Friday 26 June 2015

Competitive tension, or: providing the right fit - another outsourcing farce in Broken Barnet

Please, Mr Travers: Mrs Angry says our gruel is about to be outsourced through a non competitive tender process, so can I have some more, before the whole service fails, and we are left with nothing to eat?

Goodness me: here is more wonderful news for the residents and taxpayers of Broken Barnet. Yes, keen as we are to sit back and watch our Tory councillors do as they are told by their own senior management, and surrender almost every last scrap of democratic control of our public services into the sweaty little hands of the outsourcerers, look: another opportunity for the easycouncil marketing of our beloved borough.

Education and school meals services, now. 

A contract was put out to tender in January, with a value that could range from £89 million to a stonking £986 million  (fantasy figures, admittedly) - and three companies put in bids. 

Capita, of course: if only to remind everyone they run the show and should have first go at anything else up for grabs; EC Harris, who - oh - rather surprisingly dropped out, just before the dialogue process began - and Mott McDonald Ltd, trading as Cambridge Education.  

As you can see here, and here,Unison expressed its concern when EC Harris threw in the towel, to be given breathless assurances that there was no need to 'revisit' the business model, a model which, as fellow blogger Mr Reasonable suggests, is fatally flawed:

Barnet has absolutely no common sense, it seems, when it comes to business models for outsourcing. 

Our Tory councillors swallow any old claptrap dreamed up, at our expense, by fee-hungry private consultants, feeding off the public purse, and even when they fail, as in the case of Your Choice Barnet, happily pour more money down the drain to keep it going, while preaching to us about the need for cuts, simply in order to save face, and because of their cockeyed ideological obsession with privatisation.

YCB failed, and had to be bailed out by us, the taxpayers, in an emergency payment, just to keep it going: yet another example of Barnet Tory ideology relying on the subsidy of public money, in order to survive, in defiance of their own philosophy of market values.

That Your Choice Barnet failed is hardly a surprise, based as it is on the stupid and offensive idea that it is possible to make profit from the provision of care to disabled and vulnerable people. Guess what? You can't: but still we pay the price for their hubris, and their unthinking obedience to the rule of the consultants and contractors who now run this borough, and are obliged to keep the whole thing going, profit or not.

Worse still, the already low paid workers doing their best to provide the care to residents who rely on this vital service were targeted to carry the continuing cost of failure: told to accept a 9.5 % cut in pay. As the ineffable 'Strategic Director for Communities' Kate Kennally declared, these workers - rather than senior managers in receipt of six figure salaries, or the cohorts of consultants, of course - 'had to take a haircut'. 

The business case for the latest outsourcing plan is also a load of cobblers, cobbled together in the knowledge that our Tory councillors will approve anything put before them.

As Mr R says:

The problem is that much of the justification for pursuing an outsourced joint venture is predicated on generating a large amount of new income from traded services with other local authorities. In total 71% of the financial improvement is from income growth rather than efficiency savings and of that 60% comes from school meals.

Hmm. School meals. 

Mrs Angry has very unhappy memories of school meals, readers. 

Allow her a moment of indulgence, as she recalls the ordeal of sitting, in compulsory silence, like Oliver Twist, at the long tables of St Vincent's dining hall: girls only allowed half the portion of boys, and no seconds. If you wanted any. No food could be left. The only way to deal with the evil, inedible, boiled vegetables was to drop them onto the floor, or sneak stuff - if you were really desperate - into your pockets. Any kitchen leftovers were taken down to the farm behind the orphanage, for pig swill. The infant Mrs Angry sometimes wondered if the process worked the other way round, and that we were being obliged to eat the food the pigs refused to consume.

Food at St Michael's wasn't much better. Mrs Angry once found a piece of lino in her jelly, on which the vintage, possibly pre-war pattern was clearly discernible. Complaints were not encouraged: indeed at both (Catholic) schools we were obliged, before eating, to give thanks to God for 'these thy gifts which we are about to receive', and reminded, of course, of the starving children around the world who were going without food at all.

Mrs Angry's children were spared the torment of school dinners, and given packed lunches. They were quite happy, seeing the stuff their friends had to eat: including on one memorable occasion when one boy found a worm in his food. Eurgh.

This was all before the influence of another Oliver - ie Jamie - had really kicked in, of course, and the idea that children might like to eat (wormfree) food that was ... well, edible, and nutritious. 

And now schools have to produce such meals, on very tight budgets. It's not really possible to do this easily, and it certainly is well night next to impossible to make a profit from it, yet this latest plan is based on that very principle.

It seems the new tender is based on the belief that it is possible to make a 20% profit margin from the provision of school meals. Mr R, who can count, you know, and do difficult sums reckons at the moment, Barnet manages on a margin of around 2.7%. Ah.

The other day Mrs Angry's spies forwarded copies of the following email sent to schools in the borough in regard to the tender process of education services:

Dear colleague/headteacher

The deadline for receipt of outline solutions was noon on Friday 12th June.  By that deadline an outline solution had been received from Mott Macdonald trading as Cambridge Education.  Capita Business Services Ltd submitted a letter withdrawing from the procurement process, as they had concluded that this particular opportunity did not provide the right fit with their Entrust business model.

Well, well: Capita has withdrawn from the process. 

Even in Capitaville, where there is no profit to be had, there is no incentive. 

This particular opportunity did not provide the right fit with their Entrust business model.

Must have the right fit, mustn't you, for a happy union, and maximum mutual satisfaction?

On Tuesday 16th June, Cambridge Education gave a presentation of their Outline Solution to the evaluation team, which included headteachers, as well as Barnet officers and specialist advisors.  Their submission was subsequently evaluated by the team, who concluded that the submission provided sufficient, credible evidence that continuing dialogue would be likely to result in the submission of a final tender that would meet the needs of the Council and schools. 

Specialist advisors = more overpaid consultants? 

And then:  'The team' concluded there was 'sufficient, credible evidence ... of a tender that would meet the needs of the Council and schools'. 

A happy ending after all, then, in the House of Fun?

Following consultation with senior officers in the Council, it was agreed that we would proceed to the second phase of dialogue with a single bidder.  It is recognised that this may raise questions about the lack of competitive tension in the process and the subsequent ability of the Council to test best value from the final tender.  However, it is not unusual for competitive dialogue procurements to end up with a single bidder and there are various robust means through which we can test best value.

Oh ffs:

'this may raise questions about the lack of competitive tension in the process ...'

A lack of competitive tension. Yep. That would be the thing, wouldn't it, that is missing, from this competitive process?


Funny, because Tories like competition, don't they? It is the guiding principle of all their market force based economic theories. 

Open up commercial opportunities in the public sector, because 'competition' brings 'choice' and better value for money for the public purse.

No: no, it doesn't, see: here we are, with the perfect example of what a nonsense the whole outsourcing process is, and always will be.

Of course we are making assumptions, aren't we, Mrs Angry? 

We are assuming that the one remaining contender in this 'competition' will, erm ... 'win' the 'competition' and the contract. 

And maybe you can have competitive tension, without a competitor. 

Like sexual tension, without a lover. Or with an imaginary friend. But then, as @lokster71 commented: 'to paraphrase Woody Allen, 'Don't knock it. It's competition with someone you love ...'

Hmm. But ... think I prefer the real thing, don't you, readers?

You know how to outsource, don't you Steve? Just put a notice in the tender supplement of the official journal of the European Union, and blow a load of taxpayers' dosh on a few consultants' bills ...

Still. Just try to imagine the thrill of say ... 

A presidential election in Azerbaijan. 

A Grand National, with one horse running. 

A football final with Manchester United. 

A conversation in an empty room.

The sound of one hand clapping.

All the same, Mrs Angry: We are assured of  'robust means' of ensuring best value for residents. 

We like the word 'robust', in Broken Barnet. It means: something we are not sure about, but has been run by the Monitoring Officer, who reckons, after a bit of chewing the end of his pencil, and thinking hard, that we can probably go ahead.

And in closing:

We have set very clear objectives for this procurement, against which any final tender would be evaluated.  We will work closely with our commercial and legal advisors to develop detailed sub-criteria to strengthen our ability to test any final tender against those objectives.  We will also provide for more dialogue time with the remaining bidder to ensure that their solution does meet the needs of the Council and schools.  The Final Business Case will include a comparison of the final tender against the financial modelling that has previously been carried out for the in-house and social enterprise models.

We are looking forward to working with Cambridge Education during the second phase of dialogue.  However, we are also clear that the final decision on whether or not to award a contract rests with Elected Members and we continue to reserve the right to curtail the procurement process at any time, if we believe that we will not be able to secure the right solution for the Council, schools and residents.

Ooh. Look. We are also clear that the final decision ... rests with Elected Members.

Are we?

Elected Members. You know, those councillors who do as they are told, when it comes to signing off any contract, if it leaves them more time on the golf course, or asleep at the committee table. 

On Wednesday Unison representatives met management to discuss the latest development, and express their deep concern about the process continuing with only one bidder, making it clear to officers that:

...  going ahead with the privatisation talks with just one contractor was clearly wrong. Furthermore we added that to go ahead simply reinforces the feelings of the workforce that the Council is wedded to outsourcing even when the market is clearly saying that there is very little interest. Only outsourcing fundamentalists would argue that Best Value can be achieved under these circumstances. 

They also objected to the interesting fact that it has now been revealed that:

... global giant ISS will be taking over our Catering Services and that they have been involved in the contract talks all along. Unison expressed our disappointment this had not been shared with staff in the recent staff briefing or been shared with councillors on the Children's, Education, Libraries and Safeguarding Committee.   

Not shared with councillors? Surely not?

The Unison response continues:

The confirmation of the news about the subcontractor reinforces our concern that low paid members will be targeted to deliver savings which will now have to be split three ways i.e. Barnet Council, Mott Macdonald & ISS.

As we know, the profit margin in the business case is set at an unattainable level of 20% - which now will have to be shared by three parties. If the real level of profit remains as low as 2.7%, clearly the 'savings' from this latest privatisation will yet again prove to be so minimal as to be virtually non existent.

Unison are quite right to predict that the resultant failure, as in the case of Your Choice Barnet, will be borne not by those who devised the contract, or signed up for it, but by those who will work in these services, on the lowest paid jobs, with the worst terms of conditions. 

And what do our councillors, those Elected Members, have to say about all this? 

F*ck knows. There is a resounding silence, from all sides. One might have hoped to have seen at least some sort of response, commentary, or press release from the Labour leadership, if not the Tories, but if there has been anything, it has escaped Mrs Angry's attention.

Mrs Angry's spies tell her there is state of panic, now, in the House of Fun. Senior managers know perfectly well that this latest outsourcing process is in real trouble. 

Clearly the only thing to do is to call a halt, and either re-advertise the tender, or, as anyone with any sense would do, throw the whole proposals out, and forget about it. 

The easycouncil model, whose history is nothing more than a sequence of unfortunate events - contracts that we are promised will deliver enormous savings, savings whose existence has still to be proven - continues to be hammered frantically into a suitable narrative, one that fits its status as the flagship of outsourcing: the leading privateer in a sea of piracy and plunder. 

Whatever the cost of failure to residents and staff, the programme of privatisation supports a massive industry of those who rely on the process itself for their own benefit: contractors, consultants, managers - and whatever the outcome in terms of deals, or savings, or lack of savings, they will be there, waiting on the cliffs, watching the flagship in trouble - and waiting to see what washes up on the shore.

But it'll be us, the residents, that pick up all the wreckage.

No comments: