Saturday, 24 March 2012

Enticement: an invitation to the One Barnet House of Fun

It is a strange courtship, the competitive dialogue that takes place between a local authority and the businesses that wish to tender for the running of its services.

Not so much a courtship, perhaps, as a long drawn out indecent proposal, a prolonged episode of feeling up, stage managed flirting and whispered promises, playing off one would be lover with another.

Outwardly, the ritualised process follows a strictly ordered set of rules, overseen by protocols, the chaperones jealously guarding the virtue of the body up for sale. In the house of fun here in One Barnet, however, the services on offer are available on a less formal basis, no questions asked - when they think they get away with it. Whether or not you are after a quick screw, or perhaps the thrill of something a little bit more risky, this is the house to come to.

In the house of One Barnet, we are offering two menus, to cater for a range of tastes. Punters interested in the temptation offered by the NSCSO package of fun have been looking at the list of services over the last few months, and some have dropped out, or been shown the door. Now the only gentlemen sitting on the sofa are from BT, and Capita.

Who will win? There are two schools of thought. Some believe that the interesting plan to restructure our call centres neatly fits the BT model, and is an indication therefore in one direction, whereas others think that as Capita is bidding for both bundles of services, it might seem a good idea to give both to the same company. Who knows? Some do know, of that Mrs Angry is fully confident.

On Friday representatives from Capita came to meet six hundred or so staff at Barnet Council, in what was supposed to be a chance to meet the company who may soon be their new employers - in theory, and temporarily, in many cases. A question was asked about the location of jobs, should Capita win the bid. Capita refused to answer, claiming, ridiculously, that it could not give any response to this as it had not yet been selected.

The harsh reality is that many jobs are likely to be moved to whatever location Capita decides is most profitable. As we have reported, there has been evidence to suggest that at least one outsourcing bidder is considering the use of employees in Bangalore. The fact that they will not confirm any committment to keeping staff in this borough in employment is surely significant.

In the next week or so, BT will also come to Barnet to meet staff: Mrs Angry wonders if any of the staff who have worked for Barnet and gone to BT will take the opportunity to come back and see old friends? That would be nice, wouldn't it?

Oh: which reminds me.

You may recall that Mrs Angry has been trying, over the last few months, to investigate the curious lack of care which Barnet appears to have shown in regard to the issue of conflict of interest between senior officers of the council, currently employed and recently employed, and the companies which have been bidding for the services up for sale, here in the One Barnet house of fun.

On the 9th January, Mrs Angry wrote to Lord Palmer, the Chair of the Audit committee, in relation to the way in which Barnet has managed, or not managed, the risk of conflict of interest created in the course of the current dialogue process.

"Dear Lord Palmer,

You may recall that at the last Audit Committe meeting I submitted several questions regarding the issue of the conflict of interests of senior officers of the borough, expressing particular concern about the need for transparency during the One Barnet programme and the current tendering process that will outsource £1 billion worth of council services.

I raised the specific example of an officer who had taken an active part in the dialogue process for the customer service package, worth £750 million, and has now taken a post with one of the four short listed companies competing for the business on offer.

Without making any personal accusation of wrong doing in this case, it seemed to me, and to many others, that this is an extraordinary development within the context of such a hugely sensitive commercial negotiation, and that in the interests of transparency and probity there must be an urgent investigation into the circumstances in which this former employee was able to take up a position with a shortlisted tendering company. I am uncertain as to whether any such investigation has since taken place ..."

In this letter, Mrs Angry referred to an earlier post:

which mentioned a Freedom of Information request regarding the register of interests which senior officers are supposed to use to declare any interest which is relevant during the dialogue process.

"In March this year, the council's directors and senior officers proposed creating a register of interests in order to log any potential conflicts of interest relating to procurement and other issues resulting from the One Barnet outsourcing programme. Please tell me when this register was implemented, and give me copies of all entries to the current date."

Mrs Angry was told that the register had been implemented in May, and was sent copies of 18 declarations. Only 18 declarations. None of these are dated earlier than October 4th, only 24 days before this stage of the process was due to end, and several names of officers whom one would expect to be involved in the process are missing.

When all these points have been raised by Mrs Angry, via the Chair of the Audit committee, no satisfactory reply has been given - in fact the eventual response has been to tell her that the officer whose new employment had raised concerns was 'taken off the job as soon as he made Barnet aware of the potential conflict'. Staff who raised this question at a meeting were also told that as soon as he accepted his new post, the officer had no more access to the NSCSO procurement so did not have to sign any declaration of interest. Hmm.

The officer in question left his post in Barnet on 28th October and immediately started his new post at BT. At his level, three months notice is the usual requirement for resignation, so presumably the council would have known he was leaving in August, yet his signature appears on a draft 'output specification' submitted to a Business and Performance Overview and Scrutiny committee on the 22nd of September. And why was no declaration demanded from him, and other officers, before August?

There are many questions in regard to this matter which any reasonably minded resident would be perfectly entitled to want to ask, and in the interests of transparency, these questions must be addressed. So far, they are being ignored.

New information given to Mrs Angry will be submitted to Barnet for verification in relation to this case, and she looks forward with great interest to the response.

A few weeks ago she submitted a Freedom of Information request asking for proof of the date of this officer's resignation. This was refused, and she is now appealing against this decision on the grounds of it being a matter of public interest. Another question was as follows:

"Please supply a copy of the letter sent late last year to the four shortlisted companies involved in the competitive dialogue for the Customer Services service tender process which requested that they do not 'poach' any more officers from the authority."

The response was disappointing:

"I can confirm that the Council did not send any letter(s) of this nature to the shortlisted companies. Can I suggest that you provide further information, which may assist us in identifying the information you are requesting?"

Ah. Happily, Mrs Angry is indeed in a position to provide further information, which may assist the London Borough of Broken Barnet in identifying the information she is requesting, from the shredded documents bagged up at North London Business Park.

She has a copy of the letter.

In fact, it comes in the form of an appendix form, number 4, sent on or around the 23rd of November... Statement of Good Faith and Declaration - ha, can you imagine, 'Good Faith', in the London Borough of Broken Barnet? Mrs Angry has been told that this requirement was made, rather belatedly, in November, after a blog was published about certain comings and goings between Barnet and certain outsourcing companies.

This form explains to all tendering companies that they must not -

'while participating in this competitive dialogue process, solicit or entice away or employ or attempt to employ any person who is directly involved in the council's procurement process and/or those on the project or programme board, programme team, evaluation panels and full time project officers.'

Solicit or entice away ... I like the sound of that, don't you? Very appropriate, in the circumstances.

Now then: if this form was only signed or presented on or about 23rd November, that would appear to be rather late in the day, would it not? Rather too late in the day, in fact. And even if the form had been presented earlier in the process, this would reasonably suggest that there may indeed have been some sort of 'enticement', in perhaps more than one case.

Mrs Angry must emphasise that she is not accusing any individual officer of wrongdoing: the question here is clearly an apparent failure of the council - as an employer, and as a participant in a procurement exercise - in regard to its own responsibility to apply properly regulated protocols to safeguard the integrity of the competitive dialogue process, and in order to prevent any conflict of interest, or perception of conflict of interest.

Do we have to mention it again, the reason why this is such an important matter?

There is a total of one billion pounds worth of business being pimped by our council through the One Barnet programme.

This massive scale of outsourcing has been widely discredited - government policy is no longer to push for programmes as radical and all encompassing as this, and some of the companies previously associated with outsourcing are themselves now stepping away from this market. It is simply too risky, and cannot be relied on to provide either a satisfactory standard of services, or the savings promised, or even the profits desired by the companies involved, without unwanted complications when things go wrong.

Here in our borough, our reckless Tory council is sleepwalking its way to disaster by continuing to support a business plan they have never understood, while the senior management team push them from behind with undignified haste, and an evident lack of care for the proper regulation of the procurement process.

You might hope that our councillors would stop and question the need for an undignified haste - and to question whether or not they are party to a gross assault on the best interests of the residents of this borough, residents and employees alike.

But as is usually the case, here in the house of fun, the best interests of the ones who get f*cked are generally overlooked by the proprietor, and the gentlemen on the sofa. This is Broken Barnet, and all you can do now is lie back, close your eyes, and wait til it's all over.

1 comment:

Mrs Angry said...

up early, Mr BT Corporate ... here, come & sit next to Mrs Angry on the sofa darling ... don't be scared ...