Friday, 27 April 2012

Cut and Dice, Part Three

Cllr Khatri asked a question. It was a stupid question.

It was not the most stupid question of the evening.

Councillor Old's questions, as it happens, were in a class of their own, and demonstrated how completely out of touch with events he is - and indeed how ill informed the average backbench Tory councillor is.

Tory councillors in Barnet ask lots of stupid questions at committee meetings, in fact: this is usually because they cannot be bothered to read the reports, and so, in order to look as if they give a shit, and are masters of their game, and know what's what, they will skim the pages, note something that looks vaguely incorrect, or questionable, and use it to form a question and help them to appear on the ball, and in charge, and fulfilling the role of scrutiny. This practise does not fool Mrs Angry, who is not completely averse to pulling the same trick herself, in some circumstances.

Usually this sort of question will be something really trivial, such as a typo: a misspelt word, a missing word. Councillor Andrew Harper gets very annoyed by mistakes that cast doubt on his own status, for example: he once kicked up the most enormous fuss at a meeting over a page in a report on some sensitive issue which happened to have incorrectly named his title at the time. Back then, Cllr Harper was deputy leader, with naked aspirations to become Leader. As we know now, sadly, since then his portfolio has rather diminished in size.

Item 8 on the Agenda was the Internal Audit Progress Report 2011-12 Quarter 3 & 4.

Some heads of service were there to report to the committee, or at least to answer any questions they may have had. Some heads of service. Some left the dirty work to underlings, (or blamed underlings who were not present), and neatly escaped their moment in the firing line.

First up was Paul Bragg, from Highways, who was there in place of Mrs Angry and Councillor Coleman's favourite interim director, Ms Pam Wharfe.

Poor Mr Bragg had a hard time, quite unfairly, having to defend an action that was entirely the responsibility of more senior officers. There was a dispute over the management of two contracts, worth a mere £30 million, which was merged at some point, although there was apparently no audit trail to produce the evidence for this merger. Labours' Cllr Cooke was exasperated by this situation, and kept at the issue, like a dog with a bone. Why was there no audit trail? What happened to the missing minutes?

Indeed: what did happen to the missing minutes?

Bill Murphy next sat in the seat of shame. Libraries have limited assurance now. Why is this? Bill referred to the political difficulties associated with libraries in BarnetBill thought it would be good if libraries were taken under the One Barnet process. Yes, volunteered Mrs Angry, to Mr Reasonable, that'll help ... .... and then came an interesting admission from Mr Murphy. The capital cost of the new library that has been theoretically promised by Rams - they don't know what it will be, apparently. So how can it be that the closure of Friern Barnet Library was deemed necessary, in order to pay for a theoretical 'landmark' library that does not exist, even in the planning stages?

Next up Jay Mercer, from Childrens Services. And here was a truly shocking revelation, courtesy of Craig Cooper. There has been a serious concern raised over the issue of secure passwords on the system used to access information about child protection cases. In short, the system is not sufficiently secure, which raises all sorts of safeguarding issues. Yet this report was incorrectly signed off, seemingly without being checked by the Director, ie Cooper. He deftly shifted the responsibility for this to a less senior officer.

Lord Palmer lost his temper.

He pointed out, in no uncertain terms, that he had read his way through the bundle of reports, and therefore so should Cooper, the head of service. He really was very cross. And so he should be.

It was with some ill concealed fury that he dismissed Cooper's half hearted attempt at explanation and curtly moved the meeting on.

Palmer is undoubtedly the best Chair of any of the committees: unfailingly courteous, thoughtful, and fair, to members, officers and the public: the fact that he expressed such disapproval so publicly, and with such force, is significant. If only someone had been so forceful with the senior management team at an earlier stage in the sequence of unfortunate events that have created the massive outsourcing folly that is One Barnet, we might not be facing the bleak future we now see looming on the horizon.

One Barnet may be a juggernaut heading on a collision course, but some people are still jumping on board. A new member of the senior management team, Lesley Meeks, spoke up now on the subject of 'Procurement Controls and Management Action Plan'.

Of course, we have no procurement controls, or effective management, but we like Action Plans , here in Broken Barnet, as long as we are not required to demonstrate that they work.

We decide we need them, then we think about them, then we pay an consultant a lot of money to help us think more about them, then we write a report, then we submit the report to a committee, and as long as no one reads it, it will be approved on the nod, and then we put it to one side and ignore it, but tell audit that we are travelling in the right direction with it, and then three years later we admit it is a load of shite ... and then we come up with a new Action Plan. Easy, as in easycouncil. We may not get anywhere we want to go, but if the perpetual movement keeps a few overpaid senior officers in their (interim) posts it has all been worthwhile.

Ms Meeks is new in her possibly interim post, but is confident that all is, well you know, travelling in the right direction. Hold on - we haven't had any overarching principles yet tonight ... But work is erm, ongoing. Good. Data is being cleansed. Nice. Oh, and data will be cut and diced. Or was that cut and sliced? Mrs Angry was distracted by the thought of pineapples, which are always a bugger to prepare, aren't they? And mangoes, so slippery. Blue sky thinking: risk management - buy ready sliced, from M&S. Or ready diced, better for fruit salads. Yes, Mrs Angry's mind was wandering freely at this point: three hours on, and she had easily exceeded her audit tolerance limitations.

But look: here comes a brilliant idea from Ms Meeks, incorporating another favourite One Barnet concept: taking ownership.

This is a term which means someone theoretically will have specific responsibilities for something, which is pretty groundbreaking stuff, isn't it? It used to be called 'a job'. You were paid to do something. Ah, I know what you are thinking: what happened if you do not do your 'job'? Well, come on, this is One Barnet. These days, if you are senior enough, and paid enough, you just blame someone else, on a lower level, and get them into trouble. Or you get paid off and taken out via the backdoor.

Ms Meeks had more good news. It may be a year since, with the assistance of the bloggers of Broken Barnet, they first identified the boundless empire of irregular, non compliant contracts with private companies, and yes, they still don't know how many there are, and have had to get permission to carry on using huge numbers of some more they have just identified, but hey ho, she has a cunning plan. Apart from giving ownership of things to people, they are going to have a 'mechanism' for all vendors to be loaded onto a system. They will also have a signing off process. Stuff like that. And it has only taken them a year to come up with these brilliant ideas.

Mrs Angry has a suggestion for Ms Meeks. She has ownership for this suggestion, but is willing to pass it over. Why not get a big notebook, and write down a list of vendors, and then get a red pen from the stationery cupboard, and go through the list and tick off the ones that you have a contract for, and then tell the ones without contracts that you think it is a good idea, and actually a legal requirement, for them to regularise their casual arrangements, whereby they tell you how much money they want for unknown services or goods, and you just hand it over?

Ah, but Captain Cooper has something to say.

He tries to persuade the committee that the continual stream of newly discovered non compliant contracts are really only in relation to care packages, which are - change of tone - 'sensitive'. (This is rubbish, of course, as the dodgy 'contracts' which were waivered recently were for all sorts of services.)

Wiping a tear from his eye, Cooper tells us that in some cases, clients have lived in their care homes for 25 years, you know ... and he implies that if Barnet was to try to regularise these arrangements, the homes would be so incensed, they would drag the poor old residents out of their beds and cruelly throw them out onto the street, there and then, and of course this would be a dreadful thing, and Captain Cooper and all of us would have that on our consciences. We wouldn't want that, would we?

Mrs Angry was overcome with remorse at ever raising any criticism of the lack of contractual controls. See, Mrs Angry, what a a terrible thing you have done. She bowed her head in shame. Thank God for Captain Cooper, and his thoughtful disregard for European rules on procurement.

Ah, except, Captain Insensible, this is the one issue which really does set Mrs Angry blazing with fury.

When Barnet Council placed her father in the care home from hell, one which consequently was closed for more than a year pending a safeguarding adults investigation by, no, not Barnet but Harrow Council, they were not in the slightest bit concerned about the state of standards, or the effect on residents.

True, the council's liason officer was scared of upsetting the management of the home, but only because they did not want to lose a source of relatively cheap placements. A contract would have ensured some basic standards of care, and monitored the provision of value for money. It would have held the home to some requirement to be accountable. The lack of any regularisation of such care has most definitely, in my view enabled the widespread practices of neglect and abuse that is prevalent in care homes, as we have been reminded this week.

This is the real cost of outsourcing, and the private provision of care, and services which affect so many residents in need. Without the safeguards determined by procurement regulations and proper compliance with those regulations, the human cost is intolerable.

Here in Broken Barnet, the result of failure in areas like procurement appear to matter to those responsible only in virtual terms, as theoretical risks, or at the very worst, presenting a couple of hours of discomfort in an audit committee meeting.

It might be better for all of us if the most highly paid senior officers in the country remembered that their failures have real consequences for the residents of this borough, and will continue to do so for years, long after they have cleared off out of here, probably into very nice positions in the private sector. As to the Tory councillors: perhaps one day soon, before it really is too late, they will step up and, yes, take ownership of the trust placed with them by the electors of this borough, this constituency, and stop the reckless dismantling of our council services being pushed through with such determination by the senior management team.

But oh, Mrs Angry, that's never going to happen, is it?

1 comment:

Mr Mustard said...

I think that Ms Meeks, who I heard Craig Cooper say had been poached from somewhere (it didn't sound like a proper executive search process had therefore been carried out - as per usual doubtless), probably menat to refer to Cut & Shut, not cut and dice.

She has inherited two clapped out old Ford Cortina modelled procurement systems from Captain Cooper and is going to chop them in half and take the good bits from both (if there are any) and stick them together into one system. On the outside all will look lovely and shiny and underneath everything will be straining and the whole thing will come apart driving very slowly along the North London Business Park one day.

Then Ms Meeks will be paid off to drive a car elsewhere and a brand new system will be bought elsewhere and the merry-go-round will continue.