Category Archives: decision-making

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? 

Barnet’s undemocratic BT/Capita outsourcing plan?

By Tony Collins

Barnet Council is remarkably defensive about its plan to outsource IT, customer services, finance, payroll, HR, corporate procurement and other services to BT or Capita, by the end of December 2012.

After the controversy in Cornwall about whether the full council or an inner circle of councillors – the “Cabinet” – should make momentous decisions affecting the council’s future, Campaign4Change asked Barnet whether it was putting its decision to outsource to BT or Capita to the full council.

Cornwall’s decision on whether to outsource to BT or CSC was going to be taken by the Cabinet alone but Cornwall’s leader Alec Robertson changed course and decided to put the idea of a mega-outsourcing deal to the full council.

Straightforward question

So would Barnet council’s decision to award a mega-outsourcing contract to BT or Capita go to full council for a vote? It was a straightforward question for Nick Griffin, Media Officer, Chief Executive’s Service, Barnet Council. He did not answer the question directly.

His reply:

“There is quite a bit of information available on our website. Please see the links (at the bottom of this post)  …

But was the information on the council’s website out of date? We wanted to be clear on the facts. We asked Griffin again. His reply was polite but insistent: he would not say whether the council was putting its outsourcing decision on BT or Capita to the full council.

Neither would he answer directly another straightforward question on local democracy: Has the decision to approve/reject One Barnet [transformation programme] gone to full council for a vote?

From the council’s website it appears that all key decisions on the outsourcing plans have been made by Barnet’s Cabinet’s alone. This is from the council’s website:

“A decision will be made by Cabinet in late 2012 as to which bidder [BT or Capita] will win the contract. The new provider will start to run the NSCSO [New support and Customer Services Organisation] in spring of 2013.”

Barnet’s website lists as the relevant previous decisions those taken by the council’s Cabinet alone.

– Cabinet, 29 November 2010 – approved the One Barnet Framework and the funding strategy for its implementation.

– Cabinet …2 March 2011 – Customer Services Organisation and New Support Organisation Options Appraisal

– Cabinet … 29 June 2011 – approved the New Support and Customer Services Organisation business case and the start of the competitive dialogue process…

So one of the most momentous decisions affecting the council, its staff and council services is not being made by the full council.


Barnet Council comprises 38 Conservatives, 22 Labour, and three Lib-Dem councillors. Most of them will not have a say on the outsourcing of:

  • Customer Services
  • Estates
  • Finance and Payroll
  • Human Resources
  • IT Infrastructure and Support
  • Corporate Procurement
  • Revenues and Benefits
  • Commercial Services.

The decision will be taken by the Cabinet’s 10 councillors, and perhaps not all of them. Is this local democracy in action?

Accusations of Maladministration?

Given that the decision to outsource to BT or Capita could have a major effect on the council’s future for good or ill, and is controversial –councils including Suffolk and Cornwall are rethinking large outsourcing plans – could Barnet’s decision not to put its outsourcing plans to a vote of the full council leave the Cabinet open to accusations of maladministration if things turn sour?

Links provided by Nick Griffin (1)  (2)

Cornwall Council votes for more time to consider outsourcing plans

By Tony Collins

Councillors in Cornwall voted unanimously today (23 October 2012) for a joint venture with BT to be considered more carefully, and for other options to be investigated, without any pressure to finalise a deal by the end of next month, which was the original intention.

The motion passed by the council was that the “current proposals for shared services shall not progress to the ‘invitation to submit final tenders’ stage until they have been debated and unless approved by a meeting of full council”.

The motion called on the Chief Executive [Kevin Lavery] to “investigate fully and as a matter of urgency all reasonable methods of delivering council services covered by the proposals for the strategic partnership which addresses the need to make efficiency savings and generate income”.

Councillors expect Lavery to investigate a “thin” joint venture in which the council and a partner share ownership of a new company.  There would be no early, large scale transfer of Cornwall Council staff into the company.  Cornwall Council would continue to receive its shared services internally. As the joint venture company won new work  – if it did – staff would transfer into it.

Councillors also want Lavery to investigate an in-house option and forming a mutual, which would win the support of central government.

BT, meanwhile, has said it will keep its offer to the council open until the end of its financial year in March.  Jim Currie, Cornwall’s leader, has taken over responsibility for leading the shared services discussions. He says he wants more and better information on the proposals. Most of the information has so far come from BT which has “guaranteed” to save the council money, increase investment, transform services and add at least 500 jobs. In BT’s small print it points out that its commitments to the council are “draft” or, at this stage, “non-binding”.

At the full council meeting this morning one councillor called for an investigation into whether proceeding with one supplier BT – CSC having withdrawn from the bidding in part because of a “confused” political situation in Cornwall – would meet EC tendering rules.

Councillors have set no deadline on when they will come to a decision on the BT proposals or on other options.

Cornwall Council’s extraordinary attack on outsourcing critic

By Tony Collins

A “Cabinet” councillor in Cornwall has launched an extraordinary attack on a former IT strategy analyst Dave Orr who emailed members of the county council with his analysis of its outsourcing plans.

Orr is concerned that the council may sign a deal similar to the Southwest One joint venture contract between IBM and Somerset County Council which has been branded a failure.

His email to Cornwall’s members included links to articles, board papers and a BBC regional TV item on Southwest One’s problems. The email provided evidence on the dangers of succumbing to over-optimistic promises.  He sent it as a Somerset resident and local taxpayer.

In response, a Cabinet councillor in Cornwall sent a lengthy email to all members which defended the outsourcing proposals but also attacked Orr’s credibility.

Said the Cabinet councillor: “I understand that David Orr was employed by Somerset County Council within ICT before being seconded into SouthWestOne.  I also understand that he was a Unison representative and that he no longer works for either company. He has submitted 92 FOI requests between 5 April 2011 and 24 September 2012 to Somerset County Council, Taunton Deane Borough Council and Avon and Somerset Police .

“Whilst he is clearly a ‘Somerset resident and local taxpayer’, we do feel he is potentially misrepresenting himself by not making his previous employment with Somerset County Council and SouthWestOne explicit.

“We do not dispute the information Mr Orr has provided about SouthWestOne, although it should be noted that he was not in the contract management team and much of his information appears to have been gleaned from FOI requests and media reporting. However, Mr Orr is clearly not well placed to comment on the proposed Cornwall deal …”


The personalised attack on Orr suggests that Cornwall’s Cabinet councillors might have lost sight of the need for independence and objectivity, particularly when close to signing a deal with BT or CSC that could be worth £300m or more.

In the response to Orr’s legitimate concerns, Cornwall’s Cabinet – the councillor uses “we” in his email – appears to have played the man as well as the ball.

Orr has nothing to gain by criticising Cornwall’s outsourcing plans;  and his FOI requests about the Southwest One deal have helped to make Somerset County Council much more open than it was.

He is right to warn on the basis of experiences in Somerset that optimistic statements by Cornwall council and the bidders could come to little or nothing. Neither CSC nor BT is infallible. Both companies were notified by the Department of Health of a breach of contract over deals they had signed as part of the National Programme for IT [NPfIT], the UK government’s largest civil IT programme.

Cornwall has had a genuinely independent assessment of its outsourcing plans by a panel it set up. But the ruling councillors dismissed the panel’s biggest concerns.

Pro-outsourcing enthusiasts on the council negotiating with optimistic potential suppliers doesn’t sound like a recipe for a successful deal.

Three centuries ago Jonathan Swift warned of the dangers of over-optimism. “The most positive men are the most credulous,” he said.

Cornwall’s ruling councillors are entitled to defend their outsourcing proposals – and they have made it clear they will continue to argue their case vigorously. But objectivity is all-important especially as an outsourcing deal on the scale proposed could be the most momentous decision in the council’s history.

A meeting of the full council will vote on the outsourcing plan later this month.

At that meeting the council’s cabinet members will argue that, without a deal, council jobs will be at risk. But has the council looked seriously at other options for saving money?  By its own admission it hasn’t. So is it really ready to sign a mega-contract with CSC or BT?

Well done Eric Pickles – more open government to engulf councils

By Tony Collins

Few people have noticed but changes to the law next month could force councils to be much more open about big spending decisions including those that involve contracting out IT and other services.

It is a pity though that similar changes will not apply to the NHS.

The Local Government Association says that councils are already more open than Whitehall which is true.

Even so some councils are innately secretive about IT-related spending decisions, and discussions about projects that go wrong. Somerset County Council was notoriously secretive about its Southwest One joint venture with IBM in 2007. The deal has not made the expected savings and has consistently made losses. IBM claims the deal is a success.

Haringey Council’s “Tech refresh” project which went way over budget is another example. Evasive answers to opposition questions and meetings in secret were the norm.

Liverpool City Council was extraordinarily defensive and secretive about progress or otherwise on its Liverpool Direct Ltd joint venture with BT. The deal included giving BT control of IT.

Better public scrutiny

Now Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has announced that changes to the law will mean that all decisions including those affecting budgets and local services will have to be taken in an open and public forum.

Ministers have put new regulations before Parliament that would come into force next month to extend the rights of people to attend all meetings of a council’s executive, its committees and subcommittees.

Pickles says the changes will result in greater public scrutiny. “The existing media definition will be broadened to cover organisations that provide internet news thereby opening up councils to local online news outlets. Individual councillors will also have stronger rights to scrutinise the actions of their council.

“Any executive decision that would result in the council incurring new spending or savings significantly affecting its budget or where it would affect the communities of two or more council wards will have to be taken in a more transparent way as a result.”

Councils will no longer be able to cite political advice as justification for closing a meeting to the public and press. Any intentional obstruction or refusal to supply certain documents could result in a fine for the individual concerned.

The changes clarify the limited circumstances where meetings can be closed, for example, where it is likely that a public meeting would result in the disclosure of confidential information. Where a meeting is due to be closed to the public, the council must now justify why that meeting is to be closed and give 28 days notice of such decision.

Chris Taggart, of, which has long championed the need to open council business up to public scrutiny, said

“In a world where hi-definition video cameras are under £100 and hyperlocal bloggers are doing some of the best council reporting in the country, it is crazy that councils are prohibiting members of the public from videoing, tweeting and live-blogging their meetings.”

These are the changes to be made by the  The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 (the 2012 Regulations) which will come into force on 10 September 2012.

– Local authorities will have to provide reasonable facilities for members of the public to report council proceedings (regulation 4). This will make it easier for new ‘social media’ reporting of council executive meetings, opening proceedings to blogging, tweeting and hyper-local news/forum reporting.

– In the past council executives could hold meetings in private without giving public notice. From 10 September 2010 councils must give 28 days notice where a meeting is to be held in private, during which time people may make representations on why the meeting should be held in public. When the council wants to over-ride the notice period, it must publish a notice as soon as reasonably practicable explaining why the meeting is urgent and cannot be deferred (regulation 5).

– A document explaining the key decision to be made, the matter in respect of which a decision would be made, the documents to be considered before the decision is made, and the procedures for requesting details of those documents, has to be published (regulations 9).

– The new regulations create a presumption that all meetings of the executive, its committees and subcommittees are to be held in public (regulation 3) unless a narrowly-defined legal exception applies.

– Where the council has a document that contains materials relating to a business to be discussed at a public meeting, members of the local authority have additional rights to inspect such a document at least five days before the meeting (regulation 16). Previously no timescale existed.

– Where the council decides not to release the whole or part of a document to a member of an overview and scrutiny committee as requested by a councillor, it must provide a written statement to explain the reasons for not releasing such document (regulation 17).

– Documents relating to a key decision including background papers must be on the relevant local authority’s website (regulations 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 14, 15, and 21).


Well done to Eric Pickles and the coalition. These are important and welcome changes. If council decision-makers know their discussions will be open to scrutiny they may give proper consideration to risks as well as the potential benefits of big IT-related investments. With inadequate scrutiny the potential benefits often drive decisions, which was the case with the flawed setting up of Southwest One. The press office at Liverpool City Council was so used to controlling information that its spokesman was outraged at questions we asked about its outsourcing venture with BT.

But what about the NHS?

It’s a pity the NHS is not subject to the new legal changes. Few trusts are open about their big IT-related investments; and when things go wrong, as has happened with some Cerner implementations, NHS trusts tend to lock all the doors, talk in whispers and instruct their press offices to issue statements that claim “teething troubles” have been largely addressed. The trust and everyone reading the statement know it is disingenuous but the facts to prove it are kept under wraps.

Organisations such as Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust are taking decisions about major IT upgrades that could affect the safety, health and lives of patients without proper scrutiny. Pickles may want to mention his legal innovations to Andrew Lansley.

Eric Pickles announcement on opening up council discussions and decisions 

Why prompt decision-making is critical to the success of IT projects

By David Bicknell

Research from the US-based IT projects specialist Standish Group suggests latency between decisions is a major contributor to project delays and failures.

“Projects get behind a day at a time. My observation is they get behind because people cannot make decisions. Therefore, it is important to establish a process that enables you to quickly gain the decision information you need,” says Mike Sledge, chief executive of corporate performance company Robbins-Gioia.

There are literally thousands of decisions that have to be made during the life of a project. Standish Group research shows that for every $1,000 in project cost, the organisation will need to make 1.5 decisions. A $1 million project will produce 1,500 decisions, while a $5 million project will have 7,500 decisions. During a typical medium-size ERP system implementation the organisation will have to make more than 10,000 decisions.

“The key reason for making fast decisions has nothing to do with always making right decisions. It has everything to do with being open to mistakes,” says Richard Mark Soley, chairman and CEO of the Object Management Group (OMG). 

Standish Group took the case of two US companies in the same sector that were both implementing customer relationship management (CRM) systems. Both companies were similar in size, number of accounts, and salespeople. They even used the same software package.

Both started to implement a CRM system about four years ago. One finished in six months and the other has still not finished. The key difference was the one that finished in six months had a hard stop and had set up a rapid decision process to reduce decision latency.

Standish Group goes on to say that while the volume of decisions comprising a project can be a problem, it is actually the time that lapses from when an issue first arises until a decision is made that causes most difficulties.

For example, if the average decision latency is only one-hour, then the added decision time to a $1 million project is six months (1,500 decisions = 1,500 hours). On the other hand, if the project team can cut the latency time in half, it adds only three months to the project time (1,500 decisions = 750 hours).

With this insight into the corrosive effect of slow decision-making on project success, and after years of research in project management performance, the Standish Group decided to develop The Dezider, a real-time information decision support solution to help organisations cut decision-making time in half through greater stakeholder participation and more information.

The intention behind The Dezider is to connect individuals with their co-workers, stakeholders, peers, superiors, friends, and family as an aid to decision-making.

One way to increase decision velocity, decrease latency, and increase people’s participation is to simplify large issues by breaking them into smaller issues and decisions. (You may recognise something of an Agile-like approach to decision-making here)

The Dezider enables the ability to create a series of minor or micro issues and to construct a stream of responses to achieve quicker, easier, and more comprehensive answers. Each of these micro issues can then be directed to the proper level, role, and/or responsible person(s).

What usually happens in organisations is that people are busy doing their main jobs and often put off project tasks such as participating in project decisions. The Dezider offers a feature that gently reminds project participants that they have an outstanding issue and the team is waiting for their response.

Another feature within Dezider provides the ability to match the type of decision with the roles of the people making the decisions. For example, a technical decision should have a technical person making the decision. On the other hand, a business decision should have a business person making the decision.

There are more details about the impact of decision-making on projects, and about The Dezider on the Standish Group blog. Standish Group is probably best known for its Chaos research into project management leadership and best practices.