Is this a reason some council and NHS scandals stay hidden for years?

By Tony Collins

Six years into Southwest One’s joint venture between IBM and three public authorities, the outsourced service is not a big success.  

Somerset County Council, one of the joint venture’s partners, has been in dispute with IBM, the major shareholder in Southwest One. It cost the county council £5.9m to settle, including £800,000 in costs when bringing back staff who had been outsourced.

The joint venture’s SAP-based “transformation” led to complaints of poor quality of service by some of Somerset’s finance users; the venture has consistently made losses and on the matter of savings, Somerset Cabinet member for resources, David Huxtable, said there have been some but added:

“It was a very complex contract and lots of the savings were predicated on an ever-increasing amount of money being put into public services and we know in the last four years that has gone into reverse.”

Now IBM has sold its low-margin customer care outsourcing unit which could affect the future of Southwest One.

Yet a smaller partner in Southwest One, Taunton Deane Borough Council, describes the relationship as a “success”. Reports to Taunton Deane’s councillors on Southwest One are remarkably positive.

Dave Orr an IT specialist who used to be work for Somerset County Council and has kept a close eye on Southwest One since it was formed in 2007 has drawn my attention to Taunton’s latest reports on the joint venture. When read quickly Taunton’s reports are upbeat, almost breathless with praise for the joint venture.

Below are excerpts from two reports that have been written for today’s meeting of Taunton Deane’s Corporate Scrutiny Committee.  The first is a “Procurement Transformation Update”, report to the council by Southwest One’s Chief Procurement Officer.

There are no hints of any difficulties on the contract except a comment that cutting spending will make it harder to achieve procurement savings. From Southwest One’s report to Taunton:

“Executive Summary

“As at 31/07/13, in excess of £1.8m [report’s emphasis] savings have been delivered to the Council through signed-off procurement-related initiatives brought about by Southwest One’s Strategic Procurement Service. This is up from £1.59m when last reported in January 2013.

“A further £1.364m of savings are scheduled to be delivered from these signed-off initiatives during the life of the current Southwest One contract, which expires in 2017.

“Multiple projects continue to be progressed by Southwest One Strategic Procurement Service which are expected to significantly add to the pipeline of savings. These Include initiatives for a new pool & spa at Blackbrook; Waste; Insurance; various small scale initiatives within the DLO/HPS areas .”

A second report for Taunton’s Corporate Scrutiny Committee “SouthwestOne Partnership Update report” is written jointly by a team at Taunton council and the CEO of Southwest One. Again it’s upbeat and summarises Southwest One’s performance over the last six months.

“Service delivery for TDBC, viewed in the round, is broadly on track. The majority of services perform well or extremely well (eg Customer Services). We do have concerns in some areas and we are working closely with the services in question to remedy the issues. “

The report says that the shared service model in conjunction with larger authorities provides Taunton with “much needed resilience” (report’s underlining) in service delivery, although “this has been impacted to a certain extent by changes made recently to the contract by the other partners”.

Additionally, “our secondee staff to SWO benefit from ‘assured employment’, which was offered by IBM”.

A survey of staff in June 2013 “saw marked improvements in staff morale and communication”.

Sickness absence for the financial year to the end of March 2013 was slightly down to about 9 days per full-time employee though up a little more recently.

Appendices – now for the problems

It’s only when councillors come to the report’s appendices that they will see some detail of the problems. But how many councillors will scrutinise a report’s appendices? From the Taunton report’s appendices:

“There are service and capacity issues. The helpdesk move caused significant problems, leading to an increased number of issues being raised with the Client Team from TDBC [Taunton Deane Borough Council] staff. We are closely monitoring the plan SWO [Southwest One] have put in place to fix these issues.

“Project delivery capacity and project scheduling continues to cause concern, with improved governance within TDBC highlighting this problem more acutely. Our issue tracker is currently tracking 11 escalated issues with SWOne, 6 of them with a Red RAG status.

“ SRM (Supplier Relationship Management) performance in SAP continues to be well below the required level despite the amount of focus it is receiving from SWOne. Work on a revised governance process for the SAP system is underway and looks likely to deliver a more controlled SAP Change process.”

The most serious problem – and it is not mentioned until the penultimate page of the report’s appendices – is that savings will be nowhere near the original target of £10m.

“This is red, tracked against the original [savings] £10m target. To date £2.8m has been signed-off and it is not yet clear how the lower target of £5.7m will be achieved as there are fewer savings opportunities and initiatives emanating from SWO…”

From the small print of Taunton Deane’s report it is possible to work out that the cost of the council’s SAP implementation was supposed to have been paid off by savings but hasn’t. Indeed a debt of nearly £1m is still incurring interest.


Perhaps it’s unfair to pick on Taunton Deane’s reports to councillors. The positive tone is little different to dozens, perhaps hundreds, of NHS, council and central government board reports I have read over two decades.

If you’re a director of a public authority your job is probably made harder if you’re getting self-vindicating internal reports on the organisation’s progress. It would be more helpful if management reports were neutral and objective, framed by unvarnished facts.

When you hire a roofing company and it reports back on the finished job, you want to know about the tiles that leave a gap or are loose, not the ones that fit nicely.

NHS trust reports can often be particularly one-sided, often of the type that say:

“We had 3 fatalities on the main staircase last month because of a ruptured floor lining but the overall accident rate in that part of the building is down over the last 3 years and our falls rate overall is 3% below the average for the NHS as a whole.

“Our contractor confirms that the floor lining is within KPI requirements and a repair will be effected shortly.”

It appears that those who write board reports for public authorities feel an obligation to motivate and inspire, to leave the reader feeling good, to clothe bad news in layers of good news, omit it altogether or put it in the appendix hardly anyone reads.

Is this one reason so many outsourcing and NHS scandals stay hidden for years? 

5 responses to “Is this a reason some council and NHS scandals stay hidden for years?

  1. 1st October Taunton Deane Full Council: 2. Corporate and Client Services Client Team

    2.1 The Client Team continues to monitor delivery by the various Southwest One services, which remains broadly on-track.
    Southwest One Contract

    2.2 The review of Southwest One services, which followed the changes
    made to the Southwest One contract by Somerset County Council (SCC) in April, is ongoing, but will hopefully be concluded in the near future. Any recommendations for change will be brought before

    Minor Change to Southwest One Contract

    2.3 On 1 July 2013 we made a minor change to the contract which saw the successful return of the Health and Safety function.

    Southwest One Update

    2.4 We have been advised by IBM that they are selling their global
    ‘customer care business process outsourcing services’ business to a
    company called SYNNEX. This is a large IBM global deal and will take a number of months to complete.

    2.5 This may have some implications for Southwest One, but as yet we do not know any details. The Client Team, in conjunction with the other partners to Southwest One, is currently working to clarify any potential contractual issues. However, any contract to which we are a party cannot be changed without our agreement.

    Procurement Savings

    2.6 We continue to monitor the delivery of the Procurement Transformation Project and day-to-day procurement service by Southwest One. As at 31 July 2013, in excess of £1,800,000 savings have been delivered to the Council through the signed-off procurement related initiatives. A further £1,364,000 of savings are scheduled to be delivered from these signed-off initiatives during the remainder of the Southwest One contract.

    2.7 The strategic Procurement Services are working on a number of additional projects and savings initiatives, which should increase the value of savings delivered. A detailed Procurement Transformation Update report went to the Corporate Scrutiny Committee on 19 September 2013.


  2. Pingback: Taunton council to bring outsourced services back in-house? | Campaign4Change

  3. This sort of behavior certainly does not help. I call it nodding dog syndrome. A group of people sit around a boardroom table listening to the pros an cons of the next big thing in the public sector and its benefits in terms of monies saved efficiencies gained morale improved etc. The problem is I don’t think they understand the thing being replaced let alone the replacement. In addition they seem incapable of admitting they they do not understand (hence nodding dogs).

    Not understanding a situation means no control of a situation, no control of a situation means target attainment is left to chance which inevitably leads to failures which need to be hidden, projects reset or recast, all to save face and careers.

    I am being blunt as I for one am sick to death of this nonsense.


  4. IBM/SW1 in 2008/09 implemented SAP into the two Councils and the Police in Somerset as a key part of so-called “transformation”.

    In yet another buried away Appendix (in the latest external report for Somerset County Council) that shows a Medium Audit Concern problems with SAP controls over 4 years from implementation by IBM/SW1 (see page 27 of the Appendix A):

    Click to access 2013%20Sept%2026%20-%20Item%206%20%20-%20Audit%20Findings%20report%20-%202012-13.pdf

    SAP Review
    We have completed a high level review of the IT controls operated by IBM over SWOne (SWO) and the system provided by SAP.
    Somerset Pension Fund also uses the SAP system . The Council shares use of the SWO system with two external partners , Avon and Somerset Police and Taunton Deane BC.

    Although we identified a number of weaknesses we concluded that the risk of a material misstatement in the accounts was low.

    Officers should review and address the weaknesses identified In conjunction with its partners.

    Somerset County Council welcomes the report from Grant Thornton on the SAP controls. We were already aware of the underlying database configuration and its inherent risks.

    We intend to give South West One an opportunity to comment on
    your report, and to provide the necessary assurance around database controls. We will be asking them to provide details about access levels to the SAP system and about the frequency of their use.

    South West One will be asked to provide a response within one
    month (as is standard for our own audit procedures).


  5. Reblogged this on kickingthecat.


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