Stop filming! That’s the IBM exit strategy we’re discussing

By Tony Collins

Dave Orr, a former IT employee at Somerset County Council, is now a local taxpayer trying to see if public statements made aboutthe authority’s joint venture with IBM match up to the facts.

Some councillors don’t seem to welcome his scrutiny, or his campaigning which can attract the attention of the local press.

Somerset claims it is saving millions of pounds through the Southwest One joint venture – which is majority owned by IBM. But Orr has learned through FOI requests and council reports that once extra costs are taken into account the council has had a net loss of £53m on the contract. He points to:

– £52m of SAP and “transformation” costs the council paid upfront to IBM

– £4m of council bid costs

–  £2m for a written-off loan to Avon and Somerset Police for SAP

–  £3m interest on a £30m loan over 10 years

–  £3m in contract management costs

–  £5m in legal costs over a dispute with IBM

This totals £69m. Procurement savings to December 2013 were £16m – which gives a net loss of £53m. The contract is supposed to save £150m over its 10-year life. The deal was signed in 2007 by IBM, Somerset County Council, Taunton Deane Borough Council and Avon and Somerset Police. The authorities are considering what they will do at the end of the contract.

Stop filming

At a meeting of the council’s audit committee last month, the chairman of the audit committee asked Orr to stop filming. He was using a Panasonic compact camera. A vote was proposed and seconded that the meeting not be recorded.

Five councillors voted in favour and 3 Lib-dems abstained. Those supporting the motion to stop filming included Tory, Labour and UKIP members.  Somerset is Conservative controlled.

Orr says the discussion shortly before the vote was taken was on Southwest One and the council’s exit strategy from the contract.  Councillors also agreed that they may at a later date go into a secret “Part 2” session to discuss a “lessons learnt” report about the collaboration with Southwest One.

A blow to local democracy?  

The government has issued guidance that states explicitly that councils should allow the public to film council meetings. Under the heading “Lights, camera, democracy in action” an announcement by local government secretary Eric Pickles  says on the website:

“I want to stand up for the rights of journalists and taxpayers to scrutinise and challenge decisions of the state. Data protection rules or health and safety should not be used to suppress reporting or a healthy dose of criticism.

“Modern technology has created a new cadre of bloggers and hyper-local journalists, and councils should open their digital doors and not cling to analogue interpretations of council rules.

“Councillors shouldn’t be shy about the public seeing the good work they do in championing local communities and local interests.”

Before the meeting of the audit committee Orr had obtained informal consent from the council to filming.


Open government is not a party political issue – none of the parties seem to want it. Indeed councillors at Somerset seem at their most comfortable  when voting for secrecy.  Is this because it gives them a feeling of privilege – having access to information the ordinary citizens don’t have?

In central government one of the first things the civil service does after a general election is give new ministers access to state secrets. It distances the ministers from ordinary people. Ministers feel privileged – “one of us”.  Is this the main unspoken reason some Somerset councillors  love to have secret meetings?

Councillors may feel weighed down by Orr’s questions and campaigning. But his questions are arguably more important than those raised internally by deferential party politicians who don’t ask the most difficult questions.

If anything they should be asking themselves whether they should ask the questions he is asking.

It’s too easy on big outsourcing contracts for supplier and client to put a gloss on the relationship. It’s easier talking about unsubstantiated savings than explaining why the contract isn’t making the savings originally intended. And it’s even easier when you shun scrutiny from members of the public.

5 responses to “Stop filming! That’s the IBM exit strategy we’re discussing

  1. Mr Conway & I took up our rights and inspected Somerset County Council’s Accounts today.

    We found another £5.5m lost IBM via “£5.461m Procurement Transformation Sunk Cost” write down at the end of March 2013 i.e IBM for South West One would not refund pro-rata this part of the £52m pre-payment for “Transformation” which was due to run another 3.5 years until Sep’2017.

    South West One (85% IBM-owned) have dismally failed to deliver “Transformation” and only a small fraction of the promised procurement savings promised.

    Now hard-pressed Somerset families and taxpayers have lost another £5.5m (on top of the £5m of legal costs when Somerset County Council blinked first in the legal dispute with IBM) because The Council has not obtained a partial refund for the last 3.5 years of this controversial contract.

    Hard to see how Somerset County Council Leader John Osman’s promise that the renegotiated contract (from April 2013) would save millions of £s in the final 3.5 years left to go in this controversial contract with IBM for Soith West One.

    See printed page 53 (PDF page 49) for the table with the “£5.461m Procurement Transformation Sunk Cost”:

    Shame on IBM, shame on the Council – Yet another failed negotiation leaves taxpayers footing another substantial bill.

    No wonder Somerset County Council wants to keep the “South West One Lessons Learned” secret.


  2. Tony – Thanks for your campaigning support on this principled matter of openness in public services.

    The law changes on August 6th and digital recording has to be allowed in all Council public meetings:

    Click to access 140630_Draft_Openness_Guide_-F.pdf

    Somerset County Council (SCC) has conceded the right to film prior to the new law coming in, as their policy had been stated as allowing filming as the draft law made that clear.

    That was illiberally countermanded by the Conservative Chair of the Audit Committee Cllr.Dawn Hill who took a vote and stopped me filming a discussion on the exit strategy from the contract with IBM for the controversial joint venture South West One. So much for policies of “Localism” and the “Big Society” then.

    I will be lawfully and rightfully filing at the Audit Committee in September and we will have to wait and see whether Chair Cllr.Dawn Hill stifles the public debate by hearing the South West One Lessons Learned report in confidential session.



  3. Pingback: Stop filming! That’s the IBM exit strategy we’re discussing | UNITE@SOMERSET COUNTYCOUNCIL

  4. Roger Conway

    David Orr is worth more to the local tax payers than the whole set of elected members, dependent as they are upon their party patronage and their addiction to their appearance fees and expenses.


  5. Pingback: The biggest cause of shared services failure? | Calchas

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