By Tony Collins
A report on Service Birmingham – Capita’s joint venture with Birmingham City Council – shows that the deal has been largely successful so far but that trust and relationships may be breaking down in some areas.
The “High-Level” review of Service Birmingham by the Best Practice Group could be read in two ways: as a qualified endorsement of the deal so far, or as a warning that a deteriorating relationship in some areas could end up, in years to come, as a legal dispute.
The report’s authors suggest that the council and Capita have little choice but to make improvements given that the contract lasts another nine years. They say:
“Given the fact that the commercial partnership has a further nine years to operate, there is an inherent risk that unless a core focus for both parties is re-established, the commercial trust between BCC [Birmingham City Council and SB [Service Birmingham] will continue to deteriorate.
“Neither party will benefit from the relationship if this situation is permitted to manifest itself.”
In another part of its report the Best Practice Group says:
“BCC and SB seemed to overcome early challenges in their relationship by having a ‘great common cause’. The Council entered into this relationship in 2006 because it had the foresight to realise it had to fundamentally transform how it operated in order to improve social outcomes for its population…
“Now the transformation has largely been successful and the initiatives are almost complete, the level of innovation seems to have stalled and the relationship has deteriorated. Somewhere in the fire-fighting, both BCC and SB have lost sight of the next ‘great common cause’ – the fact that the Council needs to further reduce the cost of ICT service delivery by £20m per annum. This will require some significant ‘outside the box’ thinking about how to achieve from both BCC and SB.”
Below are verbatim extracts from the Best Practice Group’s report which highlight some of the lessons arising from of the joint venture so far. The sub-headings (in italics) are mine.
Extracts from Best Practice Group’s report:
Service Birmingham charges a fee even when the council implements services outside the joint venture – poor value and reputedly poor practice?
“SB has an on-going contractual duty to ensure it provides independently benchmarked best value in the services it delivers to BCC [Birmingham City Council]. As part of these arrangements, BCC can request specific third party services (outside SB’s own delivery capability) with SB applying a fee for ‘contract management’.
“However, these situations vary considerably, raising the question of how to maximise value. The contract management fee would be considered high value when BCC gives SB a service outcome it wants to achieve, and SB researches the market, provides options and recommendations to BCC, sources the best value vendor, and ensures the solution is implemented and the business outcomes achieved.
“In other situations, BCC already knows the outcome to be achieved, how to achieve it and who the best value vendor is, and can implement the solution itself. However, the same contract management percentage still applies to these cases. This causes resentment for the service area involved because they cannot see how SB has added to the process, and in real terms, is perceived by BCC as very poor value. Although the sums involved are minimal compared with the relationship’s overall cost, it is highly visible as an area of poor value and reputedly bad practice, and needs to be realigned.”
Service Birmingham needs to make a significant return for its shareholders
“Given the relationship challenges between BCC and SB, there are a couple of fundamental points to address, namely that: (a) certain individuals within the Council need to understand that SB is not a social enterprise, a public sector mutual, or a charity, and needs to make a significant return on its capital for its shareholders, and (b) SB needs to understand that the Council is in a significantly deteriorating financial position due to Government cutbacks.”
SB drops its prices when challenged
“There have been statements made by a number of the officers in the Council that SB drops its prices when challenged, especially when the Council has investigated alternative industry offerings. SB have suggested that it is only when the challenge arises that initial data is clarified and therefore, more focused pricing can be provided.”
A hardened commercial stance in some circumstances?
“… these obvious and immediate savings are now being met with a hardened commercial stance for anything that falls outside of the core deliverables by SB.”
The cloud imposes hidden costs for SB
“Regardless of whether a scale of mark-up can be achieved, one issue that is clear from the interviews undertaken is that SB/BCC needs to educate the BCC service areas at all levels around what the contract management mark-up actually buys for the Council from SB. At present, for example, there is a lack of understanding within BCC service areas that having ‘cloud’ delivered solutions within the overall portfolio does still incur hidden costs for SB in supporting the overall infrastructure and managing the intermediate fault–reporting service.”
Staff survey on SB – mixed results
“With regards to the survey, 63% stated that they talk ‘positively’ about SB to their colleagues. Slightly less, 59%, believe SB understands the requirements and support needed to deliver the Council’s services. However, when asked if they would naturally think to contact SB for help and advice in situations where they were thinking about undertaking new ICT related work, only 33% of the Council respondents said that they would…
“When asked the direct question of how satisfied they were overall with the service delivered by SB, only 15% of the respondents felt that the service was less than satisfactory. However, only 10% believed that it was excellent with 39% rating it as satisfactory and 36% rating the service received as good.”
“There is a feeling which was voiced by several interviewees from the Council that project implementation often runs behind schedule and ultimately it is the ‘loudest project to shout’ which will then have the scarce resources allocated to it at the cost of other projects.”
Lack of commercial trust
“…there are elements of the KPI [key performance indicator] reporting received from SB that BCC need clarity on . This, coupled with the general lack of commercial trust between the parties and the fact that BCC have shown that SB have reported some data incorrectly (after discussion around interpretation), means that the KPIs are not fully aligned to the business outcomes BCC now needs to achieve in the current financial climate.”
Seeds of a possible legal dispute in future years between the two sides?
“One point that should be highlighted is that we believe there is a misalignment between both parties view of what partnership working actually entails. From the perspective of some service areas within BCC, they view certain individuals within SB as uncooperative. In a similar vein, there are certain individuals within SB who view specific BCC staff also as uncooperative. It should be noted that these individuals within both BCC and SB are in the minority.
“However, such un-cooperation is manifesting itself into a perception of a lack of commercial trust in both camps. Some BCC individuals are not really taking into account, or understanding, that SB is a commercial organisation that has a majority shareholding by a publically listed company. Its commercial shareholders need to see financial returns from SB that increase annually…
“In the early stages, the working relationship was put firmly on the rails by having a ‘great common cause’. The transformation requirements of BCC were so fundamental, it seems many differences of opinion were set aside and both parties worked very hard to overcome the obstacles in ensuring the transformation was successful. Largely, that was achieved. Now that the original transformation process has almost all been completed, the parties working relationship seems to have deteriorated in certain instances. This pattern of behaviour is normal in most strategic vendor relationships.”
SB more expensive than the average in certain areas?
“SB appear to be significantly more expensive than average in the areas of voice, data and converged service provision (KPI-17). The most significant of the three costs provided is the provision of Data services where SB are the worst value of all of the respondents in the SOCITM survey with a cost of £227 per data outlet (capital + support) compared to a median of £118. At the time of writing this report, no clarification had been provided as to the reasons for the significant difference between the SB provided cost and the survey median. When KPI-17 is reviewed as a cost per user, SB fairs much better across the service types. It has a cost of £321 per user compared to a median of £290 per user. However if you consider that this £31 per user per year, it actually represents over £600k per annum above average.”
Council concerns over SAP work going abroad
“Different parties within BCC perceived that in the interest of cost savings, SB was passing some work on SAP projects to an off-shore organisation, rather than using the UK workforce. It should be noted that the contract allows for the off-shoring of SAP work, but only where such work does not adversely impact jobs in the UK.
“A high level review of the SAP project work has identified that SAP work has only been off-shored when the UK workforce does not have the required expertise. In addition, we requested specific evidence from individuals to support their view that work was being off-shored that could have been undertaken by the UK workforce, but this could not be provided.”
The Council was paying for unused phone lines
“… Ultimately, the Council kept receiving invoices from the line provider for what were essentially unused telephone lines. The process ceased promptly after BCC and SB addressed the escalation of the issue.”
Stagnating innovation could widen the divide between the two sides
“It is clear that both parties will continue to feel significant frustration until they can resolve how to share the innovation process, provide resources to help the generation of sound business cases and provide formalised and comprehensive feedback to allow for the implementation of suggestions. These suggestions need to become acceptable to the Council as realistic deliverable solutions. If this does not happen, then innovation between the partners will continue to stagnate, driving a widening divide between the organisations.”
KPIs not always useful?
In the case of the BCC and SB agreement, despite an abundance of KPIs being in place, the Council perceives the contract could be better aligned in order to maximise the behaviours from SB that it needs.
The report gives the impression that those running the joint venture must overcome the many problems because the contract still has nine years left to run. Both sides, it seems, are locked into the relationship. In some areas it works. In others it doesn’t.
Capita, clearly, has been trying hard to make the relationship work. Some within the council have too. Some are not so enthusiastic and have been “making noise” according to the report’s authors. Do those making a noise have a point, or are they simply making trouble against the joint venture? The report suggests removing those making a noise. But will that remove some of those who are providing an independent challenge?
So far the relationship has been largely successful; and the survey of staff is generally positive. But there are signs of serious trouble. Innovation is stagnating, the council’s finances are deteriorating and Capita needs to make a profit from the venture. Are these fundamental incompatibilities? Will the relationship really last another nine years, especially if there is more political change within the council?