Saturday 28 December 2013

When we get behind closed doors: information, implementation, prevarication - 2013: a year in Broken Barnet: Part One

 2013 began early, in Broken Barnet. 

On the 6th December, 2012, to be precise. 

That was the date of the Cabinet meeting in which our Tory councillors so blithely gave their approval, (albeit under siege conditions in a  small, windowless sideroom as the committee room had been taken over by residents), to the first of two massive contracts with Capita, privatising our council services, and effectively outsourcing our local democracy, right into the hands of commercial interests, and far out of the grasp of our elected representatives. 

This event, therefore, marked not only the end of the corporate year, and the end of the protracted tender process: it signified the end of an era, and the coming of the age of Capitaville.

Our elected representatives, as we shall see, once the deed was done, began quickly to exhibit their hidden misgivings about the whole deal, when it was all too late, some at last daring to complain about the lack of information given to them, and the restricted access to the details of the Capita deal - one councillor even alleging his fellow councillors had been whipped on all matters concerning One Barnet.

A New Year, and a new beginning. But not all of us were to remain in Capitaville. 

Mr Ed Gowan, for example, who had taken a prominent role in the tendering process for the One Barnet privatisation, in his role as Assistant Director of 'Commercial Transformation', left Barnet Council in January to take up a post in February as Managing Consultant with Agilisys, the One Barnet consultants and 'implementation partners'.

Apparently there was no conflict of interest in such a move: just as when Mrs Angry had asked Mr Paul Hughes, our district auditor, about at least two previous similar departures by senior officers, in 2011 and 2012, one to BT, a company bidding for the One Barnet contracts, and one 'interim' consultant going from and to another company benefiting from a major contract ... well, no, he had felt there was no need to investigate the matter. None of these officers had done anything wrong, or were in breach of any regulations: because there were none in place.

And then: at the end of January, shortly after this exit, there was an awfully interesting council meeting, dutifully attended by Mrs Angry. (Although it may have seemed more interesting because she was in attendance under the influence of rather too much champagne. 'Rather too much' meaning slightly beyond the usual daily quota of a champagne socialist, that is.)

Almost prostrate on the committee room floor in a state of shock, and befuddled auditor (in)sensibility, Mrs Angry was bemused to hear that a report was being submitted to the meeting on the definitely interesting issue of ... guess what? 

That thing that had not mattered, in 2011, and 2012, and only mattered now it was too late, in relation to the tender process for a contract that was already decided, rather than the one that was still underway ... 

Yes: how to manage the risk of conflicts of interest by 'clarifying' and revising' the appropriate sections of the Code of Conduct. 

Well, f*ck me, thought Mrs Angry, as the committee room whirled around, like a spinning top, and a flypast of smirking pigs flew past the Town Hall windows.

What a turn about, and what a shame it is too late, and that Mr Paul Hughes, our district auditor, from Grant Thornton, would only look at the tender process for the contract that is already agreed and not the one that is still underway, and that the new improved Code would only take effect after both of the £1 billion contracts had been agreed ... 

Yes: just imagine Mrs Angry's delight at this news. 

She certainly felt completely reassured in both the integrity of all major contracts within the last few years, and the range of competence of the external audit system.

And now One Barnet and the Capita contracts have now been well and truly 'implemented', with the help of consultants from Agilisys and iMPOWER - ah, yes - iMPOWER, who have employed former BT fixer Mr Max Wide for the last couple of years, although he is now on the move again - this time to Bristol Council - whether or not on secondment, as he was in his time at Barnet, and Suffolk, we do not know. (Stand by for a very interesting post on BT coming along soon, by the way ... )

You, fellow citizen, will be thinking we no longer have the great pleasure of throwing wads of our cash into the open laps of these two consultancies, in payment for their unaccountable activities.


As fellow blogger Mr Reasonable established from his question to a Cabinet Resources Committee, by June alone, the total sum paid to these consultants since 2010 was a staggering £7.1 million. This is accompanied, of course, by another whopping bill  to Trowers & Hamlin, for 'legal advice'.

All of this extravagance being in order, we were told, to make savings. Ah.

And the monthly fees continue. 


Well: implementation, of course, is an indefinable state of being. 

Q: When does it start, and when does it end?

A: It lasts as long as you can convince the person signing off the accounts that you are needed.

And the art of continued implementation consultancy, it seems, is in becoming indispensible.  Whilst retaining a cloak of invisibility, of course, so no one knows exactly what you are up to.

Unfortunately for our consultant friends, this cloak loses its powers of disguise, in certain circumstances. 

In May Mrs Angry's tugging at the cloak, assisted by a Freedom of Information request, and the kind assistance of the Information Commissioner, gave us a glimpse of the hidden world of 'implementation'. See:

In August 2012, while Tory leader Richard Cornelius was relaxing in his second home in France, it was revealed that the senior management team, in cahoots with the consultants, had taken it upon themselves to change the model of the second tendered contract from a strategic partnership to a Joint Venture. The councillors, even the leader and Cabinet, knew nothing about this.

This was a hugely controversial, albeit accidental, exposure of the real force behind One Barnet. The senior management team and their allies had made this decision, without consulting elected members, and behind closed doors, as the Corporate Directors Group, a team with no executive powers, and despite the fact that the councillors had rejected a Joint Venture at an early stage, due to the higher risks that such a model presents. 

Mrs Angry had requested the minutes of the CDG meetings, which were refused on the spurious grounds that as they were shortly to be published, they must in the meanwhile remain secret: and that meanwhile lasted eight months, until the ICO lost patience with their prevarication. 

When the gun was held at the corporate head, these minutes were at last released, long after the Judicial Review hearing had taken place, by coincidence - and after determined requests from the ICO, the names of improperly redacted attendees at the meetings were also - eventually - published. These included consultants from Agilisys/iMPOWER, their identities hidden, working with senior officers such as the Chief Executive, the current Director of Plaice, Pam Wharfe - and of course Mr Ed Gowan. 


And erm: what did the minutes have to say about the way in which this group of officers and consultants cooked up the Joint Venture decision that they were not entitled to take?

F*ck all, in effect. Except that the curious silence, like the dog that did not bark in the night, Watson, is ultimately the most telling evidence of all.

Because, rather conveniently, when this group convened in order to discuss such things it called itself the 'One Barnet Board', and meetings of the One Barnet Board .... were not minuted. 

So: no transparency, no accountability, no scrutiny.

Decisions made in secret, by a body with no executive powers, and with the unmonitored input of private consultants, being paid millions of pounds in fees from the taxes of local residents.

Were you wondering how we came to leave Broken Barnet, and find ourselves in Capitaville?

Now you know, readers: now you know.

To be continued.

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