By Tony Collins
Cornwall Council was a model of local democracy in the way it challenged and then rejected a large-scale outsourcing plan. Now it has gone to the other extreme.
Amid extraordinary secrecy the Council’s cabinet is rushing through plans to sign a smaller outsourcing contract with BT – a deal that will include IT – before the May council elections.
Councillors who have been given details are not allowed to discuss them. No figures are being given on the costs to the council, or the possible savings. The Council’s cabinet is not releasing information on the risks.
Councillors are being treated like children, says ThisisCornwall. Documents with details of the BT outsourcing plans have to be handed back by councillors, and cabinet papers are being printed individually with members’ names as a watermark, on every page, to guard against copying and to help identify any whistleblowers.
The council’s Single Issue Panel has a timetable for the IT outsourcing plan.
– Recommendation to Cabinet to approve release of ITT – 27 February 2013
– Evaluation of bid – March 2013
– If contract awarded, commencement of implementation work – April 2013
– Staff transfer date – July 2013
The SIP report emphasises that the timetable for signing a deal is tight. “Evidence received is that there is little room for slippage in the timetable, but that potential award of contract is achievable by the end of March 2013… It is expected that a contract could be ready to be issued as part of the ITT [invitation to tender] pack by early in the week commencing 4 March 2013.”
The SIP report concedes that the plan is “fast moving”.
In the past, the SIP group of councillors has been open and challenging in its reports on the council’s plans with BT (and CSC before the company withdrew from negotiations). Now the SIP’s latest report is vague and unchallenging. The risks are referred to in the report as a tick-box exercise. Entire paragraphs in the SIP report appear to have little meaning.
“Risk log and programme timelines are reviewed and updated on a regular basis…
“The Council and health partners have been working on and have reached agreement on their positions in relation to commercial aspects in the contract and their expectations have been part of the dialogue with BT.”
“Previous concerns of the Panel relating to the area of new jobs have been addressed with BT in contract discussions and contract clauses have been revised to reflect this…”
It is also unclear from the SIP report why the council is outsourcing at all, only perhaps a hint that the deal will be value for money.
“The contract will be fully evaluated by the Head of Finance and her team to ensure value for money once the final bid is received. No savings have been assumed for 2013/14 budgetary purposes, although there are assumptions of savings for the indicative figures for future years,” says the SIP report.
It is a pity that Cornwall Council’s cabinet is rushing to sign a deal for which it won’t be accountable if things go wrong. In a few weeks a new council will be voted in and, if the outsourcing deal with BT ends up in a dispute or litigation, the new council will simply blame the old, as happened when Somerset County Council’s joint venture deal with IBM, Southwest One, went into dispute.
In essence, with the local elections only two months away, Cornwall Council’s cabinet has a freedom to make whatever decision it likes with impunity; and it appears to be taking that freedom to an extreme, almost to the point of sounding, in the latest SIP report, as if the council is an arms-length marketing agent of BT.
Cornwall Council’s cabinet has a mandate from the full council to move to a contract with BT. The full council has voted to “support” a deal. But that vote was a mandate to negotiate, not to sign anything BT wants to sign.
Openness has gone out of the window and BT, it seems, is no longer being rigorously challenged – by Cornwall’s cabinet, the full council, the public or the media.
How exactly can BT guarantee jobs and make savings? We don’t know. The Cabinet isn’t saying, and its members are doing all they can to stop councillors saying.
Are BT’s promises reliant on the fact that IT is subject to constant and sometimes costly change – often unforeseen change – and that is bound to continue, at least in the form of supporting changing legislation and reorganisations?
Unforeseen changes could add unforeseen costs which the council may have to pay because IT is at the heart of business continuity. In any dispute with the council – and BT knows its way around the world of contested contracts – the company would have the upper hand because of its experience with litigation and the fact that the council would need undisrupted IT at a time of change and could not afford, without risk, to take the service back in-house.
We have seen how normality broke down at Mid Staffs NHS Foundation Trust amid a lack of openness and excessive defensiveness; and we have seen, in Somerset County Council’s joint venture with IBM, Southwest One, what can happen when a contract signing is rushed.
Cornwall Council’s cabinet is doing both. It is rushing to sign a contract; and it is rushing to sign it amid excessive secrecy.
Surely Cornwall Council can do better than slip into the shadows to sign a deal with BT before the council elections in May? If it is such a good deal, the new council will want to sign it. A new council should have the chance to do so.
For Cornwall Council to outsource now what is arguably its single most important internal resource – IT – is bad for local democracy: it is snub to anyone who holds true the idea that local councillors are accountable to local people.
Thank you to campaigner Dave Orr who drew my attention to information that made this post possible.
* Cornwall Council, by the way, has one of the best local authority websites I have seen. If the website is a reflection of the imagination and efficiency of its IT department, Cornwall Council should be selling its IT skills to BT for a small fortune – not giving staff away.