Wednesday, 14 November 2012

At risk: our future - the One Barnet dodgy dossier revealed

As part of her duties as an armchair auditor, Mrs Angry has tried on several occasions to ask the Tory councillors of Broken Barnet to explain why, as we prepare to gamble £1million worth of our council services through the One Barnet privatisation scheme, they have consistently refused to entertain the possibility of an independent risk assessment.

You might think that any prudent local authority would see it as a duty to instigate such an assessment as a matter of course, in order to mitigate against the real possibilities of failure that such an enormous undertaking must necessarily present. 

Here in Broken Barnet, however, duty to the taxpayers takes second place to the fulfillment of self interest, and the interests of our friends and would be partners in the private sector.

The official reason usually wheeled out in response to Mrs Angry's question is that an independent assessment is unnecessary, because we - they - have their own internal risk register, a One Barnet risk register, which guides their progress, and is all anyone could ever wish for. 

The real reason, of course, is that the senior management team, private consultants and bidding companies do not want an objective assessment: they want One Barnet to go through without proper scrutiny, avoiding their own most highly rated risk:  that our dopey councillors might actually spot what a fucking liability they will lumber us with, once the £1 million contracts are signed.
The risk register, therefore, has not been open to public scrutiny, or even to the scrutiny of members.

Some redacted information has escaped into the wild, from time to time, but the council has resolutely tried to prevent the full register from being seen. After ten months of wrangling, however, this register is now available for us to see - take a look, courtesy of Mr Mustard:

This document runs to 58 pages: 58 pages and 156 serious risks to be considered. 

Try to navigate your way through the turgid lines of One Barnet corporate gobbledegook, for example ...

 'in scoping the teams there is a risk of not capturing all links and dependencies (arms and legs) and we forget about particular teams or individuals ... '  Erm - what?

Admire, in passing, the rather amusing degree of concern about the risk raised by the publication on the Barneteye blog of an evaluation report, and the reassuring amount of fear over the potential effects of industrial action due to low staff morale (funny how these thankless employees get so grumpy over the looming loss of their job security and income, isn't it?) ... 

What does emerge from the pages of this manically repressed register of risk is that it reveals just how unprepared the authority is for the staggering scale of commitment demanded by the One Barnet programme. 

In the wake of the MetPro scandal, the Barnet bloggers exposed the truly shocking extent of incompetence - gross incompetence - in procurement and contractual matters demonstrated by Barnet council, and have continually warned that this fundamental failure was the worst possible basis on which to launch the outsourcing of 70% of all council services. 

Here in the risk register we find  confirmation of our fears: look at P32, the risk raised by the unknown number of compliant and non compliant contracts  ... P35, the lack of knowledge about the estate asset register ...

Other risks include those presented as a result of 'slippage', P11 - the late production of KPIs. and baseline assessments, oh, and not just slippage,  'leakage' too: P24 - we are asked to worry about the possibility that leaked information to a bidder might cause undue favour.

True. Funny, though, that no risk is raised in regard to the poaching of staff from Barnet Council by any companies involved in the competitive dialogue, is it not? What about the risk of 'information leakage' in these cases?

Mrs Angry has continually raised the issue of the risks created in relation to the authority's obstinate refusal to manage the potential conflict of interest incurred when senior officers of the council move to and fro between Barnet and companies involved in the One Barnet negotiations. This has happened in several cases. 

The register of declarations of interest was demonstrably not maintained according to the required procedure. 

And absolutely nothing has been done when these failures were reported. 

When Mrs Angry last attempted to bring this issue formally to the attention of the district auditor, he simply refused to answer her complaint. 

This is surely unacceptable: a response which effectively condones a failure to mitigate a very real risk, but one which the register here has carefully avoided.

Interesting thing, internal audit: the art is in knowing which areas are best left unaudited, of course. In some authorities, internal audit teams are even rumoured to have been told exactly which areas to avoid: not in Barnet, obviously.

One other section of great interest is the part dealing with risks raised by the council's libraries policy: see pages 14-16. Oh boy. The register considers the risk of claim of breach of statutory duty, and the risk of Judicial Review, but worries more about the big bad bogeyman of industrial action: yes here we go again ... THE UNIONS. (Advice by Mrs Angry:  I'd worry more about the legal challenges, if I were you ...) 

Could this risk, and the added annoying possibility of a drop in productivity or loss of skilled staff have anything to do with something referred to on P39: an increasing negativity to the idea of outsourcing, caused by, oh dear ... hushed tones ... 'uncertainty over the "journey" staff are going on/through'?

It's a journey, see, you hapless employees of the London Borough of Barnet: no, not the loss of your livelihoods, and the prospect of unemployment, inability to pay your mortgage, feed and clothe your children - it's a journey you are going on - or through, they're not sure - like a lovely holiday, or a few weeks on X factor, or Skating on Ice.

Oh, and there is of course one other risk to consider: trivial, of course, and hardly worth mentioning: P 38 -

And the most important risk assessment of all? Let's see ... 

P38 ...Failure of part or the whole programme ... ah: oh dear. A reputational risk of the highest rating. Surely not? We read:

  • lack of buy in from councillors, management or staff. Tick.
  • opposition from the electorate. Tick
  • capacity of service leads to undertake the work on the project. (that means incapacity of: tick)
  • commercial capability of service leads to undertake work on the project such as the competitive dialogue. (uncommercial capability: tick)
  • strikes or work to rule (THE UNIONS): no - no tick.
In fact, THE UNIONS have put enormous effort not into industrial action, but into working tirelessly in their attempts to mediate on behalf of their members, and enormous effort, completely rebuffed, into trying to get councillors and senior council officers to listen to their reasons for opposing the madness of One Barnet. Report after report was submitted to councillors, and committees, and completely ignored. No one would countenance any proposals from the unions in regard to an in house comparator. Meetings with representatives were continually evaded.

How did our council propose to mitigate the risk of failure of a £1 billion bet on the clapped out old nag that is One Barnet? Well, you know: sort of thought about it a bit, couldn't really be bothered: resource plans, going to have a few of those. Always useful.  Erm ... clear and regular communications - yes, yes, always helps. Barnet is famed for its expertise in clear and regular communications, isn't it, Twister? And we are told that 'stakeholder engagement is in place', which means, what exactly? Not telling stakeholders any of the details, so that they are kept completely in the dark? 

The final resolution is exemplary, however:

 'learning to be taken from other councils/private sector partners who have gone through similar changes'

At a recent committee meeting Mr Andrew 'Black Hole' Travers, the £1,000 a day 'interim' Chief Finance officer, and soon to be  'interim' acting CEO, was unable to tell us which other cases the council has studied in order to acquire this depth of 'learning'.  

This is slightly worrying, as it might just suggest that the senior management team have not entirely committed themselves to the mitigation of the most fundamentally significant risk of all.  

Still, Mr Travers thought that while he had quite forgotten the names of any other cases, he would be happy to provide a list to members. 

Mrs Angry has a little list, Andrew, if you are stuck for ideas:

West Berks, 
Redcar & Cleveland, 

etc, etc, etc.

Since yesterday, BT and Capita - oh, and Barnet's own external legal advisers - have been visiting this blog with renewed interest, their search terms suggesting that they are apparently rattled by the news of the application for a judicial review of One Barnet by solicitors acting on behalf of a disabled resident, Susan Sullivan. They should be rattled: nothing that has happened so far in this story makes it likely that the residents of this borough are ever going to stop fighting these catastrophic plans, and even if the contracts are signed, the fight will continue, right up to and beyond the next election.

On Monday, the new film, 'Barnet: the Billion pound gamble' will be shown at the House of Commons, and both Susan and her father John will be present at the screening. 

Monday 19th Nov, 7pm - 9pm. The Grimmond Room, Portcullis House , The House of Commons London, SW1A 2TT

The story of Barnet's fight against the mass sell off of its council services continues to generate embarrassing publicity for the Tory administration, and the bidding companies. 

This week promises to be a particularly uncomfortable one for them: Monday's Guardian story -

is due to have a video link added today, and hello: in the Mirror this morning there is a big feature here ... 

and see also the article in False Economy by Kate Belgrave:

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