Category Archives: local democracy

Barnet Council claims £31m savings with Capita – and not an auditor in sight.

By Tony Collins

capita

It’s commendable that Barnet Council has published much material on its three-year review of a £322m 10-year outsourcing contract with Capita.

More than a dozen council reports and appendices cover every aspect of the contract.

The quantity of material seems, on the face of it, to answer critics of the outsourcing deal, among them local bloggers, who have pointed to the lack of reliable evidence of the savings achieved. The suspicion is that costs have increased and council services including ICT have deteriorated since Capita took over in 2013.

Now the council has ostensibly proved that the opposite is the case. Barnet’s press release says,

Barnet Council and Capita contract delivers £31m savings

“A review of a contract between Barnet Council and Capita has demonstrated it is delivering significant benefits to the borough with overall savings of £31 million achieved alongside increased resident satisfaction…

“In terms of satisfaction with services provided, the review, showed 76 per cent of residents were satisfied with the outward-facing customer services, up from 52 per cent before the contract was established.

“This increase was even more significant in respect of face to face services, as 96 per cent of residents who engaged with the council in this way said they were satisfied compared with a previous 35 per cent.

“The review also showed that the cost of delivering the bundle of services provided in the contract is now £6m a year less than before the contract was signed and that 90 per cent of the contract’s key performance indicators being met or exceeded.”

The press release quotes two leaders of the council saying how pleased they were with the contract. Capita calls it a “positive review”.

The review has various mentions of items of additional spending including £9m on ICT and it’s not clear whether the extra sums are taken into account in the savings figures.

Among the review’s suggestions is that the council pay Capita’s annual management fee of £25m up front – a year in advance – instead of every quarter in return for extra savings.

The review also raises the possibility of extending the contract beyond the 10 years in return for additional savings. Capita is “keen” to explore this suggestion (though it could tie the hands of a future council administration).

The review reports were compiled by council officers who reported to a working group of Tory and Labour councillors, under a much-respected Tory chairman. By a small margin, Conservatives run the council.

Lack of independent challenge?

It’s unclear why the council did not commission its audit committee, or auditors, to review the contract. In the past the audit committee has been critical of some aspects of the contract.

For this reason the reports are unlikely to silence critics of Barnet’s outsourcing deal. Council officers compiled the review’s findings, not auditors.

As a result, despite the volume of published written material, there is no evidence that the figures for savings have been independently verified as accurate.

Neither is there independent verification of the methods used by officers for obtaining the figures.

Further, some observers may question the positive tone of the review findings. The “good news” tone may be said to be at odds with the factual neutrality of, say, reports of the National Audit Office.

There are also questions about whether the council is providing enough effective challenge to Capita’s decisions and figures.

At a council committee meeting in November 2016 to discuss the review reports, the most informed challenges to the findings appear to have come not from Barnet councillors but two local bloggers, Mrs Angry and Mr Reasonable, who questioned whether the claimed savings could be more than wiped out by additional spending – including an extra £9m on ICT. They appear to have received no clear answers.

Concerns of some officials

The body of the review reports outline some of the concerns of staff and directors. Mrs Angry quotes some of the concerns from the review reports:

“Transparency of costs, additional charges and project spend were raised as key concerns. It was felt that CSG [Barnet’s Customer and Support Group, for which Capita is responsible] are often reluctant to go above and beyond the requirements of the contract without additional charges.

“Directors reported that the council needs to be more confident that solutions suggested by CSG, particularly for projects and capital spend are best value.

“Concerns were raised that CSG has a disproportionate focus on the delivery of process and KPIs over outcomes, creating a more contractual rather than partnership relationship between CSG and the council. Directors noted that many KPIs are not relevant and their reporting does not reflect actual service performance.”

The Capita contract began in September 2013, under which it provides finance, ICT, HR, Customer Services, Revenues and Benefits, Procurement, Estates and Corporate Programmes.

Comment

On the face of it, Barnet Council’s review of the Capita contract looks comprehensive and impressively detailed.

Looked at closely it’s disappointing – a wasted opportunity.

Had the council wanted the review’s findings to be widely believed, it would have made it uncompromisingly independent, in line with reports by the National Audit Office.

As it is, the review was carried out by council officers who reported to a working group of councillors. The working group comprised Labour as well as Tory councillors but the facts and figures were compiled by officers.

Nearly every page of every Barnet review report has a “good news” feel. There’s an impression that negative findings are played down.

Example:

“It should be noted that the failure to meet the target for KPI 30 related to one quarter only [my italics] and discussions are continuing regarding the application of the above service credit.”

Some negative findings are immediately countered by positive statements:

“CIPFA benchmarking data shows that the cost of the ICT service is slightly above the median, but below upper quartile in terms of the cost of the service as a percentage of organisational running costs.”

Another example of a negative finding immediately countered by a positive one, which may be said to be one hallmark of a non-independent report:

“One key area of concern in terms of overall performance is internal customer satisfaction… Survey results in respect of the financial year 2015/16 were universally poor, with all services failing to meet the target of upper quartile customer satisfaction. As a result, service credits to a total value of £116k have been applied in respect of these KPIs.

“To some extent, a degree of dissatisfaction amongst internal service users is to be expected, given the fact that cost reductions have been achieved to a large extent through increased self-service for both managers and staff, along with more restrictive processes and controls over things like the payment of invoices and the appointment of staff.

“Despite the survey outcomes indicating a low level of satisfaction, the interviews conducted with staff and managers as part of this Review suggest that services are generally considered to be improving.”

Integra ERP financial system a “success” – ?

The review report describes Capita’s introduction of the Integra financial system as “successful”. Elsewhere, however, it says,

“Many users raised issues with the Integra finance system, describing it as clunky and not user-friendly or intuitive.”

Double counting?

There’s no evidence that savings figures have been checked for possible inadvertent double counting on overlapping services. Double counting of savings is regularly found in National Audit Office reports.

“There are no standardised way for departments to evidence the reductions in ongoing expenditure,” said the National Audit Office in a report on Cabinet Office savings in July 2014. “Departments provided poor evidence, and double counting was highly likely as projects reduced staff or estates requirements.”

In a separate report on claimed savings in central government, the National Audit Office quoted the findings of an internal audit …

“A number of errors (instances where the evidence did not support the assertion) were found during our review and total adjusted accordingly … In addition, a number of savings were double counted with other savings categories and these have now been removed…

“We assessed some £200m of other savings as Red because they were double counted due to the same savings having been claimed by different units or, for example, because savings on staff were also claimed through reductions in average case costs.”

Omitted costs?

The omission of relevant costs could skew savings figures. It’s unclear from Barnet’s review reports whether extra spending of millions of pounds on, for example, ICT have been taken into account. Barnet blogger Mr Reasonable, who has a business background, raises the question of whether £65m of additional spending has been taken into account in the savings figures.

Reverse Sir Humphrey phenomenon?

The biggest single flaw in the review reports is that they appear worded to please the councillors who made the decision to outsource – the reverse of the “Sir Humphrey” caricature. The positive tone of Barnet’s reports implies that officers are – naturally – deferring to their political leaders.

In a BBC Radio 4 documentary on Whitehall, former minister Peter Lilley talked about how some officials spend part of their working lives trying to please their political leaders.

“Officials are trying to work out how to interpret and apply policy in line with what the minister’s views on the policy is …. They can only take their minister’s written or spoken word for it and that has a ripple effect on the department far greater than you imagine… Making speeches is the official policy of the department and that creates action.”

Another former minister Francis Maude told the BBC he found that too few officials were willing to say anything the minister did not want to hear.

“The way it should work is for civil servants give very candid well informed advice to ministers about what it is ministers want to do – the risks and difficulties,” said Maude. “My experience this time round in government, 20 years on from when I was previously government, is that the civil service was much less ready to do that.

“There were brilliant civil servants who were perfectly ready to tell you things that they thought you might not want to hear but there were too few of them.”

Barnet’s reviewing officers might have been dispassionately independent in reporting their findings and double checking the supplied figures – but who can tell without any expert independent assessment of the review?

The US Sabanes-Oxley Act, which the Bush administration introduced after a series of financial scandals, defines what is meant by an “independent” audit. The Act prohibits auditing by anyone who has been involved in a management function or provided expert services for the organisation being audited.

That would disqualify every Barnet officer from being involved in an independent audit of their own council’s contract with Capita.

The Act also says that the auditor must not have been an employee of the organisation being audited. Again that would disqualify every Barnet officer from an independent audit of their own council’s contract.

Review a waste of time and money?

It would be wrong to imply that the review is a pointless exercise. It identifies what works well and what doesn’t. It will help officers negotiate changes to the contract and to key performance indicators. For example it’s of little value having a KPI to answer phone calls within 60 seconds if the operator is unable to help the caller.

What the review does not provide is proof of the claimed savings. Barnet’s press release announcing savings of £31m is just that – a press release. It does not pretend to be politically neutral.

But without independent evidence of the claimed savings, it’s impossible for the disinterested observer to say that the Capita contract so far has been a success. Neither does evidence exist it has failed.

Capita share price at 10-year low

What is clear is that fixing some of the more serious problems identified in the report, such as obsolescent IT, will not be easy given the conflict between the continuing need for savings and Capita’s pressing need to improve the value of its business for shareholders, against a backdrop of difficulties on a number of its major contracts [Transport for London, Co-op Bank, NHS] and a share price that was yesterday [30 November 2016] at a ten-year low.

The review also raises a wider question: are most of a council’s busy councillors who come to council meetings in their free time equipped to read through and digest a succession of detailed reports on the three-year interim results of a complex outsourcing contract?

If they do glance through them, will they have enough of a close interest in the subject, and a good understanding of it,  to provide effective challenge to council officers and their political leaders?

If nothing else, the Barnet review shows that councillors in general cannot provide proper accountability on an outsourcing contract as complex as Capita’s deal with Barnet.

Either council tax payers have to put their faith in officers, irrespective of the obvious pressure for officialdom to tell its political leaders what they want to hear, or council taxpayers can put their faith in an independent audit.

Barnet Council has not given its residents any choice.

It’s a pity that when it comes to claimed savings of £31m there’s not an auditor in sight.

Barnet declares its contract a success – Barnet and Whetstone Press

Mr Reasonable – important questions on the Capita review

Mrs Angry – who writes compellingly on the council meeting where the review reports were discussed.

Days from taking back outsourced IT, Somerset Council is unsure what it’ll find

By Tony Collins

Facing the TV cameras, officials at Somerset County Council spoke with confidence about the new joint venture company they had set up with the “world-class” IT supplier IBM.

“The contract has to succeed; we will make it succeed, ” a senior official said at the time. Greater choice for residents, more control, sustained improvement of services, improved efficiency, tens of millions in savings and enhanced job prospects for staff.

These were some of the promises in 2007.

Since then, Somerset County Council has been through a costly legal dispute with IBM; projected savings have become losses, and Somerset is days away from taking back the service early.

Now the council faces new IT-related risks to its reputation and finances, warns a team of auditors.

In several audit reports on the exit arrangements, auditors warn of a series of uncertainties about:

  •  what exactly IT assets the council will own as of 1 December 2016, when the joint venture hands back IT and staff.
  • how much software may not be licensed, therefore being used illicitly.
  • how much software is being paid for without being needed or used, wasting council tax money.
  • whether thousands of pieces of hardware have been disposed of securely over the years of the contract, or whether confidential data could later turn up in the public domain.
  • the accuracy of some supplied information. “… the same networking hardware items have the same value associated with them even though one is twelve years old and the other only four” said auditors.

Comment

That Somerset County Council laments setting up the Southwest One joint venture with IBM is not new. What continues to surprise is the extent of the difficulties of ending the joint venture cleanly – despite months, indeed more than a year – of preparatory work.

The realty is that uncertainties and risks abound.

When IT journalists ask leading councillors and officers at the start of outsourcing/joint venture deals whether all the most potentially serious risks have been given proper consideration, the spokespeople inevitably sound supremely confident.

If things go wrong, they are sure the council will be able to take back the service under secure arrangements that have been properly planned and written into the contract.

Yet today some of the most potentially serious risks to Somerset’s finances and reputation come from continuing threats such as the possibility confidential data being found on old hardware not securely disposed of.

Or the council may be paying for unneeded software licences.

In short Somerset County Council is taking back the IT service on 1 December 2016 without being certain what it will find.

In future, therefore, when councillors and officials across the country talk with supreme confidence at the start of an outsourcing deal or joint venture about large savings, sustained efficiencies, and a step-change improvement in services that comes with the benefits of collaborating with a world-class private-sector partner, local residents will have every right to be deeply sceptical.

For the reality is more likely to be that the council and its world-class supplier are about to embark on a journey into the unknown.

Thank you to campaigner Dave Orr for alerting me to the council audit reports that made this post possible.

TV broadcast in 2007 days after the council and IBM signed the Southwest One joint venture deal.

**

Excerpts from reports due to be considered by Somerset County Council’s Audit Committee next week (29 November 2016):

“… laptops, servers, storage devices, networking equipment, etc.) have been disposed of without the correct documentation historically, throughout the term with SWO [Southwest One]. There is a high likelihood that without the documentation to show that SWO were meant to have previously disposed of any specific data baring assets in a compliant manner then subsequent fines and loss of reputation will need to be dealt with by the Council.

“This is being addressed as part of the exit works but initial investigations show an expected lack of documentation.

**

“The quality of asset management and therefore exposure to risk (over and above this inherited risk) is expected to improve significantly once asset management returns to SCC [Somerset County Council).”

**

“Asset locations have been updated and improved though there are still issues regarding all asset details not being recorded accurately in the Asset Register. There is a risk that if wrong details are recorded against an asset then incorrect decisions could be made regarding these assets which may in turn cause the Council financial loss and/or loss of reputation.”

**

“… the same networking hardware items have the same value associated with them even though one is twelve years old and the other only four.”

**

“Software assets are now included in the monthly asset register report though the information collected and lack of correlation to meaningful license information means the original risk is not fully mitigated.

“This continued lack of software asset usage information against licensing proof of entitlement as well as the obvious risk of illegally using non licensed software there is also a risk that the Council is wasting public funds and Council officer’s time to manage unnecessary software. This means the Council will not be able to show “Best Value” in these purchases which could lead to fines being imposed by Central Government and loss of reputation by the inefficiencies being reported in the media.”

**

“I cannot though see evidence of the warranty & support arrangements being recorded or accurate recording of end of life assets. Due to a lack of or incorrect detail on the asset information there is the risk of incorrect decisions being made regarding an asset’s usage which could then lead to loss of money or reputation for the Council.”

Capita to lose part of £1bn+ Service Birmingham contract?

By Tony Collins

Birmingham City Council is set to take back the “Revenues” – council tax – element of its Service Birmingham contract with Capita.

A report which went before a cabinet meeting on Tuesday said that decisions on the “proposed termination of the revenues element of the Service Birmingham contract” with Capita would be taken in the “private” – secret – part of the meeting.

One reason the discussions are in private is that even though the contract allows the council to take back services “at will”, this may still involve paying compensation to Capita,

In the open part of the meeting, the deputy leader said that bringing the revenues service back in-house will allow the council “greater flexibility” – which appears to mean lower costs.

It will require a change to the wider Service Birmingham contract under which Capita delivers Birmingham’s ICT services.

In particular, said the deputy leader, taking back the revenues service will avoid any need to invoke a formal “change control” within the contract. He didn’t say why the council was keen to avoid invoking the change control clause.

Taking back revenue services could mean up to 150 Capita staff returning to the direct employment of the council, according to theBusinessDesk.com.

Service Birmingham is a joint venture company run by Capita since 2006 in which the council owns a minority of shares. The contract, which mainly covers ICT services, ends in 2021.

In the first few years Capita received about £120m a year from the joint venture but the figure has come down to about £90m-£100m a year after much criticism of the cost of the contract.

Between 2006 and 2012, Service Birmingham paid Capita £994m. It’s unclear whether the payments have represented value for money for Birmingham’s residents.

The report for this week’s cabinet meeting said that since Capita took over revenue collection the government has introduced a number of local welfare reforms [related to Universal Credit] “which have resulted in the council wishing to deal with Revenues matters differently”.

Keen to retain the revenues work, Capita had suggested a revised service to the council but the report said, “These were considered and it was concluded that they did not meet the current requirements of the council.”

Taking back revenue collection could result in “savings” worth £10.5m between next year and 2020, according to theBusinessDesk.com.

The gradual introduction of Universal Credit means that the Department for Work and Pensions, rather than the council, will eventually handle housing benefit payments.

This would mean less work for the council and Service Birmingham.

Councillors were expected at yesterday’s meeting to confirm officer recommendations on terminating the revenues collection part of the Service Birmingham contract. The new arrangements are likely to come into effect from February 1, 2017

Capita says on the Service Birmingham website that it has transformed services and “realised savings of approximately £1bn”. Capita had introduced SMS texting to prompt council tax payments and reduce the need to issue paper reminders.

Overspend

Birmingham council has a serious overspend for 2016/17, estimated to be around £49m.

The Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel says, “The Council faces a mammoth task to prepare a balanced budget for 2017/18.  With very limited general reserves available, this potentially places at risk its future success.”

Lessons

In 2012 a “high-level” review of Service Birmingham by the Best Practice Group suggested that the deal had its successes but that trust and relationships might have been breaking down in some areas.

It said,

“BCC [Birmingham City Council] and SB [Service Birmingham] 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.”

The report said that some individuals within the council needed to understand better that Service Birmingham was not a social enterprise, a public sector mutual, or a charity, and needed “to make a significant return on its capital for its shareholders” amid a “significantly deteriorating financial position due to Government cutbacks.”

Best Practice Group also said that Capita reduced its charges 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.”

Trust

There was – at that time – a “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”.

The report reached no firm conclusions on value for money but questioned whether Service Birmingham was “significantly more expensive” in some technology areas.

Comment

Birmingham City Council expects to make “savings” by bringing the revenues collection service back in-house.

If the new savings are added to the claimed £1bn savings originally predicted for the Service Birmingham joint venture, are the actual savings more or less what the council could have saved if it carried on supplying ICT in-house, without helping to keep Caita’s shareholders happy?

In fact the word “savings” has been largely discredited when used in connection with large council outsourcing deals and joint ventures.

In the absence of published and audited savings figures, council reports can interpret the word “savings” to mean almost anything.

The unfortunate truth, as observers of Barnet Council’s deal with Capita have discovered, is that local residents who fund joint ventures and outsourcing deals, have no idea whether their councillors end up paying far too much for IT and other services.

Hide

Birmingham Council this week discussed a major revision to the Service Birmingham contract in secret, which raises a wider point.

Commercial confidentiality means that councils and suppliers can hide behind the contract when things go wrong. Indeed all parties to the contract have an interest in not telling the public about anything that goes wrong.

Exactly what is going on with Service Birmingham nobody knows – outside the council’s inner circle of officers and ruling councillors.  Could the contract be costing too much but the cancellation fees are too high to make cancellation worthwhile?

How many of the councillors who were involved in the signing of the original deal will care if it ends up costing a fortune?

The ruling councillors in 2006 are highly unlikely to be the ruling councillors in 2016.

Councils have the power to make the wrong decisions in private and local residents have no options but to pay for those decisions; and when, many years later, councillors want to discuss a major revision to the contract, which could involve paying compensation on the basis of further promised savings, they have the power to go into private session again.

Those who have no right to know what’s going wrong are the captive council tax payers – those who fund the council’s decisions on the basis of never-ending promises of “savings” – savings that are rarely if ever independently verified as having been achieved.

The system could work well if big decisions were taken in public view.

ICT suppliers are not always obsessed with secrecy. They tend to want only very specific details kept secret. Ian Watmore, former head of Accenture, later government chief information officer and the first Civil Service Commissioner, has been a notable advocate of public sector openness.

But council officers and ruling councillors usually want to have all discussions about outsourcing deals in private – largely because life is simpler without accountability.

It’s not a political matter. Birmingham council is staunchly labour but it was a coalition of Conservatives and Lib-dems that set up Service Birmingham in 2006.

In the same way as the government imposed openness on local councils, so new laws or government guidelines could force councils to be open on big decision and major revisions to contracts.

There again, if council tax payers knew in advance the whole truth about the likely full-term costs and speculative benefits of a major IT-based outsourcing deal or joint venture, would such a public-private partnership deal ever be signed?

Update 11.05 17 November 2016

Barnet Council has this week published a report on “£31” savings from its contract with Capita, alongside “increased resident satisfaction”. Barnet outsourced IT,  HR, a call centre and other services in 2013 in a 10-year contract. The Barnet report will be the subject of a separate post on Campaign4Change.

Birmingham set to pull out of [part of] Capita joint venture in revenues collection overhaul.

 

Well done to Unite for challenging council’s joint venture “savings” claim

By Tony Collins

When councils make unexplained (and self-congratulatory) claims that they have made savings at the end of a joint venture, it will usually raise a series of questions.

So well done to Nigel Behan of the Unite union for putting a series of FOI questions to Taunton Deane Borough Council about its joint venture with IBM, as part of Southwest One.

In an “Efficiency Plan” published on its website last month, Taunton Deane
Borough Council announced that it was “part of the ground-breaking Southwest
One shared services joint venture partnership, between Somerset County
Council, Avon and Somerset Police and IBM”.

“This ten year partnership, which is now drawing to a close, has delivered significant savings to the Council and has made an important contribution to our finances.”

Unite is not so sure. Its officials believe the joint venture has, for Taunton Deane,  broken even at best. Its FOI questions to the council:

  • Please will you provide the unitary charge payable by TDBC to
    Southwest One/IBM for each financial year from 2007-2008 to date?
  •  For each financial year since 2007-2008 what was the cost of
    letting and managing the contract – including legal costs, procurement costs etc. etc.?
  • Re IT – software, hardware and peripherals. What was the value in 2007 of all IT (Hardware, software, peripherals and infrastructure) and what is the value of these assets now, ie what has been the depreciation on this asset class since 2007? What will cost of replacing these?
  • What are the net savings achieved by Southwest One for Taunton Deane Borough Council for each financial year since 2007-2008? Will you define “significant savings” (provide a measurable test)?

 Comment:

Taunton Deane Borough Council’s claim of savings was imperious, self-serving and unexplained. The council’s Efficiency Plan looks like a glossy commercial brochure that local residents have had no option but to pay for.

Were a newspaper to make a controversial claim without any explanation or justification, its readers would be entitled to question the article’s veracity.

Taunton Deane’s joint venture peripherally involved a costly legal action between the two main parties to the joint venture: IBM and Somerset County Council.

To make a claim of savings in such circumstances is like officials claiming a mission to space was a success even though the spacecraft blew up.

No rational judgement can be made without a detailed weighing up of the costs and benefits.

Even then the costs and benefits may be subjective. What costs have been excluded from the “savings” figure? What were the baseline costs on which the savings have been measured? And were those baseline figures audited as accurate  – or were they intelligent guesses? Have any benefits been double-counted? Are the benefits audited?

Without people like Nigel Behan and Somerset campaigner Dave Orr, and organisations like Unite, councils would get used to saying publicly whatever they liked, possibly without challenge.

 

 

 

Avon and Somerset Police to end outsourcing deal after years of proclaiming its success

avon and somerset police logoBy Tony Collins

Avon and Somerset Police has been consistent in its good news statements on the force’s “innovative” outsourcing deal with IBM-owned Southwest One.

These announcements and similar FOI responses have a clear message: that savings from the deal are more than expected.

But the statements have differed in tone and substance from those of Somerset County Council which ended up in a legal action with Southwest One.

Somerset’s losses on its Southwest One deal could leave the casual observer wondering why and how Avon and Somerset Police had made a success of its deal with Southwest One, whereas the county council has had a disastrous experience.

Now the BBC reports that Avon and Somerset will not be renewing its contract with Southwest One when the deal expires in 2018.

Southwest One is 75% owned by IBM and carries out administrative, IT and human resources tasks for the force.

Avon and Somerset Police’s “new” chief constable Andy Marsh – who took up the post in February 2016 – confirmed he has “given notice” that the Southwest On contract will not be renewed.

Andy Marsh, chief constable, Avon and Somerset.

Andy Marsh, chief constable, Avon and Somerset.

Instead he said he wants to work with neighbouring police and fire services. Marsh said,

“We will be finding a new way of providing those services. It is my intention to collaborate with other forces. I do believe I can save some money and I want to protect frontline numbers.”

Marsh came to Avon and Somerset with a reputation for making value for money a priority.

These are some of the statements made by Avon and Somerset Police on the progress of the Southwest One contract before Marsh joined the force:

  • “I am delighted with the level of procurement savings Southwest One is delivering for us, particularly as it is our local communities who will benefit most as front-line services are protected. “
  • “Using Southwest One’s innovative approach, we have been able to exceed our expected savings level.”
  • “I am looking forward to building on our close working relationship with Southwest One to deliver even greater savings in the future.”

FOI campaigner David Orr says of the police’s decision not to renew its contract with Southwest One,

“This controversial contract with IBM for Southwest One was signed in 2007 with the County Council, the Police and Taunton Deane Borough Council.

“We were promised £180m of cash savings, an iconic building in Taunton at Firepool, as well as new jobs and a boost to the economy. None of that ever materialised. “

Comment

If Avon and Somerset Police is happy with its outsourcing deal with Southwest One, why is it not renewing or extending the contract?

It’s clear the “new” chief constable Andy Marsh believes he can save money by finding a new way of delivering services, including IT. This sounds sensible given that the client organisation will at some point have to contribute to the supplier’s profits, usually in the later years of the contract.

Savings by ending outsourcing

Public authorities, particularly councils, when they announce the end of an outsourcing contract, will often say they plan to make substantial savings by doing something different in future – Somerset County Council and Liverpool Council among them.

Liverpool Council announced it would save £30m over three years  by ending its outsourcing deal.

Dexter Whitfield of the European Services Strategy Unit which monitors the success or otherwise of major outsourcing deals, is quoted in a House of Commons briefing paper last month entitled “Local government – alternative models of service delivery” as saying,

“Councils have spent £14.2bn on 65 strategic public-private partnership contracts, but there is scant evidence of full costs and savings”.

According to Whitfield, this is due to “the lack of transparent financial audits of contracts, secretive joint council-contractor governance arrangements, poor monitoring, undisclosed procurement costs, a lack of rigorous scrutiny and political fear of admitting failure”.

If it’s so obvious that outsourcing suppliers will eventually try to make up later for any losses in the early stages of a contract – suppliers are not registered charities – why are such deals signed in the first place?

Do officials and councillors not realise that  their successors will probably seek to save money by jettisoning the same outsourcing deal?

The problem, perhaps, is that those who preside over the early years of an outsourcing contract are unlikely to be around in the later years. For them, there is no effective accountability.

Hence the enthusiastic public announcements of savings and new investments in IT and other facilities in the early stages of an outsourcing  contract.

It’s likely things will go quiet in the later years of the contract when the supplier may be trying to recoup losses incurred in the early years.

Then, suddenly, the public authority will announce it is ending its outsourcing deal. Outsiders are left wondering why.

Good news?

Given Avon and Somerset’s determination to end its relationship with Southwest One, can we trust all the good news statements by the force’s officials in past years?

With facts in any outsourcing deal so hard to come by, even for FOI campaigners, selective statements by public servants or ruling councillors about how successful their deal is, and how many tens of millions of pounds they are saving, are best taken with a pinch of salt.

Especially if the announcements were at an early stage of the contract and things have now gone quiet.

Thank you to David Orr for alerting me to the BBC story and providing links to much of the material that went into this post.

From hubris to the High Court (almost) – the story of Southwest One.

Too easy for councils to make up savings figures for outsourcing deals?

Can all councils open up like this please – even Barnet?

By Tony Collins

Bitten by misfortune over its outsourcing/joint venture deal with IBM, Somerset County  Council has become more open – which seemed unlikely nearly a decade ago.

In 2007 the council and IBM formed Southwest One, a joint services company owned by IBM. The deal was characterised by official secrecy. Even non-confidential financial information on the deal was off-limits.

That’s no longer the case. Humbled a little by a failure of the outsourcing deal (including a legal action launched by IBM that cost the council’s taxpayers at least £5.9m)  local officials and their lawyers don’t automatically reach for the screens when things go wrong.

In 2014 Somerset County Council published a useful report on the lessons learnt from its Southwest One contract.

The latest disclosure is a report to the council’s audit committee meeting in June. The report focuses on the poor management and lack of oversight by some of Somerset’s officers of a range of contractor contracts. The council has 800 contracts, 87 of which are worth over £1m and some worth a lot more.

Given that the Council is committed to becoming an increasingly commissioning authority, it is likely that the total value of contracts will increase in the medium term, says the audit report by the excellent South West Audit Partnership (SWAP).

SWAP put the risk of contracts not being delivered within budget as “high”, but council officers had put this risk initially at only “medium”. SWAP found that the risk of services falling below expected standards or not delivering was “high” but, at the start of the audit assessment, council officers had put the risk at only “medium”.

somerset county council2One contract costing more than £10m a year had no performance indicators that were being actively monitored, said SWAP.

None of the contracts reviewed had an up-to-date risk register to inform performance monitoring.

No corporate contract performance framework was in place for managing contracts above defined thresholds.

“Some key risks are not well managed,” says the report.

“It is acknowledged that the Council has implemented new contract procedural rules from May 2015 which post-dates the contracts reviewed in this audit; however these procedural rules contain only ‘headline’ statements relating to contract management.

“Most notable in the audit work undertaken was the lack of consistency in terms of the approach to contract management across the contracts reviewed. Whilst good practice was found to be in place in several areas, the level of and approach to management of contracts varied greatly.

“No rationale based on proportionality, value, or risk for this variation was found to be in place. The largest contract reviewed had an annual value of over £10 million but no performance indicators were currently being actively monitored.”

Report withdrawn

Soon after the report was published the council withdrew it from its website. It says the Audit Committee meeting for 3 May has been postponed until June. It’s expected that the audit report will be published (again) shortly before that meeting.

Fortunately campaigner Dave Orr downloaded the audit report before it was taken down.

Comment

How many councils manage outsourcing and other contracts as unpredictably as Somerset but keep quiet about it?

Why, for example, have Barnet’s officers and ruling councillors not made public any full audit reports on the council’s performance in managing its contracts with Capita?

It could be that councils up and down the country are not properly managing their contracts – or are leaving it to the outsourcing companies to reveal when things go wrong.

Would that regular SWAP reports were published for every council.

All public authorities have internal auditors who may well do a good job but their findings, particularly if they are critical of the management of suppliers, are usually kept confidential.

Freedom of information legislation has made councils more open generally, as has guidance the Department for Communities and Local Government issued in 2014.

But none of this has made councils such as Barnet more open about any problems on its outsourcing deals.

Indeed clear and perceptive audit reports such as the one from SWAP are rare in the world of local government.

All of which raises the question of whether one reason some councils love outsourcing is that they can pass responsibility to suppliers for things that go wrong knowing the public may never find out the full truth because secrecy is still endemic in local government.

Thank you to Dave Orr for drawing my attention to the audit report – and its (temporary) withdrawal.

Somerset Council’s (withdrawn) Audit Committee report

Southwest One – the complete story by Dave Orr

Cornwall a model of openness as outsourcing deal with BT turns sour?

By Tony Collins

Will Barnet Council ever be as open as Cornwall Council has been over the performance of its IT outsourcing supplier?

Two years ago Cornwall signed a 10-year £260m strategic “partnership” with BT. The word “partnership” seems odd now that BT has taken out an injunction against Cornwall to stop the council ending the relationship 8 years early.

The two sides will go to court in December to determine if the council has a right to terminate the contract now.

If it loses  the case, Cornwall will have to retain as its main IT services supplier a company that has been its High Court adversary. The judge may also order the council to pay BT’s legal costs.

The odds may be against Cornwall’s winning because BT has much experience in outsourcing legalities. It’s possible that its managers have been collecting evidence of  any council shortcomings from day 1 of the contract,  in case the relationship turned sour.

But independent Cornwall councillor Andrew Wallis says on his blog that BT is dragging the council to court because of BT’s own failings. The council says BT has not achieved its key performance indicators or met to its guarantees on creating new jobs.

Cornwall council logoCornwall threatened to terminate for breach of contract but did not do so while it was in talks with BT’s senior corporate executives. When an amicable termination could not be agreed BT instructed its lawyers to seek an injunction preventing the council from terminating, which they did at a hearing on 12 August.  The result was that the High Court agreed to an expedited trial that will start on 1 December 2015.

It’s all a far cry from the time two years ago, before the contract was signed, when BT and council officers were promising much, and saying little about what could go awry.

In its literature, amid beautifully-executed artwork and graphics, BT highlighted its success at South Tyneside Council, its sponsorship of events such as Comic Relief, Children in Need and Childline and its presence as one of the largest employers in the South West.

Similarly, Cornwall officers, in 2013,  wrote reassuringly about any forthcoming deal with BT. They said:

“It should also be borne in mind that strategic partnerships are nothing new. BT – and other councils – have been involved in them for more than 10 years.

“Similarly the outsourcing market is mature and well understood. The UK local government IT and Business Process Outsourcing market is the biggest outsourcing market in the world and there are over 100 deals in operation.

“Risks are sometimes managed well and sometimes managed badly. The risks have been mitigated by using expert advisors and the Council has senior officers who understand this territory well.”

A BT spokesman told Government Computing this week:

“BT has commenced legal action to ensure fair and proper handling of the issues which have arisen about BT Cornwall, and while this is taking place, it would be inappropriate for us to comment.”

Comment

How is Capita’s performance on its contract at Barnet? We don’t know. The success or otherwise of the deal is blanketed in secrecy. In May Barnet blogger Mr Reasonable offered to make a charity donation of £250 if the council showed it was making the promised savings. The money went unclaimed.

There is no evidence of any failure of Barnet’s outsourcing deal. But would the public or media ever know if the supplier’s performance was falling short of the council’s expectations?

Cornwall has many independent councillors (36 compared with the 37 ruling Liberal Democrats). Debates tend to be on the merits of the matter not on the basis of party politics.

Barnet’s policy is tied in with a political ideology: ruling councillors want to turn Barnet into a “commissioning council” which involves outsourcing as much as possible.

In  practice the bedrock of this ideology is the relationship with Capita. If it went wrong would Barnet have too much to lose to go into dispute? For the sake of its ideology would Barnet accept any quality of service Capita delivers?

Cornwall

In threatening BT with termination because of breaches of contract, Cornwall Council could be criticised for not letting a 10-year outsourcing bed down. It’s unusual for a strategic partnership to end up in court less than 3 years into a 10-year contract.

On the other hand BT promised to create jobs in year 1 and 2 of the contract that the council say have not materialised. Councillors and officers are unhappy about many other aspects of the deal.  BT took on about 280 full-time equivalent council employees, about 130 of whom worked in Information Services.

What’s striking about the history of outsourcing discussions at Cornwall, and the run-up to the signing of a contract, is its openness. It would be easy for BT’s defenders to say that Cornwall’s open, feisty and unforgiving attitude are factors in the strained relationships so far.

On the other hand the problems Cornwall has experienced in the first 2 years of the relationship may be normal in outsourcing deals at other councils. It’s  just that ruling councillors and officers don’t talk about them in public.

All the more credit to Cornwall for its openness.

Barnet’s outsourcing deal may be more successful than Cornwall’s – but how does anyone outside a small group at Barnet really know? Local government and democratic accountability are often uncomfortable bedfellows.

Thank you to Dave Orr who drew my attention to the latest developments at Cornwall Council. 

Cornwall Council rushes to sign BT deal before elections

Cornwall Council tries to pull the plug on BT Cornwall

BT Cornwall is not working for Cornwall as it should

Overview of BT Cornwall’s performance against commitments and guarantees – as perceived by Cornwall’s officers

KPI measures Achieved (185/289) – 64%

PI measures Achieved (266/402) – 66%

Service Transformation (percentage of plans completed) – 38%

Financial contractual baseline savings (10% & 11.6%) – 100%

Trading gain share received (est £17.4m over 10 years) – £0

Guaranteed new jobs in Cornwall (yrs 1 & 2 111 new jobs target / 35.1 created) – 32%

Committed new jobs in Cornwall (yrs 1 & 2) – 0


Some of BT’s pre-outsourcing deal literature for Cornwall’s councillors

  • BT is a FTSE 100 company
  • We are one of the largest employers in the UK and the SW
  • We currently employ > 5,900 people in the South West including 1,028 Cornwall residents
  • BT already makes a financial impact of over £749m a year in the region
  • BT spent >£145m with local suppliers in 2011/12 and will increase this substantially through the Partnership
  • We generate 142,000 fraud referrals each week for the DWP across 50 data sources from 260,000,000 records
  • We undertake c.1,000,000 criminal record checks per annum at Disclosure Scotland to safeguard vulnerable groups.
  • We provide the highly secure directory services for the 260,000 military and civilian defence staff
  • We collect circa £580,000,000 in tax revenues each year on behalf of our local authority partnerships
  • The NHS Spine platform exchanges £3.5m prescription messages per week
  • We are delivering in excess of £500,000,000 savings in partnership with six UK Councils through efficiency and transformation programmes
  • We run one of the worlds largest data warehouses to enable the timely anonymous collection of patient data and information for clinical and billing purposes other than direct patient care .
  • Yes, we do poles and wires…but did you also know in the public sector we process over 532,000 benefits assessments for new applications and change of circumstances each year in our Local Government Partnerships?

Are councillors in Somerset ignoring the wisdom of their auditors?

By Tony Collins

It’s good to see auditors in local government doing their job well  – not accepting verbal assurances and seeking proof that all is well with an outsourced system .

But what if councillors apply a lower standard – and accept verbal assurances without checking them?

A  strong report by the South West Audit Partnership [SWAP] went to councillors at Somerset County Council’s Audit Committee on 2 July 2015. The report was about problems with an outsourced system, the Adults Integrated Solution [AIS].

Although not the original supplier, IBM has provided AIS to Somerset County Council under a 10-year outsourcing contract/joint venture – Southwest One –  that was signed in 2007.

The SWAP report said limited progress has been made in implementing the AIS-related recommendations from its 2012-2013 audit report. It added that:

– AIS performance and response times could be “less than adequate for users’ needs”.

– Southwest One was unwilling to develop a service level agreement specifically for the AIS application.

– “Poor response time has led to the disabling of enhanced audit trails/logs that would make it possible to trace and attribute user activity in the system.” SWAP added that this was “worrying” given that the data involved was “sensitive and personal”.

– SWAP had been refused access to the contract between IBM and Northgate, the original supplier of AIS.

Are verbal assurances worth anything?

Having studied AIS from time to time over 2 years, and spoken to its users, SWAP’s auditors have been reluctant, on some of their concerns, to accept verbal assurances that all is well.

When they have sought documentary evidence to support assurances it hasn’t always been forthcoming.

SWAP said in its latest report:

“Verbal assurances were provided that the ToR for AIS Programme Board had been reviewed and that roles and responsibilities in relation to system ownership had been clarified. However, no evidence was provided to support these assurances.”

Now Somerset’s audit committee has done what its auditors wouldn’t do and has accepted verbal assurances that all is well with AIS.

SWAP’s auditors had expressed a multitude of concerns about AIS. But Somerset’s officers verbally assured audit committee councillors that a single upgrade had solved all the problems.

One officer, in a statement, told Dave Orr, a Somerset resident who campaigns for openness over IBM’s relationship with the council:

“I can confirm that all of the fundamental issues raised through the [SWAP] Audit Report [on AIS] have now been addressed…

“The AIS application is one of the top systems used by local authorities for social care services in the UK. The performance issues referred to in the Audit Report were resolved by a system upgrade.”

Comment:

It’s difficult if not impossible to see how a single upgrade could address all the points SWAP made – such as the lack of a service level agreement to cover AIS or the refusal by IBM to supply a copy of its contract with Northgate.

Whenever auditors produce a hard-hitting report there will be 2 opposing sides: defenders of what’s being criticised and the auditors.

It is up to the auditors to cut through any dissimulation, obfuscation and prevarication to identify what’s going well, what isn’t, and what the uncertainties and risks are.

Auditors would not be doing their job if they always accepted verbal assurances at face value.

But what if auditors are undermined by councillors who readily accept verbal assurances from their officers who wish to defend the suppliers?

A supplier that doesn’t have to provide documentary evidence can say anything in defence of its systems and the quality of service.

Somerset’s councillors are lucky to have auditors as independently-minded as SWAP.

It’s unlikely that SWAP would accept at face value the Somerset officer’s suggestion that because AIS is widely used it’s unlikely to be a poor system.

This would be like Ford saying a particular Mondeo is unlikely to be at fault because thousands of people happily own one.

Every IT installation is different, even if the main software package is widely used. The hardware, network configuration, load on the network, facilities and interfaces installed will render every IT installation unique.

It’s conceivable that every council client of AIS could have a trouble-free service except Somerset.

Are the council’s audit committee councillors gullible to accept verbal assurances about the problems with AIS being solved without requiring proof?

Where does this leave the 775 users of Somerset’s AIS, many of whom may be having to do difficult work in managing vulnerable adults while trying to cope with what may be one of the UK’s worst outsourced systems?

Thank you to Dave Orr for providing information that made this post possible.

Pity the 775 users who use this outsourced council system?

SWAP report on AIS for Somerset County Council’s Audit Committee 2 July 2015

SWAP 2012-2013 audit report on AIS

 

 

Does Barnet know if it’s saving money with Capita?

By Tony Collins

Are council outsourcing contracts becoming so unfathomably complex that officials and leading councillors have no real idea whether they’re saving money?

A Somerset County Council report on the lessons learnt from its troubled outsourcing/joint venture deal with IBM emphasized the importance  of “not making  contracts overly complicated”.

The report said:

” Both the provider [IBM] and the Council would agree that the contract is incredibly complicated. A contract with over 3,000 pages was drawn up back in 2007 which was considered necessary at the time given the range of services and the partnership and contractual arrangements created…

“The sheer size and complexity of this contract has proven difficult to manage.”

For years there have been arguments in Somerset over whether the council has saved or spent more as a result of the relationship with IBM.  The absence of audited figures means nobody knows for certain.

It seems to be the same at Barnet. An absence of audited figures – the council does not have to produce them for an outsourcing contract – means that nobody knows for certain if Capita is costing or saving money.

It’s likely that councillors who supported the outsourcing to Capita, and critics of the deal, will never agree on whether local residents are better or worse off.

Now a Barnet resident and respected blogger Mr Reasonable, who studies the accounts of the local council as part of his efforts to be more open and accountable, has offered £250 to charity if the Tory leader Richard Cornelius provides evidence of how Capita is making savings as promised.

Mr Reasonable made the offer on 24 May 2015 and has heard nothing. His request to Barnet was followed up by Aditya Chakrabortty, senior economics commentator at the Guardian. The council didn’t reply within his deadline. Says Chakrabortty:

“If you want to see the world of outsourcing at its most illogical, spend a bit of time with detail-hunters like Mr Reasonable.

“He tells me about phoning his local library to see if a children’s book was in stock. The call was of course routed to a Capita call centre in Coventry, where staff spent ages unable to help before connecting him back to the librarians just down the road. By his calculations, for that wasted call Capita would charge Barnet £8.

“Outsourcing is full of these invented costs, which is how the privateers make their billions.

“Mr Reasonable can tell you about how Barnet now pays £800 for a day’s training in how to take minutes, or £14,628 for just two months of occupational health assessments. In both cases these are services that would previously have been provided in-house for minimal cost…

“These examples would be comic, if they didn’t cost blameless taxpayers so much money…”

Commercial confidentiality

Mr Reasonable says all the commercially sensitive elements of Barnet’s contracts with Capita are redacted and there are “numerous clauses relating to incentives and penalties which would have made publishing a single payments schedule almost impossible”.

It’s also impossible he says to know what Capita has billed for or not.

“I have asked repeatedly to see the evidence of precisely what we are paying for and a detailed explanation of why the payments are so high. Whilst a few promises of evidence were made when the previous COO was in place, none actually materialised.”

Open day?

He adds:

“If Barnet Council is serious about openness then why not host an open day where they go through the contract in detail so that we can understand exactly what we are paying for?

“I would have thought it would have made sense for Capita to get involved with this, to work through the contract with interested citizens and to demonstrate clearly how much money they are saving.

“So I hereby throw down a challenge to the Chief Executive Mr Travers, to Richard Cornelius and to Capita – host an open day, bring bloggers and critics in and show them what you are doing, how the contract is working in reality what money is being paid to whom and how much is really being saved – evidence is essential.

“Indeed a few Conservative councillors might want to come along as well seeing as they voted for this contract. I know some of them privately had serious concerns about the contract but were worried about making those views public.

“And to put my money where my mouth is, I will donate £250 to a charity of Richard Cornelius’ choice if he makes this contract open day happen.”

Comment 

Outsourcing deals should be signed on the basis of pure pragmatism, never because of an ideology.

Barnet’s deal with Capita (and Somerset’s) was signed for largely ideological reasons. Somerset wanted to “go beyond excellence” and Barnet’s ruling councillors want to be immortalised by establishing a new frontier for local government – a “commissioning council” whereby all services are bought in.

It might have been cheaper for Barnet’s residents if the council had given its ruling councillors immortality by building statutes of them in the council’s grounds.

Will council officers have enough time or understanding of the nuances of the contract, with its maze of incentives and penalties,  to know whether they are saving money or not?

In any case how accurate were the pre-outsourcing baseline figures and assumptions on which to make a comparison between what services were costing then, and what they are costing now?

There is no equivalent in local government of the National Audit Office, no organisation that will audit a local government outsourcing deal and publish the results.

This means councillors can say what they like in public about the success of a deal without fear of authoritative contradiction. Their critics can only speculate on what is really happening while they try to shine a light at the dense fog that is commercial confidentiality.

It appears that more and more councils are seriously considering large-scale outsourcing, perhaps on the basis that they can promise guaranteed savings without anyone being able to hold them to account on whether genuine savings materialise.

The first we’ll know anything is awry is when a council report, years into a contract, reveals some of the difficulties and says a resolution is being discussed with the supplier; and it’s another year or two before the contract is terminated at considerable extra cost to the council – and nobody is in post from the time of the original contract to be held accountable.

Is this really the shape of local government outsourcing to come?

Mr Reas0nable

 

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 gov.uk 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.

Comment

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.