Thursday 18 February 2016

Chicago, Chicago: it's whose kind of town? A mystery unsolved, in Broken Barnet

Updated Friday: see below, after Old Blue Eyes ...

Ok. Hands up. Project Chicago: what's that all about? 

Is there any significance in the name? wondered Councillor Anthony Finn, Chair of the Performance and Contract (non) scrutiny committee of the London Borough of Crapitaville.

Think St Valentine's Day Massacre, suggested Mrs Angry, helpfully, her head full of images of Al Capone, and Bugsy Malone ... or possibly Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis ...

Nobody's perfect ...

Councillor Finn looked puzzled. It was the evening after St Valentine's Day, and perhaps his mind was distracted by thoughts of red roses, and soft music, and  ... romance. 

Unlikely, thought Mrs Angry, on further reflection.

My kind of town, Chicago is ...

Well, if you are curious, you could try googling 'Project Chicago". Mrs Angry did just that, but all she could find was this rather interesting website which is, apparently a branch of the 'PUA Seduction Community' - fascinating. PUA? Not Procurement Under Approval. Pick Up Artist. 

Not much about outsourcing, although of course that is another form of seduction, on a rather more ambitious scale. But full of helpful tips, such as 'After the Opener – How to Actually Converse with a Woman', which is something most Tory councillors, (and most men, to be fair) find quite a challenge, especially, it seems, if that woman is Mrs Angry.

So, as we must begin all sentences relating to any matter of corporate business in Broken Barnet now. 

So anyway: 

A few months ago, one of Mrs Angry's network of spies forwarded to her a strange rumour that was circulating the corridors of Capitaville's HQ in Broken Barnet. A mysterious subject, a forbidden secret, whose name was ... Project Chicago.

The rumours persisted, and still no one seemed to be able to explain what it was, or why it was so secret. Fellow blogger Roger Tichborne submitted an FOI request to see what might emerge.

Please provide details on Project Chicago and copies of minutes of the meetings at

which Barnet Council staff were first briefed on Project Chicago.

Simple enough question.

Back came a response:

I am writing to inform you that we have searched our records and some of the
information you requested is not held by London Borough of Barnet.

Project Chicago is an initiative led by Capita Group Plc to update its operating model
to focus on service led work streams that are organised nationally. These relate to
services being managed under a common management structure that looks to
provide strategic leadership and consistency of operational delivery to provide a
better service to clients.

The council does not hold minutes of meetings at which staff were first briefed on
project Chicago as no minutes were taken by the council. The briefings were
informal oral briefings provided by Re to a small number of senior council staff . The
council commissioners of the services were verbally briefed out of courtesy on these

That's nice. Work streams. Like a sweetly babbling brook of commerce, and outsourcing.

Briefed out of courtesy, see? No other reason. The men from Crapita are awfully polite, and well mannered, and never eat their peas with a knife, and when they are plotting some major new system of centralised management of services, without informing the elected representatives of the authority with whom are they contractually bonded, for ten years, they always have the courtesy, at least, to tell the senior officers.

In secret. Unminuted. Unaccountable. No audit trail. No name, no kitbag. 

Of course here in Broken Barnet, the men from Crapita have outsourced their communication strategy, to a certain extent at least, to the local blogosphere, and rely on people like Mrs Angry, the Barnet Eye, Mr Reasonable & Mr Mustard, to act as mediators between them and the elected members, and keep them informed of new developments. 

For this service, sadly, no consultancy fee has been paid yet, other than the offer - written into the contract, and look below if you don't believe me - of a discounted (pre-used) grave in the new EasyCrem Crapitorium post life enhancement facility: Mrs Angry's children are grateful for this opportunity, and have already written the epitaph, you know, to go on her gravestone. No, I can't tell you what it says. 

Well, no doubt Crapita will be able to claim some sort of gainshare payment in reward for the corporate savings we so happily identify - if the council listens, and dumps the contracts that have in two and a half years cost us £168.3 million, in pursuit of erm ... savings over ten years of - £126 million.

With this role in mind, therefore, on Monday night Mrs Angry, despite feeling rather indisposed, dutifully dragged herself to the Performance and Contract Management committee, to which she had submitted three questions.

In truth, all three questions were decoys deployed to another purpose, that is to say, one that is central to the art of extracting information, in Broken Barnet: slipping the wrong sort of question under the radar, and retrieving the right sort of response, by catching out the dopey councillors & their crafty officers.

The avuncular Chair of this 'scrutiny' committee is Tory councillor Anthony Finn, who is blessed with the ability to remain in a state of perfect satisfaction with the standard of performance of our contractual partners, whatever the level of performance, or failure.

After asking a question about the mythical 'savings' promised by the Crapita contracts - and receiving an evasive reply, as expected, Mrs Angry was asked by Cllr Finn if she had a supplementary question to follow. 

Yes, said Mrs Angry, I do. And this is for you, Councillor Finn. Are you listening? He wasn't, but woke up, sat up and said he was, yes.

What, asked Mrs Angry, with an expression of studied innocence, is Project Chicago, and to what extent do you estimate will be the impact it will have in terms of an increase, or decrease, in the level of savings from the Capita contracts?

For once he was lost for words. And then before he could stop himself, he had muttered that ... he did not know what it was.

Thank you, said Mrs Angry, scribbling on her notebook with her red pen, in big letters ,and underlining the observation: 'DOES NOT KNOW WHAT IT IS ...'  

That was all I wanted to know, she said, closing her notebook, and smiling smugly.

John Hooton, the Chief Operating Officer, and Director of Finance, sitting at the table, whispered frantically in the ear of the Chair.

Oh, said Cllr Finn ... I understand ... who? Bill Murphy ...  is in the public gallery, he said, and can answer your question.

No need, said Mrs Angry. I've got the response I wanted. I can go home now.

But she was obliged, out of politeness, to remain in her seat, and listen to the explanation of Mr  Bill Murphy.

Who is he, you may wonder? Well, according to his Linkedin profile, he is currently "Service Director Capita Property & Infrastructure" ...  for the London  Borough of Broken Barnet.

We say currently, because of course Mr Murphy has graced the corridors of Barnet Council in a variety of roles, in house, outsourced, interim and otherwise. He is also, at the same time - go on, you'll never guess ... a consultant with something called "Murphy's Solutions". 

Presumably this is run on the principle of attending to the consequences of Murphy's Law, ie anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, or at least it is likely to do so here in Broken Barnet. It must go wrong, in Broken Barnet, in fact, so that it can be fixed, see: by private consultants. 

Here he was now, sitting at the right of Mrs Angry at the committee table, smiling the sort of smile a man in a Capita suit generally wears, when called to sit at the right of Mrs Angry at the committee table: as if approaching a barking dog - vaguely amused, and yet slightly worried that she might bite.

As councillors of both parties fixed their beady eyes on Mr Murphy, he adopted the tone of a consultant anaesthetist, rather than a consultant outsourcerer, and spoke very soothingly, in reassurance of the dreadful operation ahead, which was not a dreadful operation at all, but a small procedure:  a cosmetic enhancement. 

Open wide.

Is it safe? 

Project Chicago? Nothing to worry your little councillor heads about. Largely an internal issue ... 

Go back to sleep for another hundred years, Anthony Finn. You are feeling sleepy, very sleepy.

We heard that Project Chicago, which wasn't really anything of interest to Barnet, was about helping Capita to 'better deploy resources to support contracts'. Hmm. And creating 'centres of excellence', which of course will be a welcome departure for Crapita.

Mrs Angry pointed out, unasked, that this was in fact an important subject, with direct relevance to Barnet, if only by implication, and why had they not told the councillors? 



So we now know, what we know: that Project Chicago exists, and has been for some time the subject of 'briefings' between Capita-Barnet's 'Re" joint venture, and some senior officers, but not, apparently, with the knowledge of members.

We also know what we do not know: who, exactly, took part in these briefings, and when, and what was discussed and how that is compatible with a view that this is 'largely' a matter of internal significance only to Capita.

Was the Tory leader aware of the discussions?

If so, why were other members not informed?

If he was not, why not? 

Why were the meetings not minuted?

Why have members not been allowed to debate the potential impact of contract management that may be centralised out of the direct control of Barnet? 

Would such a move not represent a major change in the contract anyway, and necessitate a new agreement? 

As we are already handing over bucket loads of cash to Capita, will the proposed changes increase our level of payments?

It is possible, although unlikely, that Project Chicago will not have any impact on service delivery in Barnet: but the real point here is the secrecy with which this issue is being discussed.

The history of Broken Barnet has many secrets, we know: some of them have been accidentally revealed, such as the way in which much of the original outsourcing process was discussed and designed by senior officers, in unminuted meetings, or in meetings whose minutes the council would not release, until obliged to by the ICO. (Warning for readers from Capita: contains more barking and non barking dogs ...)

Worse still, as well as discussions and proposals, some decisions were made by senior officers, as you may recall when the onetime 'Director of Place', Pam Wharfe, grandly announced to staff in a newsletter, while the Tory leader was at his holiday home in France, that 'we have decided to form a joint venture organisation with the successful bidder' ... 'We' turned out to be not the elected 'we' allegedly headed by the Tory leader and his elected administration, but the cabal of senior officers who really run everything in this borough. 

Oh, and let us not forget the very interesting case of the recent depot purchase, for £13.5 million, which officers knew had changed hands for only £750,000 to a company owned by the council's landlords, the Comer Brothers -  a transaction they had apparently forgotten to tell the councillors about ...

There has just been another example of decisions apparently taken by senior officers, rather than elected members: this is the recent decision, actioned by delegated powers by the CEO, Andrew Travers, to move the management of Barnet's Street Scene services to the Barnet Group, the council's own Local Trading Company. 

As you will see from the extract below, courtesy of Tory blogger Barnet Bugle, there are three high risks acknowledged in the DPR - including, most tellingly, that of 'political sensitivity'. 

The Barnet Bugle, aka former councillor Dan Hope, as you will note from his comments on twitter, views this step as most questionable. Why, he asks, quite rightly, was the sudden decision taken by officers, rather than referred to the council's 'Urgency' committee?

The truth is that as in all things, where there is a vacuum of scrutiny, the democratic process inevitably shrinks to the size of something disposable, and irrelevant. The sidelining of the administration's Tory councillors affects their sense of amour propre, but the wider implications of their disengagement seems to pass them by.

A test then, for the Labour opposition now, under the new leadership of Barry Rawlings: if the Tories won't challenge their senior officers, and reclaim control of the process of democracy in this borough, will you step up, and hold them to account?


Updated, Friday 19th January

Well, well. Project Chicago: after debate with his fellow bloggers, the Barnet Eye submitted more questions, which have produced some very interesting responses ... 

Please provide the following

1) Details of dates of all briefings for councillors on Project Chicago

2) Details of invitees for all briefings for councillors on Project Chicago

3) Copies of all briefing packs for councillors on Project Chicago

4) Details of any impacts on Barnet Council identified as part of project Chicago

We have processed this request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.


I am writing to inform you that we have searched our records and the information you requested is not held by London Borough of Barnet.

As this is a Capita initiative there is no requirement to consult with councillors or brief them. The project interfaces with Re as it is in the Capita family. 

'The project interfaces with Re ... ' Mrs Angry has been in this game too long, clearly, because now she thinks she can identify exactly which grammatical hoodlum is responsible for mangling the English language here - and she doesn't mean the FOI officers.

'... as it is in the Capita family' ... I likes the sound of that, though, don't you, readers? 
Heartwarming, and makes one realise that this outsourcing business is not really about screwing profit from the delivery of public services, but an act of love - like one big corporate hug.

Looking beyond the corporate claptrap, however, we see the fatal flaw in this response. 

If the changes that will result in the centralised management of services are of no relevance to our elected representatives, who are currently reviewing, in theory at least, the three year state of the contractual agreements with Crapita, why then are Crapita secretly discussing Project Chicago with the senior officers with responsibility for commissioning?


Mr Reasonable said...

Mrs A, we are now seeing what was widely predicted at the time - a complete takeover of the council by Capita. Cllr are irrelevant, a nuisance that slows down decision making of the Capita juggernaut. I would also note that Cllr Richard Cornelius is a board director of Re and if it has any impact on the profitability of the business he should have been briefed as a director. This can only get worse.

Mrs Angry said...

Very interesting point, Mr R.

In regard to the FOI response, it is utterly disingenuous for them to claim councillors do not have to be informed as 'Re' is a 'member of the Capita family' - Re is a Joint Venture between Capita AND Barnet, and not a separate entity only accountable to Capita.