Thursday, 30 August 2012

Who runs the council

Who runs Barnet Council?
A question for Barnet leader Richard Cornelius from the Barnet bloggers.

Dear Councillor Cornelius

We wrote to you last week in regard to the announcement by Pam Wharfe, Barnet Council’s ‘interim’ Director of Environment, Planning and Regeneration, that a decision has been made to abandon the One Barnet Strategic Partnership proposals for the outsourcing of £275 million worth of our local services in favour of a ‘Joint Venture’.

You have since contradicted her statement, saying:

“No decision has been made. No case for a jv has been made beyond the suggestion that there might be such as case. The decisions will be made by elected members in due course.”

In a subsequent message to staff Ms Wharfe has informed staff that:

“...the project Board recommended to Corporate Directors Group that this be formally advanced in discussion with bidders and indeed is currently our preferred option.”

Neither the DRS project board nor the Corporate Directors Group includes any elected members of the council. Membership of the DRS project board, we understand, is restricted to a small number of senior council officers and two consultants from Agilisys/iMPOWER, the company working as ‘implementation partner’ to One Barnet, at an average cost to local tax payers of £250,000 per month.

It would appear that Barnet Council is preparing to commit the financial security of this borough to a new model of outsourcing – one that its own consultants’ advice identified as more risky and costly than the one originally chosen, and that this decision has been made by senior officers before any consideration or approval by the elected members of the council.

Ms Wharfe’s own comments about the new Joint Venture seem to suggest that senior management are not at all concerned by the increased risk of failure that this new commitment will entail, or the increased responsibilities for the authority that this option would involve, as a result of guaranteeing more favourable terms for the successful bidder at the conclusion of the dialogue process.

As residents, however, we are concerned: and we believe that you should be too.

We would ask you and your colleagues to consider the real possibility that in the event of the new Joint Venture failing, the council will still be left with the duty to provide the affected services, whilst the successful bidder may simply walk away with no obligation.

We believe that councillors have clearly not been fully informed as to the details of the Joint Venture, and that the scale of risk that the One Barnet programme presents is simply not fully understood by members. It seems that the need for members to be fully informed of developments and involved in the formation of policy at all stages of the dialogue process has been deliberately overlooked.

Perhaps as well as a decision to pursue a new model of outsourcing, the council is committing itself to a new form of local government, in which the democratic process is set aside for a bureaucratic dictatorship, entirely controlled by the senior management team.

If Barnet is indeed determined to bypass the democratic process, and to give the role of policy and decision making to senior officers, rather than to the political leadership of the Conservative group and the Cabinet, we would suggest this makes the role of the elected members completely redundant, although of course it may well offer a new opportunity for cost cutting exercises in the withdrawal of members’ allowances.

Failing that, may we ask you to assert your authority as leader of the council, recognise that the outsourcing programme has been totally discredited, and instruct your own officers to follow a course of action which is the result of proper consultation and policy formation rather than one shaped by the motivations of their own agenda.

Yours sincerely

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne

A personal footnote by Mr Mustard:

When reviewing the agreed draft of their communiqué Mr Mustard noted that the bloggers were using the phrase "Corporate Directors Group" as used by Pam Wharfe. The word corporate suddenly spoke volumes to him. Indeed the Directors are aiming to have the most corporate council in history with their ambition to be a commissioning council and pass the maximum amount of services out to the private sector to be run for profit (Mr Mustard is a company Director and will celebrate 25 years of trading next month so he must know something about profit himself).

The other thing was that he thought that it was called the Council Directors Group (there can't be two damn groups of Directors sitting around doing blue sky thinking can there?) and this is supported by the council's shiny new rusty website, here,and if you search on google for "Barnet Council Directors Group" you find Craig Cooper the unCommercial Director using the term. Needless to say the website page about One Barnet is itself already out of date (this website really was a waste of £700,000) and doesn't yet mention the JV. Or is it up to date because it isn't going to happen. Who knows?

Mr Mustard

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The new One Barnet Joint Venture: a joint statement by the Barnet bloggers, and an open letter to leader Richard Cornelius.

full speed sideways

The new One Barnet Joint Venture: a joint statement by the Barnet bloggers, and an open letter to leader Richard Cornelius.

Dear Councillor Cornelius

At the end of last week, an email was sent by Pam Wharfe, Interim Director of Environment, Planning and Regeneration to employees of Barnet Council in which it was casually revealed that one of the two One Barnet outsourcing projects, the outsourcing of c.£275 million worth of council services, is now to be redesigned as a "joint venture" in a new company comprising the bidder and the local authority.

This remarkable development raises several hugely important questions.

In the email, Ms Wharfe makes the rather disingenuous statement that the new organisation provides " effective basis on which the Council can benefit from these opportunities and at the same time it gives the Council greater rights of transparency and control..."

The loss of democratic accountability to the community in the provision of services that would result from the outsourcing of the One Barnet programme is an issue we and other critics have raised repeatedly, yet is an accusation the council has continually rejected.

Whilst we are pleased to see that the authority has now accepted that our concerns are valid, we fail to understand how the creation of a new commercial venture will improve the ability of the council to retain proper controls and transparency in regard to the services outsourced in this way.

The new arrangement also raises the real risk of conflicts of interest regarding the management of the new venture and those who will be involved in the decision making processes of the organisation. Bearing in mind the failure of the council to mitigate the potential risks posed by any senior officers with links to private companies involved in the bidding process, what safeguards will be in place in relation to the membership of the new board?

Most significantly, perhaps, the new venture would appear to move the burden of significant risk from the private sector partner to the taxpayers who will be expected to fund the new company, whilst any profits that may ensue will not return to residents, but will be shared with the commercial partner. If the venture fails, residents will bear the cost of failure, and the need to re establish all in house services – if possible.

In short, the joint venture might fairly be described as nothing less than the outsourcing of profit, and a desperate, last minute agreement to carry the full risk of catastrophic failure in order to sustain, in the face of mounting disquiet from all quarters, the One Barnet outsourcing programme.

We ask why the Conservative administration has decided on this sudden course of action, at such a late stage in the dialogue process, and remind you, Mr Cornelius, that when the original case for outsourcing was made, your own consultants' report stated:

"The costs and risks associated with a JV model are judged at this stage to be higher than for a Strategic Partnership."

As we have so often pointed out, the undoubtedly high risks of entering into a Strategic Partnership have never been subjected to any independent assessment, or indeed any form of real scrutiny, yet here you are now, committing the financial security of our borough to what has been clearly identified as an even riskier and more costly strategy.

We might also speculate to what extent this radical departure, at this advanced stage in the dialogue, has exposed the council to risk from legal challenge by companies who have been excluded from the dialogue at an earlier point in the proceedings.

In respect of the need for democratic accountability, we would also question on what basis, and on whose authority the council has taken this decision: was the change in policy debated within the Tory group, or the Cabinet, or is this another development driven by the senior management team?

The mass privatisation of One Barnet will have a devastating impact on the daily lives of Barnet residents, as the need to make profit inevitably comes into conflict with the provision of public services, that is to say the support on which depend so many of the least advantaged and most vulnerable members of our community. All studies have demonstrated that the savings you imagine will transpire as a result of privatisation simply will not materialise, and indeed the whole enterprise is more likely to cause more cost to the local taxpayer, as well as a sharp decline in the standard of service.

By the time the full extent of the damage to the well being of this borough becomes evident, it will be too late to wrest back control of services without enormous difficulty and an intolerable burden of further cost. The senior officers who have driven the outsourcing agenda will no doubt be far away from Barnet and it is equally likely that you and your Tory colleagues will be voted out of office at the very first opportunity.

As residents of this borough we ask you to come to your senses and call an immediate halt to the One Barnet programme. Stop listening to the self serving advice of the private sector companies and the senior officers who are promoting this agenda, and take a look at the answer right in front of you – the in-house solution. With the support of the staff you employ you can work together to achieve the efficiencies you need and avoid the dangerous gamble of One Barnet: now is the time to act, before it is too late.

Yours sincerely

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne