By Tony Collins
Dave Orr worked in a variety of IT and project management roles for Somerset County Council and retired in 2010. For years he has campaigned with extraordinary tenacity to bring to the surface the truth over an unusual joint venture between IBM, Somerset County Council, a local borough council and the local police force.
Now he has written an account of the joint venture and the lessons. It is published on the website of procurement expert Peter Smith.
Orr questions whether Southwest One was ever a good idea, since it was formed in 2007.
The deal has not made the savings intended, a SAP implementation went awry, the contract has been mired in political controversy and criticism, Southwest One has repeatedly lost money, and many of the transferred staff and services have returned to the county council, and some services returned to the borough council. IBM and the county council have ended up in a legal dispute that cost the county council £5.5m to settle. Southwest One was not exactly the partnership it set out to be.
The contract may show how an outsourcing deal that doesn’t have the support of the staff being transferred is flawed fundamentally from the start (which is one reason few people will be surprised if a 10-year £320m deal for Capita to run Barnet Council’s new customer service organisation [NSCSO] ends in tears).
These are some of Orr’s points:
- Like other light-touch regulators, the Audit Commission repeatedly gave Southwest One positive reports, without ever qualifying the accounts, even as problems with SAP implementation mounted in 2009 and procurement savings were not being made in line with forecasts.
- The contract called for transformation based upon ‘world-class technologies’, yet all of the IT Service was placed into Southwest One with no IT expertise back in the Somerset County client (until after a poor SAP implementation in 2009). Was the lack of retained IT skills in the Somerset County client behind the formal acceptance of a badly configured SAP implementation?
- Large scale outsourcing over a long contract of 10 years or more requires an ability to foresee the future that is simply not possible to capture in a fixed contract. In a 10-year contract, there will be three changes of national government and three changes of local government. That is a great deal of unpredictable change to cope with via a fixed, long-term contract.
- Local Government will always be at a disadvantage in resources and skills, to a large multi-national contractor like IBM, when it comes to negotiating, letting and managing a complex multi-service contract.
- What was the culture of Southwest One (75% owned by IBM)? Was it private, public or a hybrid? The management culture remained firmly IBM, yet the councils and police workforces were seconded and remained equally firmly public sector rooted. There is such a thing as a public service ethos. In fact, Southwest One was run like a mini-IBM based upon global divisions, complete with IBM standard structures and processes. Southwest One seconded employees were not allowed anything like a full access to IBM internal systems, thus creating additional complexity, as “real” IBM employees relied entirely upon on-line systems.
- Mixed teams in a single shared service were hard to amalgamate. This meant the IBM managers of Southwest One never really gained the sort of command & control of the multi-tier workforces that their bonus-oriented model needs to function. “I doubt that IBM would ever again contemplate the seconded staff model over the TUPE transfer model,” says Orr.
- Somerset County Council ran with a “thin” client management team that, in Orr’s view, did not have sufficient expertise or enough staff resources to effectively manage this complex contract with IBM. The councils relied upon definitions of “partnership” that meant one thing to the councils’ side and quite another thing to IBM, says Orr.
- In Southwest One, Somerset County Council handed their entire IT Service over lock, stock and barrel. “Can you really consider IT as wholly a ‘back office’ service? Many successful private Companies see IT as a strategic service to be kept under their own control.”
- The real savings might have been found in optimising processes in big departments (like Social Care, Education, Highways) that lay outside of Southwest One’s reach. “The focus on IT rather than service processes was another flaw in the model.”
Orr concludes that nobody who played a major part in the Southwest deal has in any way been held to account for what has gone wrong.