Category Archives: local government

Is Barnet Council up to the job of managing its suppliers – including Capita?

By Tony Collins

Tonight (27 July 2017) Barnet Council’s audit committee meets to discuss the interim year-end findings of BDO, its external auditor.

BDO identifies a “significant risk” in relation to the council’s contract management and monitoring. There are “numerous issues”, says BDO.

Barnet is well known in the local government community for having adopted a “commissioning council” concept. This means it has outsourced the vast majority of its services, leaving officers and the ruling Conservative group to set policy and monitor suppliers.

Capita is a main supplier. Its responsibilities include cemeteries, ICT and collecting council tax.

BDO’s report for tonight’s council meeting says that, with the council’s services now being delivered through various outsourcing arrangements, “it is important to establish strong contract management and monitoring controls”.

It adds that such controls “allow the Council to ascertain whether or not it is receiving value for money from the use of its contractors, and to take remedial action where issues are identified”.

On this point – contract management and monitoring –  BDO says,

“During the course of 2016/17 we have noted a number of internal audit reports which have raised significant findings in this area.

“In addition, further concerns have been identified through our own audit work. As such, we have recognised a significant risk to our use of resources [value for money] opinion.”

BDO’s findings are interim. It cannot finalise its final statutory report until many questions are answered and errors, financial misstatements and lapses in disclosure are corrected in Barnet’s draft financial accounts.

The auditors comment in their report on the “number and value of errors found” and the “level of misstatement in the current year accounts”.

These are some of BDO’s findings so far:

  • Large advance payments (about £44m in prepayments) as part of the Customer Service Group contracts with Capita. Not all of the payments were set out in the payments profile of the original contract. Significant payments were made at the start of the contract (and in subsequent years) to cover capital investment and transformational expenditure. The financial profile of the contract anticipates the advance payments being used by 2023. One advance payment of £19.1m in December 2016 covers service charge payments relating to the first three quarters of 2017/18. The council receives a £0.5m discount for paying in advance. The council also paid for some projects in advance. BDO finds that there was proper council scrutiny of the decision to make the payments.
  • Barnet overspent on services in 2016/2017 by £8.3m.
  • There’s a budget gap prior to identified savings of £53.9m over the three years to 2020.
  • There’s a substantial depletion in the council’s financial reserves.
  • Will claimed savings materialise? “Savings targets remain significant and achievement of these will be inherently challenging, as evidenced by the overspend in 2016/17.”
  • Net spending on the Customer and Support Group contracts with Capita increased to £34.4m in 2016/17 from £26.9m the previous year.
  • More than 100 officials at Barnet receive at least £60,000 a year and twelve at least £100,000.
  • Some councillors have failed to make formal declarations. A “poor response rate as compared to other authorities” says BDO’s report.

Comment:

You’d think a “commissioning council” – one that outsources the delivery of most of its services – would, above all, have a firm grip on what its main suppliers are doing and what they’re charging for.

In fact BDO’s report for tonight council meeting rates the council’s contract management and monitoring at “red”. BDO has identified “numerous” issues.

It’s easy for Barnet Council to issue press releases on the tens of millions it claims to have saved on its contracts with Capita.

But BDO possesses the facts and figures; and it questions the council’s “use of resources” – in other words “value for money”.

At the outset of its joint venture with IBM, officials at Somerset County Council spoke of planned savings of £180m over 10 years. In fact the deal ended up losing at least £69m.

Barnet blogger “Mr Reasonable” who has long kept a close eye on payments made by Barnet to Capita doubts that the council is up to the job of properly scrutinising Capita. We agree.

It was clear to many in 2013 when Barnet signed contracts with Capita that the council was unlikely to find the money to acquire adequate contract monitoring expertise and resources, given that its suppliers were required to deliver such a wide range of complex services.

Barnet Council’s most adept scrutineers, rather than local councillors, have proved to be its dogged local bloggers who include Derek Dishman (Mr Mustard), John Dix (Mr Reasonable), Theresa Musgrove (Mrs Angry) and Roger Tichborne (The Barnet Eye).

Had ruling councillors taken local blogger warnings more seriously, would they have specifically avoided becoming a “commissioning council”?

Why are councils hiding exit costs of outsourcing deals – embarrassment perhaps?

Tony Collins

Excerpt from Taunton Deane council’s confidential “pink pages”.
The last sentence contains a warning that IBM-owned SWO – Southwest One – may try to “maximise revenues” on exiting its joint venture with the council.

Somerset County Council has refused a Freedom of Information request for the costs of exiting its joint venture with IBM.

But a secret report written last year by officers at Taunton Deane Borough Council – which was a party to the IBM-owned joint venture company Southwest One  – warned that the supplier could attempt to “maximise revenues on exit”.

It said,

“… from experience anything slightly ambiguous within the contract is likely to be challenged by SWO [Southwest One] in order to push it into the chargeable category as they attempt to maximise revenues on exit”.

A separate section of the confidential report said,

“disaggregating from the SWO [Southwest One] contract will be complex and expensive …”

Taunton Deane Borough Council did not tell councillors what the exit turned out to be. The figures are also being kept secret by Somerset County Council which signed the “transformative” SWO joint venture deal with IBM in 2007.

Both councils have now brought back services in-house.

Secrecy over the exit costs is in contrast to Somerset’s willingness to talk in public about the potential savings when local television news covered the setting up of Southwest One in 2007.

The silence will fuel some local suspicions that exit costs have proved considerable and will have contributed to the justifications for Somerset’s large council tax rise this year.

£69m losses?

David Orr, a former Somerset County Council IT employee, has followed closely the costs of the joint venture, and particularly its SAP-based “transformation.

It was his FOI request for details of the exit costs that the council refused.

Orr says that Somerset has lost money as a result of the Southwest One deal. Instead of saving £180m, the joint venture has cost the council £69m, he says.

FOI

Under the Freedom of Information Act, Orr asked Somerset for the “total contract termination costs” including legal, consultancy, negotiation, asset valuations, audit and extra staffing.

He also asked whether IBM was paid compensation for early termination of the Southwest One contract. In replying, the council said,

“The Authority exited from a significant contract with Southwest One early, and the services delivered through this contract were brought back in-house in November 2016.

“The Authority expects the costs to fall significantly now it has regained control of those services.

“Somerset County Council made payment under the ‘Termination for Convenience’ provisions of the original contract. We do hold further information but will not be releasing it at this point as we believe to do so would damage the commercial interests of the County Council, in that it would prejudice the our negotiating position in future contract termination agreements in that it would give contractors details on what terms the Council was willing to settle …”

Orr will appeal. He says the Information Commissioner has already established a principle with Suffolk Coastal District Council that the termination costs of a contract with a third party should be disclosed. The commissioner told Suffolk Coastal council that, in opting out of FOI,

“there is no exemption for embarrassment”

Hidden costs

Taunton’s pink pages paper said that the Southwest One contract’s Exit Management Plan provided for a smooth transfer of services and data, and for access to staff to assess skills and do due diligence.

In practice, though, there were many exit-related complications and costs – potential and actual. The paper warned that Taunton would need to find the money for:

  • Exit programme and project management costs
  • Early termination fees
  • Contingency
  • ICT infrastructure disaggregation
  • Service transition and accommodation costs
  • Disaggregating SAP from Southwest One. Also the council would need to exit its SAP-based shared services with Somerset County Council because the estimated costs were lower when run on a non shared services basis. SAP covered finance, procurement, HR, payroll, website and customer relationship management.
  • Costs involved in a “soft” or “hard” (adversarial) exit.
  • Estimating council exit costs when IBM was keeping secret its own Southwest One running costs.
  • Staff transfer issues.

Comment

So much for open government. It tends to apply when disclosures will not embarrass local government officials.

In 2007 Somerset County Council enjoyed local TV, radio and newspaper coverage of the new joint venture with IBM. Officials spoke proudly on camera of the benefits for local taxpayers, particularly the huge savings.

Now, ten years later, the losses are stacking up. Former Somerset IT employee and FOI campaigner Dave Orr puts the losses at £69m. And local officials are keeping secret the further exit costs.

Suffolk Coastal District Council lost an FOI case to withhold details of how much it paid in compensation to a third party contractor to terminate a contract. But at least it had published its other exit costs.

Somerset is more secretive. It is withholding details of the sums it paid to IBM in compensation for ending the joint venture early; it also refuses to publish its other exit costs.

Trust?

Can anything said by councils such as Somerset or Barnet in support of major outsourcing/joint venture deals be trusted if the claimed savings figures are not audited and the other side of the story – the hidden costs – are, well, hidden?

In local elections, residents choose councillors but they have no say over the appointment of the permanent officials. It’s the officials who decide when to refuse FOI requests; and they usually decide whether the council will tell only one side of the story when public statements are made on outsourcing/joint ventures.

Across the UK, local councils employed 3,400 press and communications staff –  about double the total number in central government – in part to promote the authorities’ services and activities.

What’s the point if they publicise only one side of the story – the benefits and not the costs?

Somerset’s decision to refuse Orr’s reasonable FOI request makes, in its own small way, a mockery of open government.

It also gives just cause for Somerset residents to be sceptical about any council statement on the benefits of its services and activities.

Will MPs’ report on Capita’s BBC contract make any difference?

By Tony Collins

At one level, Capita’s contract to handle most of the BBC’s TV licensing work is, in general, a success, at least according to statements made to the media.

Were it not for the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, a fuller story would not have emerged.

Today in The Guardian, a BBC spokesperson speaks of the Capita TV licensing contract in glowing terms. Through the contract, the BBC has reduced collection costs by 25% and increased revenue for programmes and services.

A Capita spokesperson spoke in similar terms. Capita has helped the BBC to collect more TV licence fee revenue every year since 2010-2011.

The only blip in the contract had seemed to be the heavy-handed tactics of some Capita staff. The Daily Mail reported in February 2017 that vulnerable people were hounded as some Capita staff tried to catch 28 TV licence evaders a week for bonuses of £15,000 a year.

This blip aside, has anything else gone wrong? There’s no hint of any technological problems on Capita’s website – or the BBC’s.

The BBC reported in 2011 that Capita will transform the TV licensing service, “using advances in technology and analytics to increase revenue and reduce costs”.

Capita’s website has a case study on its work for the BBC that refers to cost savings of £220m over the life of the contract, organisation-wide efficiencies and “protected brand image” among other benefits.

In December 2016, Capita described the “partnership” with the BBC  as a “success”.

The bigger picture

Capita processes TV licence payments, collects arrears and enforces licence fee collection. Its current contract with the BBC began in July 2012 and, after a recent renegotiation, ends in 2022 with the option to extend by up to a further five years.The BBC paid Capita £59 million in 2015–16.

The BBC has had a long-standing ambition to improve its main TV licensing databases so that they are structured by individual customers rather than households.

This was one of the hopes for the contract with Capita but it hasn’t happened. Capita had partly subcontracted work on the BBC’s legacy databases to CSC Computer Sciences.

Manual workarounds

The BBC, in its contract with Capita, aimed to upgrade ICT as part of a wider transition programme. The BBC paid Capita £22.9m for parts of the programme that were delivered, including restructuring contact centres, updating the TV Licensing website and upgrading handheld units for field staff.

The Public Accounts Committee says in today’s report,

“However, improvements with a contract value of £27.9m, primarily related to replacing legacy ICT systems, were not delivered by Capita and its subcontractor (CSC), and were not paid for by the BBC.

“As a result of the transition programme being only partly completed and subsequently stopped, the BBC and Capita currently have to do resource-intensive manual workarounds between inefficient ICT systems.

“Capita informed us that it was bearing the additional costs associated with undelivered elements of the transition programme. However, the BBC has had to allocate £9m to Capita to support the ongoing use of legacy systems, costs which the BBC told us were compensated for elsewhere in the renegotiated contract.

“It is unclear to us why ICT database improvements have proved so difficult over the last 15 years, particularly when competitors and other organisations can make similar changes.

“The BBC acknowledges that its current database is not fit for purpose for the future but does not yet have a clear plan to replace it.”

Comment

All outsourcing contracts have their strengths and failures – including early promises that don’t come to anything.

But it’s unlikely councils and other public sector organisations that are seriously considering outsourcing will take into account the past failures and broken promises of their potential suppliers.

If officials and councillors want to outsource IT and other services they probably will, whatever the record of their favoured potential suppliers.

They will see reports of the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee as biased towards negative disclosures.

Indeed the BBC and Capita, in their responses to today’s TV licensing report of the Public Accounts Committee, have drawn attention to the positive aspects of the report and not mentioned the technological failures.

Where does this leave councils and other organisations that are considering IT-related outsourcing and are seeking reference sites as part of the bid process?

Will those reference sites give only the positive aspects and not mention, or successfully deprecate, any media, PAC or NAO reports on contract failures?

Negative findings by the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee are usually important. Were it not for their scrutiny would not know how public money is being spent and misspent.

But their reports will have little or no effect as warnings to organisations that want to outsource.

Public Accounts Committee – BBC Licence Fee – 26 April 2017

 

Capita’s chief executive to step down

By Tony Collins

Capita’s chief executive Andy Parker is to step down later this year. The company has today announced that full-year results for 2016 were “disappointing”.

The company reported a sharp fall in annual profit.

Underlying pre-tax profit – which strips out restructuring costs – was £475.3m, well below the group’s expectations despite two profit warnings late last year.

Capita had said in December it expected annual pre-tax profits in the current financial year to be at least £515m.

Reported pre-tax profit was £74.8m, down 33 per cent year-on-year on slightly higher revenues of £4.9bn.

The company is moving some jobs to India, where it already provides outsourcing services for UK companies.

Capita is being dropped from the FTSE 100 from 20 March 2017. Its share price has fallen sharply over the past year but has risen gradually from its low about three months ago. The company’s share price fell sharply this morning, at one point down nearly 10% on yesterday’s close.

The company has had problems on multiple contracts.

In a statement this morning Parker said,

“2016 was a challenging year and Capita delivered a disappointing performance. We are determined to turn this performance around. We have taken quick and decisive action to reduce our cost base, increase management accountability, simplify the business, strengthen the balance sheet, and return the Group to profitable growth.

“We remain very confident that our target markets continue to offer long term structural growth. Capita is well placed in these markets with our unique set of complementary capabilities and the talent of our people. The bid pipeline of major contract opportunities remains active, and we are also seeing success in providing additional new, high value, replicable services to clients.

“The proposed sale of our Asset Services businesses and Specialist Recruitment businesses are on track. We have received good interest and, following regulatory approvals where required, we remain confident in concluding these transactions this year, which will leave us with a more focussed Group and significantly strengthen our balance sheet.

“We expect 2017 to be a transitional year for the business, as we complete our disposals, bed down the structural changes inside the business, and re-position Capita for a return to growth in 2018”.

Capita’s 2016 full-year results

Hunt is prepared to end Capita’s NHS contract if necessary.

Whitehall’s outsourcing of IT a “bad mistake” – and other Universal Credit lessons – by ex-DWP minister

By Tony Collins

Lord Freud, former Conservative minister at the Department for Work and Pensions – who is described as the “architect” of Universal Credit – said yesterday that outsourcing IT across government had been a “bad mistake”.

He announced in December 2016 that was retiring from government. Having been the minister for welfare reform who oversaw the Universal Credit programme, Lord Freud yesterday went before the Work and Pensions Committee to answer questions on the troubled scheme.

He said,

“The implementation was harder than I had expected. Maybe that was my own naivety. What I didn’t know, and I don’t think anyone knew, was how bad a mistake it had been for all of government to have sent out their IT.

“It happened in the 1990s and early 2000s. You went to these big firms to build your IT. I think that was a most fundamental mistake, right across government and probably across government in the western world…

We talk about IT as something separate but it isn’t. It is part of your operating system. It’s a tool within a much better system. If you get rid of it, and lose control of it, you don’t know how to build these systems.

“So we had an IT department but it was actually an IT commissioning department. It didn’t know how to do the IT.

“What we actually discovered through the (UC) process was that you had to bring the IT back on board. The department has been rebuilding itself in order to do that. That is a massive job.”

But didn’t DWP civil servants make it clear at the outset that there wasn’t the in-house capability to build Universal Credit?

“The civil service thought it had the capacity because it could commission the big firms – the HPs and the IBMs – to do it. They did not see the problem, and government as a whole did not see the problem of doing it.

“It’s only when you get into building something big you discover what a problem that was…”

Accountability needed

But it was known at the launch of Universal Credit that government IT projects had a history of going wrong. Why hadn’t people [the DWP] learnt those lessons?

“I agree with you. People have found it very hard to work out what was the problem… you need someone doing it who is accountable. But when you commission out, you don’t have that process.

“You need a lot of continuity and that’s not something in our governance process. Ministers turn over very regularly and more importantly civil servants tend to turn over rather regularly because of the pay restrictions – they only get more pay when they are promoted – so there is a two-year promotion round for good people.

“Effectively we had a programme that had been built outside, or with a lot of companies helping us build it.”

Lord Freud explained differences between the two Universal Credit systems being rolled out.

First there is the “live” system [built at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds that interfaces with legacy benefit systems but is not interactive beyond the initial application form].

The DWP is also rolling out in some pilot areas such as Croydon a “full system” [built at a cost of less than £10m, run on agile principles and is interactive beyond the initial application form].

Lord Freud said,

“The difference between the two is that the live system has all of the essential features of Universal Credit – you get paid an amount at a certain time – but interaction with the system after the initial application is through the telephone or through the post.

“The interactive [“full”] system has the features of Universal Credit but interaction with it is much faster because it’s on the internet. That’s the difference…

“How would I have done it in retrospect?

“The other thing I have discovered about big organisations that I hadn’t understood was it’s very difficult for them to deal with something that’s purely conceptual.

“You need something on the ground. What you should do is get something on the ground quickly – small, maybe imperfect – but the organisation can start coalescing around it, understand it, and start working it.

“Oddly, not having an all-singing, all-dancing system that is now going out, was essential for the organisation to understand what it had and how to adapt it. The IT is only a very small element. Most of the work is around your operations and organisation and how you apply it.

“The second thing we introduced in the 2013 reset was “test and learn”. It’s a phrase but what it means is that you have a system you understand and then test and test, instead of going out with a big system at once. You test all the elements because it’s impossible to envisage how something as big (as Universal Credit) unless you do it like that.

Lessons for government as a whole?

“It was a mistake putting IT out. You have to bring it back in. It’s quite hard to bring it back in because the image of government with the IT industry is not great so you have to set up an atmosphere of getting really good people in, so it’s an attractive place to work; you have to pay them appropriately.

“Our pay scales are not representative of what happens in some of these industries.

Scarce skills

“There are three areas of specialisation that government finds it very hard to buy: various bits of IT, running contracts and project management. Those are three really scarce skills in our economy. We need in government to pay for those specialisms if we are to do big projects.”

Other lessons?

“There’s an odd structure which I don’t quite believe in any more, which is the relationship between the politician – the minister – and the civil service.

“The concept is that the politicians decide what their objectives are and the civil service delivers it. I don’t believe that you can divide policy and implementation in that way. That’s a very big issue because our whole government is built up with that concept and has been for more than 100 years.”

Where does project management fit?

“In theory the civil service produces the project management but it’s an odd circumstance. It didn’t quite happen with Universal Credit. In my first five years I had no fewer than six senior responsible owners and six project managers.

“You can imagine what that was like with something as complicated as Universal Credit when the senior people hadn’t had the time to understand what it was they were dealing with; and what that implied for the minister – me – in terms of holding that together.”

Lord Freud suggested that he was acting as the permanent project manager although he had his normal ministerial duties as well – including being the government’s spokesman in the House of Lords on welfare reform matters.

“As a minister you don’t have time to do project manage a big project. I was sending teams out to make sure we were on top of particular things, which were then reincorporated into the whole process. But it was a very difficult time as we built the department into a capability to do this. There is now a very capable team doing it.”

Comment:

Two of the questions raised by Lord Freud’s comments are: If outsourcing IT is now considered such a bad idea for central government, why is it councils continue to outsource IT?

Would it be better for taxpayers in the long run if the Department for Communities and Local Government intervened to stop such deals going ahead?

Lord Freud’s evidence on Universal Credit programme in full

 

 

 

Birmingham Council to “close down” contract with Capita when it ends in 2021

By Tony Collins

Birmingham City Council has said in a job advert that it plans to “close down” its joint venture contract with Capita when it expires in 2021.

The advert was discovered by Government Computing which has reported the job requirements in detail.

Capita and Birmingham City Council have one of the largest and longest IT-based outsourcing contracts in the public sector.

It began in 2006 when the council and Capita set up a joint venture “Service Birmingham”. The council has spent about £85m to £120m a year on the contract which puts the total cost of the deal so far at more than £1bn.

Government Computing reports that the council is seeking an assistant director ICT and digital services and CIO role. The job will include a task to “oversee the effective closedown of the current Service Birmingham ICT contract”.

This suggests the council is unlikely to renew the existing contract. It could decide to sign a new outsourcing deal but the signs so far are that the council will bring services in-house in 2021.

The council says in the job advert it wants to move to an “increasingly agile state of continuous business transformation”.

Nigel Kletz, director of commissioning and procurement for Birmingham City Council, told Government Computing,  “The current Service Birmingham contract has four years still to run (until 2021), so this role will lead the implementation of the ICT and digital strategy, which includes developing a transition programme to identify and then implement ICT delivery options going forward.

“Decisions on how ICT support is provided from 2021 onwards are yet to be taken.”

Capita did not add to the council’s statement.

Alan Mo, research director at public sector analysis group Kable, is quoted in Government Computing as saying,

“When it comes to ICT, Birmingham is the largest spending council in the UK. Given what’s at stake, we cannot over emphasise the importance of early planning…

“As we know, Service Birmingham has been under a huge amount of scrutiny over the past few years. Given the trends in local government, it would not surprise us if Birmingham prefers to go down the in-sourcing path; the council has already opted to take back contact centre services.”

Projected savings of “£1bn” 

Service Birmingham lists on its website some of the benefits from the joint venture.

  • Projected cost savings of £1bn back to the Council over the initial 10-year term, for reinvestment in services
  • £2m investment in a new server estate
  • Rationalising 550 applications to 150
  • Consolidated 7 service desks into 2
  • 500% improvement in e-mail speed
  • Help desk calls answered within 20 seconds increased from 40% to nearly 90%

Service Birmingham provides Birmingham City Council’s IT, along with a council tax and business rates administration service. The council has discussed taking back in-house the council tax  element of the contract. 

Capita has run into trouble on some of its major contracts, including one with the NHS to supply services to GPs.

Comment

It appears that Capita has served its purpose and put the council into a position where it can take back ICT services now that are in a better state than they were  at the start of the contract 2006.

Austerity is the enemy of such large public sector IT-based outsourcing contracts.  When councils can afford to spend huge sums – via monthly, quarterly and annual service charges – on so-called “transformation”, all may be well for such deals.

Their high costs can be publicly justified on the basis of routine annual efficiency “savings” which do not by law have to be verified.

The downfall for such deals comes when councils have to make large savings that may go well beyond the numbers that go into press releases. It’s known that Birmingham City Council has been in almost continuous negotiation to reduce the annual sums paid to Capita.

Capita is not a charity. How can it continue to transform ICT and other services, pay the increasing salaries of 200 more people than were seconded from the council in 2006, accept large reductions in its service changes and still make a reasonable profit?

It makes economic sense, if Birmingham needs to pay much less for IT, to take back the service.

It’s a pity that austerity has such force in local government but not in central government where IT profligacy is commonplace.

Job spec for senior Birmingham IT post looks towards end of Service Birmingham ICT deal – Government Computing

 

Can Birmingham City Council afford this jargon-laden Big Data project?

By Tony Collins

Birmingham council’s “Big Data Corridor” commits multiple offences against the English language. Could its jargon-heavy justifications threaten the usefulness of the project?

Birmingham City Council is running a budget deficit expected to be £49m in 2016/17. That hasn’t stopped it from pushing forward with plans to invest in a “Big Data Corridor” that has left at least one leading councillor confused as to its purpose.

Councillor Jon Hunt, leader of he Lib-Dems on the Labour-run council,  told a cabinet meeting that the project was “potentially exciting” and he thanked Aston University for its involvement but he added,

“I was a bit confused about the purpose of it.”

Birmingham City Council will be contributing hundreds of thousands of pounds towards the research project – money that Hunt said the council cannot afford.

He said Birmingham City Council may be best placed as an “enabler” of such projects rather than “putting in money it doesn’t have”.

A report to the council’s cabinet said,

“The proposed Big Data Corridor (BDC) project at a total cost of £2.568m will support Small/Medium Enterprises (SME’s) to understand the benefits of using data to design new services and products that will respond to specific challenges in East Birmingham, as a demonstrator.”

Quite what that means is unclear in the report; and leading councillors gave no direct responses to Hunt’s points about the unclear purpose of the project and  whether the council can afford it.

Birmingham Council says the Big Data Corridor is a “new initiative led by Birmingham City Council in partnership with Aston University, Future Cities Catapult, Centro, Telensa, Innovation Birmingham, local SMEs and community groups of the Eastern Corridor Smart Demonstrator.

The project is part funded by its participants, including Birmingham council, and the European Union’s European Regional Development Fund.

A report to the council’s cabinet said the project would “address specific challenges such as creating a healthy happy city”.

Comment

Birmingham City Council’s Big Data Corridor may be a fun research project to work on – but what’s its point?

The council says the aim of the project is to

 “create an innovative, connected data marketplace – a new disruptive economy – where SMEs use data to create new applications, services and experiences to serve personalised demand for businesses and communities in the Corridor, generating social and environmental value alongside hard economic impacts”.

But what’s its purpose for the citizens of Birmingham?

“SMEs will be supported to use data and technologies to create new services, and products that will respond to specific challenges in East Birmingham to deliver to beneficiaries in the Corridor, generating social, environmental and economic value….”

How is that useful to residents?

“Working with the Smart City Commission, we are exploring how the wider deployment of smart city / future internet-based technologies and services can help drive innovation and accelerate delivery of city outcomes bringing together both needs of public services, community and private sector.”

Which means?

“The demonstrator will aim to tackle local problems in a more holistic, layered and integrated way.

” It will drive greater connectedness along urban clusters – connecting assets, data, talent, location, infrastructure to combine innovative design, use of community and social spaces and services with housing and infrastructure developments; new models of commissioning and service delivery enabled through civic and social enterprise.”

Actual uses please?

“The demonstrator which links into existing City development plans e.g. Birmingham Connected City (formerly the Birmingham Mobility Action Plan); Birmingham Development Plan; East Birmingham Prospectus for Growth will focus on:

  • Mobility & connectivity – Improving how people travel around across all modes and enabling access to employment opportunities;

  • Health – Healthy ageing; improve quality of life / mental health & wellbeing indicators;

  • Skills & Enterprise – Manage supply and demand; Upskill local population and talent for innovation; grow level of enterprise and sustainable start-up & business growth

  • Information Marketplaces – enabling programme of activity creating conditions for data to be extracted and /or exchanged by multiple partners & stakeholders prioritised around above themes; creating the supply chain that may include business / developers that can create value with this new data

Yes, but one specific purpose?

“The Big Data Corridor will utilise a data platform provided by Birmingham City University, which will act like an address book to access a range of public and commercial service data sets, which will enable Small/Medium Enterprises with support through this project, to create new products and services to help address challenges faced by the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership.”

Its benefits for Birmingham council tax payers who would help fund the project?

“[The Big Data Corridor] aims to accelerate the digital capabilities of businesses to capitalise on the exponential growth of the Internet Of Things and Data Economy by developing solutions with citizens to address city in the areas of health, mobility and sustainability. This will be enabled through 3 key strands. All support for SMEs will be provide free of charge based on meeting eligibility criteria.”

Yes but specific benefits?

“[The Big Data Corridor] will host technology and data rich demonstrator activities to enable GBSLEP SMEs to develop new services and products enabled by the new data streams and tested in East Birmingham in response to specific challenges identified through work with stakeholders and communities. Note that this project will not compile data sets, but accesses those available openly or if will purchase them if necessary through this project.”

Specifically?

“[The Big Corridor will] provide technical and business support utilising the Serendip Incubator (a space for businesses to collaborate) at Birmingham Science Park – Aston to engage SMEs, manage their involvement, support rapid prototyping and commercialisation of products and services.”

Yes, but …

“To address congestion …”

Aha! A specific purpose. In what way will the Big Data Corridor reduce congestion?

“[It] could be for SMEs to access Telensa’s smart lighting application network, Centro transport data, personal data such as schemes that are already operating to enable individuals to share data voluntarily, as well as social media data to develop new products to incentivise behaviour change of citizens from cars to public transport to reduce congestion.”

Rarely before have so many offences against plain English been committed within one IT project.

The serious point is that unclear, abstract English and unclear thinking go hand in hand.

Orwell said that the “slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”.  He would probably have described Birmingham council’s phrases such as “accelerate delivery of city outcomes” and “generating social, environmental and economic value” as avoidably ugly.

Such phrases suggest that their author was indifferent as to whether the words meant anything or not. They are easily written – because they don’t require any thought.

Orwell could have been looking at Birmingham Council’s words on its Big Data Corridor when he wrote,

“This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.

“As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.

Indeed it’s hard to see how Birmingham council found the money for the Big Data Corridor, based on the poor quality of information it has provided so far.

One explanation could be that finance councillors and officials watched in awe as the river of ostensibly worthy phrases flowed in front of them – phrases such as “greater connectedness along urban clusters”.

Possible big data uses

One possible specific use of the big data corridor would be to “develop a service to enable citizens to find the healthiest and safest walking routes to local chemist”.

How many Birmingham citizens will take the time to use such an app rather than get to the chemist in the shortest possible time?

Another potential app would show air quality in real-time. This would be useful.

Big data could also be used for street lighting – to allow for the manual brightening of lights when required – and for triggering CCTV and a local response when certain noises are detected.

But would such potential uses be forgotten while project professionals wriggle furiously to try and stop themselves sinking into the Big Data Corridor’s mudflats of jargon?

It’s possible the project will create 56 jobs, which would be one tangible benefit. But what the new recruits will do for local residents is unclear.

Ideally, perhaps, they’d have the skill to translate abstract words and phrases into jargon-free English so that Birmingham’s residents would know how their Big Data Corridor money is being spent.

Perhaps the project may even win an award. Campaign4Change nominates Birmingham’s Big Data Corridor for the Golden Bull award 2017. It’s an award for the year’s worst written tripe.

This is from Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language”,

“A speaker who uses that kind of [abstract] phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved …”

He added,

“This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them.”

In a report on the use and abuse of official language, the House of Commons’ Public Administration Committee criticised  “unlovely” words and phrases such as “step changes”, “stakeholder engagements”, “win-wins”, “level playing fields” and “going forwards”.

It concluded that a poor use of language by officials can amount to “maladministration”. The committee said,

“In our view, using confusing or unclear language that is so bad that it results in people not getting the benefits or services to which they are entitled, or which prevents them from understanding their rights or the choices available to them, amounts to ‘maladaministration’.

The Parliamentary Ombudsman at that time agreed with this view.

She said,

“I think if it got to the point that it was actually incomprehensible, then it would be in contravention of my principles about providing information that’s clear, accurate and not misleading.”

Click here to generate gobbledygook similar to Birmingham Council’s (Plain English Campaign’s gobbledygook generator).

 

Use and abuse of official language – House of Commons Public Administration Committee

Big Data Corridor bid goes through to the next stage

Big Data Corridor report

Big Data case studies

Birmingham council savings too ambitious and too many uncertainties.

Birmingham blog

Digital Birmingham

 

 

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.