Good news: IBM-led shared services company is recognised as “failing”

By Tony Collins

After years of depicting problems at an IBM-led shared services company, Southwest One, as teething, Somerset County Council has conceded that the venture is failing.

The Conservative leader of Somerset County Council Councillor Ken Maddock used the word “failing” nine times in a speech on Wednesday about Southwest One, a company run by IBM on behalf Somerset County Council, Taunton Deane Borough Council and Avon and Somerset Police.

Southwest One’s contract, which was signed in the early hours of a Saturday morning in 2007, was doomed from the start, in part because of the complexity of the arrangements and in part because of pervasive secrecy that antagonised hundreds of Somerset council staff who were already opposed to the joint venture; and they were the very staff who were seconded to Southwest One to make the venture work. [It’s a truism that staff, if they are motivated, will often make their way around difficulties but may be overwhelmed by them if not motivated.]

Last month Campaign4Change set out in detail some of the most disruptive and continuing problems at Southwest One; and we said the difficulties could not be tackled in earnest while Somerset council and its partners were portraying the venture as a success. On 31 January 2012, our post was mentioned on the website of the local Conservative MP Ian Liddell-Grainger.

The good news now is that the council has, this week, for the first time, spoken of Southwest One in unequivocally negative terms. No longer is every council criticism of the company qualified by a positive comment, such that one cancels out the other.

Whether our post last month has made any difference is not important. What’s pleasing is that IBM and Southwest One’s partners are free to make progress, now that Somerset has told it like it is. Much of the credit for the council’s emergence from its long, self-administered anaesthesia lies with Dave Orr who has campaigned for years to highlight the failings of Southwest One, as has Liddell-Grainger.

Maddock’s speech on Southwest One

Maddock’s speech to a full council meeting is reported at length by the Somerset County Gazette and by Liddell-Grainger.

Maddock said

“As an administration we inherited a partnership that promised a huge amount, but it was not delivering. Southwest One’s accounts year on year show losses, staggering losses just published of £31m, and failures to hit modest savings targets.

“We have bent over backwards to try to make this partnership work. But we have to state clearly that our primary duty in looking after the public’s hard earned money is to make sure we get the best possible deals, that we get the best possible value for the public’s money.

“I have to say that Southwest One is failing this test.

“We are currently looking at all our services and all our contracts to see whether we are doing the best we can for our customers,  whether we are providing the best possible services for our customers and at the best possible prices for our customers.

“I have to say that Southwest One is failing this test.

“We need a Council that can cope with future government cuts and rising demand. We will need to be efficient and flexible.

“I have to say that Southwest One is failing this test.

“Sadly, Southwest One is failing. It is failing to deliver promised savings; failing to cope with a changing financial landscape; failing to be flexible enough to adapt in challenging times and provide the best possible value for money.

“To make up for this failure, we will now accelerate our extensive review of everything that the council does: Almost half our most vital services are carried out by private sector or not for profit organisations – we will look to increase this where appropriate.

“We will encourage social enterprises, partnerships, communities and voluntary groups to get more involved in what we do and what we run. We will look to put the customer at the heart of what we do.

“And we will do this whilst we continue to do all we can to make Southwest One work. But I have to be clear; it is failing; it is inflexible; and it is intransigent. We are therefore looking at all the options available to us.

“I do have one final message for Southwest One – and that is to the staff and our Somerset County Council colleagues and secondees working there.  The message is this: This continuing failure is not about you. It is about the contract, the complications, the failed technology, the missed opportunities, the lack of promised savings.  It is about Southwest One itself, not about the people working for it.”

Comments on Maddock’s speech

Some of the comments on the Somerset County Gazette website were apt. One said “Somerset County Council has finally come to accept what we, the minions, have known for years: South West One is a failure and a pretty expensive one…”

Another said

“At last SCC admits to what everyone in the real world knew from day one …”

Comment:

One of the lessons from IT disasters in the private and public sectors is that things often start to improve once the main parties own up to the seriousness of the problems. The good news, perhaps, is that Southwest One may now be at its lowest point. It has at long last purged its bowels, so to speak.

Ian Liddell-Grainger’s website.

Southwest One gets £10m IBM amid “staggering” losses.

IBM struggles with SAP two years on – a shared services warning?

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