By Tony Collins
In public, in the past, Taunton Deane Borough Council’s IT-based outsourcing deal has always been a success. Two years ago council officers and an executive at IBM were particularly upbeat about the success of their partnership.
“Service delivery … viewed in the round, is broadly on track. The majority of services perform well or extremely well…”
Now that the 10-year contract is 2 years away from expiry, which encourages officers to consider what happens then, more of the truth is emerging.
A council report this month reveals that:
Savings are less than half those first envisaged – £3m against £10m projected. The £3m is an “identified” rather than actual saving. The projected savings are “now out of alignment with our new financial circumstances and savings requirements”.
– Costs of exiting the contract with the IBM-run Southwest One partnership will be “significant”.
– Unravelling a shared services contract and reallocating work to the 50 council staff seconded to Southwest One will be “complex”. Says the report: “Any disaggregation from the shared service model will be complex and resource intensive and will also be challenging for SWO [Southwest One] as it attempts to satisfy the requirements of three partners whilst protecting and maximising its own financial position”.
– Use of lawyers will be intensive and already consultants have been engaged to advise on the implications of the contract’s ending. Funding this work will mean dipping into the council’s financial reserves.
– the joint venture with IBM has “not attracted new partner authorities” as first envisaged.
– IBM’s global strategy has changed, as has the council’s. Says Taunton Deane’s report of 10 March 2015: “Whilst central government once heralded large scale, multi agency and multi service partnerships with the private sector as the future, their advice now appears to be changing (in favour of) sustained competition, disaggregated services, small short contracts, transparency and diverse supply.”
– Technology strategies have changed. “Computer data centres are being replaced by cloud solutions and mobile technologies have become the norm in many business environments”.
It also emerges that the council is deeply unhappy with its SAP-based transformation, which was directed and implemented by IBM. The SAP system is “costly”, “complex”, “not responsive to TDBC requirements”, and “resource intensive”.
The SAP system is also a “barrier to sharing services with other district councils”, and “does not support the customer access agenda in respect of channel shift as the SAP Citizen Portal (website) is inadequate”.
The “system is overly complex and users find the processes inefficient”.
Ending the contract means considering in depth:
– staffing implications
– premises and accommodation
– asset & third-party contract transfers
– logistics, technical infrastructure and system security and access
– intellectual property and authority data
– work in progress transfer
– service transition and knowledge transfer
– company dissolution
The council will also need to consider its service delivery options, which will involve:
– costed business case and recommendations
– understanding risks
– contractual implications and legal advice
– financial implications
– exploratory negotiations with SWO and discussions with the public
– a detailed review to identify the options and costs for potential
replacement systems for the SAP system
Says the council report:
“Preparing for and implementing contract end and potentially exit from SWO [Southwest One] will require a significant amount of time and effort from the authorities due to the volume of work required, some of which is contractual and cannot be avoided.
“Contract end will require robust project governance and the appointment of an authority exit management team including work-streams around: exit management, HR, legal/contract representation, commercial, project management, communications, finance, technology and procurement.
“The resource requirement will be similar whichever future delivery option is selected.”
Councils that are considering large IT-based outsourcing deals could learn much from Taunton Deane’s experiences. At the start of such deals clients and suppliers find it easy to talk about what they’ll deliver – they need prove nothing by actions at this stage.
Taunton Deane and Somerset County Council, its lead partner in Southwest One, blew the trumpet in advance of their deal with IBM. Big savings were promised, and a transformation programme that would be led by a world-class supplier.
Barnet Council’s leading councillors and officers also published numerous upbeat reports and gave zestful speeches in praise their forthcoming outsourcing deal with Capita.
At Taunton Deane, over time, expensive actions replaced cheap words. Partners did not join the partnership so economies of scale did not materialise. The transformation proved more complex than first envisaged. Reality overwhelmed aspirations.
Nobody could escape from the fact that the council was passing across to IBM a host of conflicting realities and expectations. Beyond the rosy Disney world of pre-contract euphoria was a harsh landscape.
Officers and councillors were actually passing across costs that were unlikely to decrease, and savings requirements that were likely to become more demanding. On top of this the supplier had to make a profit.
How can big savings and costly IT-led transformations not be in conflict with the inbuilt demands of suppliers whose share price is sensitive to the exacting expectations of investors who require ever increasing returns?
Councils will continue to outsource because their officers and lead councillors are unlikely to be in place in the later stages of a contract when they could otherwise be accountable for an administrative, financial and technological mess. In the early stages nobody need be held accountable for anything. Words are sufficient. Promises cannot be tested yet. Guarantees sound impressive.
It’s only actions that are hard to achieve.
Perhaps the answer is for auditors to become more proactive. The National Audit Office has this week published well considered guidelines for local authority auditors which calls for “professional scepticism”. Auditors can stop councils making mistakes. They can see through promises and so-called guarantees. It’s actions that matter.
At the start of a contract when the supplier’s executives, council officers and lead councillors are all in love they’ll say anything to reassure to each other. But everyone knows that when expectations are at their peak there is only one way to go – Taunton Deane has discovered to its cost.
Thank you to openness campaigner Dave Orr for providing the information on which this blog is based.