourcing.


Tory Councillor Hugh Rayner suggested to Mr Reasonable that it was more sensible to get new systems in place than to 'punish people'. Ah but, thought Mrs Angry, the problem is not so much a lack of systems as the fact that officers have been allowed to ignore the systems in place ...

Labour's councillor Brodkin asked Mr R to elaborate.

One Barnet, said Mr Reasonable, was not the be all and all of everything: by being obsessed with this concept officers were losing their focus on the everyday, the nitty gritty, making sure public money os being spent properly, instead of 'flights of fantasy'.

Hello, time for the officers to speak. Let's hear Mr Andrew Travers speak (hold on, can we afford the overtime?) Andrew accepts that the 'core processes' are fundamental. Oh, good. He takes full responsibility - oh? - for issues raised. Oh. More good news: 'We accept the challenges to respond' - thank God, for one moment I thought you might have a prick of conscience and tender (ha, as if) your resignation, and where would we be then, apart from £1,000 a day better off?

They are going to make sure all directors performance is appraised, said Mr Travers. At this point. I'm afraid, Mrs Angry heard herself yell out 'let's appraise yours, then'. You mean these posts aren't already subject to assessment? Just like the appraisal of our councillors, which we were told a year ago by this Tory administration was going to take place but has never been put into effect? Every ordinary council employee, ladies and gentlemen, on a modest salary, regularly has to answer for the work they do by a regular system of appraisal, yet our senior officers and councillors simply take the money and run. Do you think this is fair?

Tory councillor Brian Schama was visibly appalled by what he had seen in the MetPro report and had some scathing suggestions for a basic system to ensure compliance with procurement and accounting regulations. He had an interesting question: how had auditors allowed invoice failure to continue?

Tory Hugh Rayner was also at a loss why the fundamental procedures were not being adhered to. Andrew Travers gave a load of old flannel about control frameworks, and robust systems. He was happy to discuss these issues further with councillors, but 'in a controlled environment'. I'll bet.

Both Mr Traver and Craig Cooper, Director of Commerce, were by now displaying signs of intense unease, hunched up defensively in their seats. Even the external auditors were beginning to move from an attitude of cynical detachment to a state of face touching, chin gripping anxiety. By the time doubts were raised in respect of the full competence of the external audit process, this had moved on to hysterical pen jabbing. Interesting.

Ms Salter declared that the council needed to inspire ' a culture of improvement.' Hmm. there was a lot of talk of culture, last night, which must have been a challenge for the Tory councillors of Broken Barnet, Mrs Angry would guess.

The Chief Executive thought there should be more 'follow through'. He had noted that things come around and around. Oh. That's nice. He thought the action plan would sort things out though. Really?

An independent committee member, Robert Harbord spoke: you cannot defend the indefensible. True. Barnet had controls there, but they were not operated. Indeed. The whole MetPro thing had only been discovered 'by error'. Thanks. And there could be a lot more to come. True again.

The CE wanted to talk about culture (in corporate speak, culture is an amorphous, indefinable entity you can blame for cock ups, whilst absolving yourself of all personal responsibility - useful for retaining a salary of £200,000 plus in the midst of a crisis). He also noted that all these horrible, bad things had happened years ago, funnily enough just before he came. The fact that they were not challenged since is apparently immaterial. He blamed the procurement failures on the devolution of responsibility and thought they needed to make a big shift in the way the council operates, by centralizing power.

The other independent committee member, Deborah Lewis, declared that she thought the MetPro report was 'shocking'. Ms Lewis was obviously concerned about the larger picture too. At one point, talking to Andrew Travers, Ms Lewis made an interesting reference to the possibility or otherwise of a 'big black hole' in the council accounts. Ms Lewis, accidentally or not, used an allusion which did not entirely pass by some of the members of the audience. Mr Travers may not be unfamiliar with the phrase himself: in his last post before fetching up in Barnet, he found himself in the midst of another crisis - working for the London Development Agency, there appears to have been a bit of a problem with the Olympic accounts, which he apparently had to investigate, poor chap:

A convenient place to stop. Enough for today. Final part tomorrow.

1 comment:

baarnett said...

"The Chief Executive ... noted that things come around and around."

They're more like the cast of the Magic Roundabout every day.