Tag Archives: local government

Are councils short of money? Only for public services

By Tony Collins

Councils are short of money for public services – but not for senior officers’ pay-offs or botched deals.

A recent case is highlighted by Somerset’s County Gazette.

It says that restructuring costs for a newly-created council – in which two local authorities merged to save money by way of a “digital revolution” – are likely to double after more people than expected took redundancy.

The new council is expected to pay about £6m in redundancies instead of the target figure of £3m.

According to Somerset’s County Gazette, the pay-outs include £343,000 to the former chief executive of one of the two councils in the merger, Taunton Deane Borough Council, which was a founder member of the failed Somerset One joint venture with IBM.

The Southwest One enterprise cost taxpayers tens of millions of pounds more than it saved.

Now it emerges that five other senior officers involved in the Somerset merger plans have received pay-offs of more than £100,000 each; and although 191 council staff were laid off last year as part of the merger plans, the new council is now considering recruiting dozens of much-needed extra staff.

Campaigner David Orr, a former IT professional at Somerset County Council, has written to the chief executive of newly-created Somerset West and Taunton Council, to express concerns about pay-offs, consultancy costs involved in the merger and what he called the “failed transformation”.

Somerset West and Taunton Liberal Democrat councillor Mike Rigby said,

This [the merger] is a spectacular failure. An uncontrolled exodus of staff, walking away with tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds, in advance of a “digital revolution” that never arrived.

The council thought it could lose 120 staff as 250 council services went online. The problem is that 191 staff left while fewer than 20 services are available online.

“No consideration as to whether any of those 191 staff were carrying out essential duties so now we’re having to fill many of the redundant roles.

“An utter shambles … It’ll take some time to put this all back together.”

The new chief executive of Somerset West and Taunton Council, told the BBC,

“We’ve overshot that target (£3m), mainly because people put their hands up for voluntary redundancy…

“I think ultimately, people who were eligible to apply for voluntary redundancy decided to take that opportunity.” He said there had been no limit on the number of employees eligible for voluntary redundancy.

“There was an acceptance that if people wanted to take voluntary redundancy, they could do – that’s the way it was set up.

Short of money?

Although councils are said to be short of money for public services – it was reported in 2017 that many were facing bankruptcy – the Taxpayers’ Alliance said last month that, across the country, 2,441 council officers  — a four-year high – earned at least £100,000 a year with 607 of those receiving at least £150,000 in 2017-18.

A total of 28 local authority employees received remuneration in excess of a quarter of a million pounds in 2017-18.

One council has 55 employees earning more than £100,000.

Councils say they need to pay the equivalent of private sector salaries to attract the right people to run large and complex local authorities.

A Local Government Association spokesperson said councils are  “large, complex organisations” that make a “huge difference” to people’s lives.

The spokesperson added: “Senior pay is always decided by democratically elected councillors in an open and transparent way.”

Comment

IT-led transformations are fun. They are a break from routine and great for the CV.

The supplier gains. Those at the council working on the transformation gain. A win-win. Even the public may gain if anyone can ascertain from a complicated deal whether any savings have been made.

If the deal fails,  nobody is constitutionally accountable except the volunteer councillors.

And councils seem to follow the principle that every overtly botched IT-led transformation needs to be followed by a new IT-led transformation. If that doesn’t succeed, a third may make up for the other two.

All the while, senior council officers continue to receive no-risk salaries of £100,000 + and/or large pay-offs.

Large amounts of money paid to senior officers does a disservice to the mass of lower or middle grade council officers who earn appropriate sums and bear the same risks of losing their jobs as anyone in the private sector.

Why do councils exist?

Botched deals leave less for public services. And the more senior council officers continue to receive large sums of money whether their councils succeed or not,  the more they will reinforce the fat cat stereotype and convince people that councils exist for their own benefit rather than the public’s.

As more public services disappear while the cost of the council payroll soars, the more people will wonder whether their local council would prefer not to offer any services at all.

A Yes Minister episode had officials boasting of the efficiency of a newly-built and fully-equipped NHS hospital that had no patients.

The hospital was fully staffed with 500 administrators and ancillary workers but had no money left for any nurses or doctors.

Is this where councils’ public services are headed?

Thank you to campaigner David Orr who seeks to hold those in power in Somerset to account.

 

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Sandwell Council and BT to agree “exit plan” on outsourcing contract

By Tony Collins

Sandwell council and BT have agreed to work out an exit plan to their “partnership”, in which services will transfer back to the council in March 2014.

The 15-year £300m deal, which was signed in 2007, is being cut short by seven years. The outsourcing deal includes ICT, HR, project management, finance, procurement, and customer service.

The Express and Star reports a memo to council staff saying

“Discussions between the council and BT have been taking place to determine the way in which the current contractual arrangements will be brought to a close to both parties’ mutual satisfaction.

“As the 30-day notice period ends [Sandwell served a termination notice on BT on 16 July 2013], we will be entering into a transitional period.

“During this time, BT will continue to manage Transform Sandwell and deliver services. Also during this period, BT and the council will work on an agreed exit plan which will prepare all relevant services for handover in March 2014.”

The memo said that it would be at that point that any arrangements for staff working for Transform Sandwell to legally transfer their contracts would take effect.

The council’s ruling cabinet decided to begin the process to end the BT contract because it now has fewer workers, due to redundancies prompted by government cuts.

The authority wanted to pay BT less to reflect the reduced volume of work. It has also been unhappy with BT’s service and began dispute proceedings last September.

Forward-looking

On its website BT describes Sandwell as a “forward-looking” council. BT has used its “Transform Sandwell” partnership as a reference site for prospective outsourcing customers.

 BT’s website publicity about Transform Sandwell reads much like the statements made by other councils and their outsourcing supplier in the early years of a partnership.  

BT says the  council saw “leading edge CRM technology as crucial in enacting all elements of the Sandwell formula”. 

BT’s website continues:

“A thriving, sustainable, optimistic and forward-looking community – that’s where Sandwell Council aims to be in 2020.

“Powering that journey is one of the UK’s most exciting regeneration programmes, with well over £1 billion of inward investment. It’s a significant undertaking. Nearly 300,000 citizens give Sandwell the fourth highest population density of 34 districts in the West Midlands.

“Against that backdrop, Transform Sandwell is a 15-year strategic partnership between BT and Sandwell Council. It seeks to revolutionise how Sandwell does business and delivers public services – with a remit that includes ICT, HR, project management, finance, procurement, and customer service.

“The Transform Sandwell partnership has delivered a £45 million investment in technology, a new regional business centre, and the creation of hundreds of new jobs.

“Not only having to meet the needs of Sandwell and its citizens, Transform Sandwell also needs to fulfil government demands. One example of the latter is for councils to meet citizens’ needs as far as possible the first time they call, in pursuit of cost savings and better use of resources.

“Meanwhile the move from comprehensive performance assessment (CPA) to comprehensive area assessment (CAA) requires councils to gather more customer feedback on their performance. In both cases, the contact centre holds the key.

“The key is to ensure that more of people’s needs are met in a single interaction, while making better use of self-service and electronic channels. Similarly, gathering customer feedback means making the most of day-to-day interactions rather than labour-intensively creating new ones.”

Local government has moved on

Council leader Darren Cooper said it was in both organisations’ interests to end the Transform Sandwell partnership. He said

“The world of local government has moved on significantly since 2007. We now need a different plan.”

TechMarketView’s John O’Brien said BT will now be doing all it can to salvage the situation and the potential reputational harm.

“This case shows the complexities of managing long-term IT/BPO deals, where client requirements can change so dramatically during the course of the programme. Local government will be particularly challenging right now because of the ongoing cutbacks to public spending.

“Such large, long-term deals are increasingly out of favour in local government today. Instead councils are moving  towards smaller more select sourcing of services from a variety of suppliers, particularly as their first generation deals come up for renewal.”

Comment

Clearly Sandwell has done its sums and decided it will be better off without BT. 

Could any 15-year outsourcing deal cope with all major changes over that period? HMRC’s outsourcing deals with HP and then Capgemini have coped well over 19 years so far – with no catastrophic lapses in service and the suppliers’ being able to help handle much policy-based change. But HMRC has had the money to spend vastly more than it originally intended.  

Sandwell needs to spend as a little as it can and BT is not a charity. At the start of  big local authority outsourcing deals it is usual for both sides to gush publicly about savings,  investment in transformation, and new jobs. But at some point the supplier needs to make money.

However the contract is configured, perhaps with council staff working more efficiently on the supplier’s other contracts, the outsourcing deal needs to turn in a profit – even if the pre-contract PowerPoint graph shows costs reducing over the whole term of the deal. 

The danger with single-supplier long-term outsourcing deals is that the council, in essence, receives a loan from the supplier to enable, almost from the start, a simultaneous service transformation, cost cutting and new jobs. But the supplier must recoup the money at some point.      

A single-supplier outsourcing deal can seem to get a council out of a hole. It offers savings and transformation at a time the council most needs them. Who cares about the latter period of an outsourcing deal when none of the original participants are likely to be around to be answerable for a poor deal?

It would take an extraordinarily strong public service ethos for councillors and officers to reject a supplier’s promises that look so attractive in the early years.

It is unclear what costs Sandwell will have to pay to end the deal. Will it have to pay BT compensation for its investments in the contract, as well as exit costs? 

 

Somerset County Council settles IBM dispute – who wins?

By Tony Collins

Somerset County Council has settled a High Court legal dispute with IBM-led Southwest One. It will bring some services back in-house.

The Conservative leader of Somerset council John Osman said, “This agreement will save Somerset residents millions of pounds and will make the contract fit for the future.”

Osman added that the agreement involves settlement of Southwest One fees, which the council had been withholding, for a mutually- agreed sum.

“Most importantly the cancelling of the gainshare agreement will save Somerset County Council residents millions of pounds in the future as those sums can now be kept by the Council,” said Osman.

But as the deal includes payment of an undisclosed sum by the council to Southwest One it is unclear which side is the beneficiary in the dispute. [See Dave Orr comment on this post.]

The council says the settlement will bring benefits for the council including securing “greater strategic control and capacity back with SCC  in terms of Procurement, Property and ICT”.

The agreement also “removes some barriers to ensure successful delivery of our Change Programme – with greater alignment to the operating model, commissioning capacity, service reviews, and technology enablers.”

And the settlement allows officers to focus on improving services rather than on a series of disputes.

Southwest One had issued a writ against the council – what the authority calls a “substantial claim” – and a date for a High Court hearing was set provisionally for November 2013.  Yesterday [March 27 2013] the council agreed to settle the High Court claim, and an unspecified number of other disputes.   

IBM, Somerset County Council, Taunton Deane Borough Council, and Avon and Somerset Police set up Southwest One as a joint venture company in 2007.  IBM  owns 75% of the company.

Somerset’s officers said in a report yesterday:

“Following a series of discussions between the Council and Southwest One we are now in a position to settle the disputes and the Procurement legal proceedings against SCC will cease.

“The agreement includes a settlement payment to SWO which is substantially lower than the claim against SCC and releases payments to SWO that were held by SCC as part of the dispute.”

Somerset County Council will take back several services and about 100 people who had been seconded to Southwest One. The council says that taking back staff and services will “reduce the potential for further disputes and align those services much closer to the operating model the Council has adopted”.

Services returning to SCC include:

• Strategic and Operational Procurement
• Property Services
• Estates Management
• ICT Strategic Management including some web management posts
• Some business support posts for the above functions

The council says there will be little change in day to day activities and no changes to locations of staff. Somerset’s staff will have their secondments terminated and revert to the council’s terms and conditions.

The High Court action was because of a disagreement  about the quality of Southwest One’s procurement service and what payments Southwest One was entitled to as a result of savings made through the joint venture.

Secrecy

Whereas a High Court hearing would have been open to the public, the sum paid by Somerset to IBM as part of the settlement,  and the risks of bringing staff and services back in-house, are being kept confidential because of what the council calls “commercial sensitivity”.

Risks

Some of the settlement’s main risks for the council are listed in yesterday’s report:

• The confidential nature of the discussions held to secure an agreement has
meant that full consultation with a wide range of officers and partners has not
been possible.
• The transfers of staff and functions will take place during the new financial
year. The proposed transfers create some risk due to SAP changes required.
• There will be some risks in the hand-over of programmes of work.
• Despite all efforts to mitigate risks to services, it is possible that some
disruption may occur. Transition workshops are planned to identify and preempt such instances, which significantly reduces the risk.
• Implications for partners have also been estimated. It is possible that partners
may take a different view of the implications for them.

Blame

Osman blamed the previous Liberal Democrat administration for the problems which he said were owing to the way the contract was worded, the actions of the previous Lib Dem administration transferring services to Southwest One that should never have transferred and the failure to clarify the savings sharing element of the agreement. Osman said this was the “equivalent of the Lib Dems writing a blank cheque”.

The 10-year joint venture, which started in 2007, will continue. 

Comment:

As the terms of the settlement and the risks associated with transferring staff and services back in-house are being kept secret nobody outside an inner circle of the council can know how bad the joint venture and the dispute have been for Somerset council’s taxpayers.

If anything is clear it is that IBM held the dominant legal hand all along. It issued a High Court claim, and now it has received a payment from the council.

It seems to be a feature of big council outsourcing deals and joint ventures that councillors are easily swayed by promises of enormous savings, often upfront savings, and are not too concerned about the risk of things going wrong because they won’t be in office when or if any mud hits the fan.

Yesterday Cornwall Council’s Interim CEO, along with the Chairman of Cornwall Partnership Foundation Trust and the Director of Finance at Peninsula Community Health signed a contract for a joint venture with BT.

As Andrew Wallis, an independent councillor in Cornwall, says

“Lets hope the Council does not regret this day.”

The Southwest One joint venture was flawed joint venture from the time a rushed contract riddled with literals was signed in the early hours of a Saturday morning in 2007.  For years afterwards, Somerset Council has been trying to dig itself out of a hole. It is now near the surface – except that yesterday’s council report says there is a potential for further disputes. 

Will other councils learn from Somerset’s experiences? Cornwall’s deal shows that any learning will be very limited.

And the secrecy that tends to go with big outsourcing deals and joint ventures means that a small group of councillors can sign joint ventures and outsourcing contracts without proper accountability  – and can settle any legal disputes later without accountability, and indeed with impunity.

Whenever a  major supplier offers a council large upfront savings from an outsourcing deal or a joint venture why would the authority’s inner circle of councillors say no?

Thank you to campaigning Somerset resident and former county council employee Dave Orr who provided the links and information that made this post possible.

Well done Eric Pickles – more open government to engulf councils

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better public scrutiny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

But what about the NHS?

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

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

Eric Pickles announcement on opening up council discussions and decisions 

IBM won bid without lowest-price – council gives detail under FOI

By Tony Collins

Excessive secrecy has characterised a deal between IBM and Somerset County Council which was signed in 2007.

Indeed I once went to the council’s offices in Taunton, on behalf of Computer Weekly, for a pre-arranged meeting to ask questions about the IBM contract. A council lawyer refused to answer most of my questions because I did not live locally.

Now (five years later) Somerset’s Corporate Information Governance Officer Peter Grogan at County Hall, Taunton, has shown that the council can be surprisingly open.

He has overturned a refusal of the council to give the bid prices. Suppliers sometimes complain that the public sector awards contracts to the lowest-price bidder. But …

Supplier / Bid Total cost over 10 years
BT Standard bid £220.552M
BT Variant Bid £248.055M
Capita Standard Bid £256.671M
Capita Variant Bid £267.687M
IBM Standard Bid £253.820M
IBM Variant Bid £253.820M

The FOI request was made by former council employee Dave Orr who has, more than anyone, sought to hold Somerset and IBM to account for what has turned out to be a questionable deal.

Under the FOI Act, Orr asked Somerset County Council for the bid totals. It refused saying the suppliers had given the information  in confidence. Orr appealed. In granting the appeal Grogan said:

“I would also consider that the passage of time has a significant impact here as the figures included under the exemption are now some 5 years old and their commercial sensitivity is somewhat eroded.

“Whilst, at the time those companies tendering for the contract would justifiably expect the information to be confidential and that they could rely upon confidentiality clauses, I am not able to support the non-disclosure due the fact that the FOI Act creates a significant argument for disclosure that outweighs the confidentiality agreement once the tender exercise is complete and a reasonable amount of time has passed.

“I therefore do not consider this exemption [section 41] to be engaged. Please find the information you requested below…”

[In my FOI experience – making requests to central government departments – the internal review process has always proved pointless. So all credit to Peter Grogan for not taking the easy route, in this case at least.]

MP Ian Liddell-Grainger ‘s website on the “Southwest One” IBM deal.

IBM struggles with SAP two years on – a shared services warning.

Council accepts IBM deal as failing.

Was Audit Commission Somerset and IBM’s unofficial PR agents?

Cash-strapped council IT teams to get backing for innovation projects

By David Bicknell

IT teams in cash-strapped councils are being given a helping hand to drive new IT projects where teams believe technology innovation could drive positive change in local communities.

It follows the launch of a Future Fund created by mobile telecomms company O2 to help forward-thinking councils get to grips with new methods of engaging their staff, citizens and communities.

Successful local authorities applying for the scheme will be awarded access to O2 consultancy time, services and technology to help them turn their project ideas into reality.

The Future Fund open for applications on 25th April with three grant funding packages available to the value of £125,000, £75,000 and £50,000.

60 councils attended the launch event with the scheme focused on authorities developing ideas and services against three broad themes: reducing cost and improving efficiencies; finding new ways of engaging with citizens; and empowering the community to do more for itself.

Each of the topics points to more effective service delivery, by empowering staff or by expanding the concept of ‘self-service’.

To support the Fund’s launch, O2 plans to showcase 17 different parts of its business, each with their own unique slant on the digital age, from established technologies such as wi-fi to ‘people’ skills, social media expertise, mobile advertising and location-based services, as well as business engagement and apps development. Councils will be able to pick which selection of services to use to build their idea and weave into their bid.

O2 says it has created the Future Fund through its Local Government Futures Forum, which aims to understand what the role of IT should be in modernising councils in challenging times.

It argues that as technology advances at a rapid pace, with people creating and consuming data in more diverse and immediate ways, councils face a challenge to use these channels to demonstrate communications nous and find new ways to engage with their communities.

A recent consultation exercise found that budget cuts across the public sector have resulted in an expected automatic squeeze on resources, with mounting pressure across all departments to operate more efficiently and do more with less. 

With ongoing pressure to reduce spending, council decision-makers are opting for solutions that make an immediate impact – cutting services, and in turn cost – rather than looking at ways of adapting them, with IT departments facing an uphill struggle to retain and control their destinies, often competing for de-centralised budgets across multiple teams with no place or input at a board level.

Ben Dowd, Director of Business at O2 says: “O2 believes that the right application of technology has the potential to drive real change. Our findings through our work with local government IT departments support this belief. What is different is that the Future Fund will give a glimpse of what is possible with a bit of imagination and we will support the winning bids by providing investment in their IT infrastructure coupled with resource and expertise.

“So it is up to the councils to determine how it can be applied to their own council, citizens or community, ultimately giving local government the ability to shape their own destiny in a project they are passionate about.”

Applications for the Fund will be judged by a panel of experts from O2 and independent parties. Councils will then have eight weeks to develop and deliver their ideas, before selection takes place later this year.

www.o2.co.uk/futurefund

Local government committee considers mutuals’ role in ‘the co-operative council’

By David Bicknell

Just spotted a tweet from Allison Roche from Unison on Twitter about the Communities and Local Government Committee’s inquiry into ‘the co-operative council’, including the services role played by mutuals.

You can read more about the inquiry here

The Committee is seeking answers to the following questions:

  • What is the difference between a co-operative council where services are supplied via not-for-profit businesses and other local authorities?
  • What arrangements need to be put in place to deliver services by not-for-profit businesses such as employee-owned mutuals? More specifically, what are the barriers to establishing not-for-profit businesses to supply services; what role does the local authority have in promoting and incubating a not-for-profit business; and where does accountability lie?
  • What are the advantages of and drawbacks to providing services via not-for-profit businesses?
  • Where services are delivered by a not-for-profit businesses what difference will the local resident and local taxpayer see?

The closing date for submissions is 11th May.

Tri-borough mutual plans to save £1m in costs for London councils

By David Bicknell

Council staff across three London boroughs who are setting up their own employee-led mutual to take over school support services expect to save a million pounds over four years.

The three councils – Hammersmith & Fulham, Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea – already share several services, which they say is enabling them to reduce back office costs to help protect frontline services from the public spending squeeze.

Now, a statement issued by Hammersmith & Fulham for the three councils says the staff involved in supplying support services for schools across the boroughs are “putting the finishing touches to plans to set themselves up as an employee-led mutual.”

Andy Rennison, assistant director in Hammersmith & Fulham children’s services, who has been leading the mutual project, said, “Staff in these areas have experience of trading with schools and are excited about the new challenge. We feel that having more control, flexibility and being able to develop a more commercial approach will benefit schools, the mutual staff and the three councils.

“If the venture is successful, and we have every reason to think so, the councils will receive 50% of the mutual’s net profit to reuse in providing educational opportunities.”

The mutual will pilot the new arrangements for four years, with support from a joint venture independent sector partner, currently being selected through European procurement processes.

Hammersmith & Fulham says an open day for potential bidders held on January 24 attracted around 60 delegates.

The project is being supported by the Cabinet Office which picked Hammersmith & Fulham to be a Pathfinder  to explore new ways of delivering public services more efficiently. The services include financial management support and budget planning, IT and building development projects, as well as strategic advice to councils.

Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, said: “Front line staff know what local people want from public services. The mutual model being pioneered in Hammersmith & Fulham will give staff the power to do things the way they know works best. The evidence is clear, when staff have a real stake in their business productivity rises and customer satisfaction grows.

“This Pathfinder mutual is particularly groundbreaking as staff are forming a ‘joint venture’ with a partner organisation that will help to develop the business further. I commend the staff leading this exciting project for their achievements and hope many more will follow their lead.”

“We are very pleased that staff across the Tri-borough area are excited about this opportunity and taking the lead in this Pathfinder. After the initial four years, the service will be retendered on the open market to ensure that taxpayers continue to get the best possible value for money in the longer term,” said Hammersmith & Fulham cabinet member, Cllr Helen Binmore.

Independent adviser OPM was asked by the Cabinet Office to provide expert support to Rennison and his team as part of the Pathfinder programme.

OPM chief Executive Hilary Thompson said; “Elected members, managers and staff at Hammersmith and Fulham have shown real commitment and energy throughout the process of developing the staff mutual. This is an innovative example of a council recognising and seeking to realise the potential of employee ownership and new ways of working.”

It has emerged that academies and free schools will provide a future opportunity for the mutual to extend its services. There are currently two free schools and two academies in Hammersmith, with more in the pipeline.

Further background information on the mutual is being made available in a Hammersmith & Fulham Cabinet report.

(Thanks to Ian Makgill of government contracting specialist Govmark for his help with this story)

Related Links

Hammersmith & Fulham Pathfinder tender hints at September start for schools mutual

SMEs – when to choose them and when not

Public services can be delivered by knights and knaves mutually

SMEs – when to choose them and when not

By Ian Makgill

The key to giving business to SMEs is to understand when SME suppliers can meet the needs of government and when it is best not to try and resist the gravitational pull of a large supplier.  

Some of this is obvious.  You wouldn’t expect the government to award banking services or insurance contracts to an SME. On the other hand, there is no real reason why legal services or consulting contracts can’t be provided almost entirely by SMEs, with only a couple of larger providers required for national programmes with multiple sites. In fact, it is a great shame that Government Procurement Service’s (GPS) new tender for consulting services does not utilise the regional model that they’ve previously used for temporary medical staff.

GPS has scored a couple of hits with SMEs, firstly with the appointment of Redfern Travel as the preferred travel management provider and secondly, with the choice to let the G-Cloud IT framework. It may be that Redfern ceases to meet the exact criteria of being an SME once the contract is fully embedded in Central Government, but that’s the whole point, to drive growth through smaller businesses. The G-Cloud framework provides a meaningful opportunity for SME suppliers to sell complex services to government, and may also help government to break their addiction to monolithic, large scale IT projects (as typified by the CSA’s latest IT tender with 90,000 specified requirements.)

Cloud services offer a remarkable opportunity for small teams to serve millions of people. A good example is 37signals, a Chicago web design company that created a project management tool called Basecamp. Its team of 32 staff currently service three million customers.

It is equally important to know when not to try and counter market forces.

Take agency staff.

We’ve been doing some very detailed work in this area, and there is an inexorable move towards using large, national suppliers. These suppliers can provide much more competitive margins and better services and data to public bodies. The market is healthy in terms of competition and there is room for smaller suppliers to become second tier suppliers to some of the national companies. Clearly the option to become a second tier supplier, or to lose their existing business is not good news for smaller suppliers, but with such strong benefits available to public bodies it would make no sense to try and resist developments that are affecting the whole market.

There needs to be a much deeper understanding of the characteristics of contracts that can be fulfilled by SME suppliers and a comprehensive strategy to follow up on that work, and to prevent government issuing restrictive tenders that see SMEs unnecessarily barred from doing business with Government, or spin-out mutuals facing procurement hurdles that are inappropriate to them. Until that strategic work is done, then there is a risk that the appointment of SMEs to government contracts will be haphazard, with a few notable successes and far too many failures.

Ian Makgill is the Managing Director of Govmark, researchers who specialise in government contracting.

Download Govmark’s report into agency staff in local government

Good news: IBM-led shared services company is recognised as “failing”

By Tony Collins

After years of depicting problems at an IBM-led shared services company, Southwest One, as teething, Somerset County Council has conceded that the venture is failing.

The Conservative leader of Somerset County Council Councillor Ken Maddock used the word “failing” nine times in a speech on Wednesday about Southwest One, a company run by IBM on behalf Somerset County Council, Taunton Deane Borough Council and Avon and Somerset Police.

Southwest One’s contract, which was signed in the early hours of a Saturday morning in 2007, was doomed from the start, in part because of the complexity of the arrangements and in part because of pervasive secrecy that antagonised hundreds of Somerset council staff who were already opposed to the joint venture; and they were the very staff who were seconded to Southwest One to make the venture work. [It’s a truism that staff, if they are motivated, will often make their way around difficulties but may be overwhelmed by them if not motivated.]

Last month Campaign4Change set out in detail some of the most disruptive and continuing problems at Southwest One; and we said the difficulties could not be tackled in earnest while Somerset council and its partners were portraying the venture as a success. On 31 January 2012, our post was mentioned on the website of the local Conservative MP Ian Liddell-Grainger.

The good news now is that the council has, this week, for the first time, spoken of Southwest One in unequivocally negative terms. No longer is every council criticism of the company qualified by a positive comment, such that one cancels out the other.

Whether our post last month has made any difference is not important. What’s pleasing is that IBM and Southwest One’s partners are free to make progress, now that Somerset has told it like it is. Much of the credit for the council’s emergence from its long, self-administered anaesthesia lies with Dave Orr who has campaigned for years to highlight the failings of Southwest One, as has Liddell-Grainger.

Maddock’s speech on Southwest One

Maddock’s speech to a full council meeting is reported at length by the Somerset County Gazette and by Liddell-Grainger.

Maddock said

“As an administration we inherited a partnership that promised a huge amount, but it was not delivering. Southwest One’s accounts year on year show losses, staggering losses just published of £31m, and failures to hit modest savings targets.

“We have bent over backwards to try to make this partnership work. But we have to state clearly that our primary duty in looking after the public’s hard earned money is to make sure we get the best possible deals, that we get the best possible value for the public’s money.

“I have to say that Southwest One is failing this test.

“We are currently looking at all our services and all our contracts to see whether we are doing the best we can for our customers,  whether we are providing the best possible services for our customers and at the best possible prices for our customers.

“I have to say that Southwest One is failing this test.

“We need a Council that can cope with future government cuts and rising demand. We will need to be efficient and flexible.

“I have to say that Southwest One is failing this test.

“Sadly, Southwest One is failing. It is failing to deliver promised savings; failing to cope with a changing financial landscape; failing to be flexible enough to adapt in challenging times and provide the best possible value for money.

“To make up for this failure, we will now accelerate our extensive review of everything that the council does: Almost half our most vital services are carried out by private sector or not for profit organisations – we will look to increase this where appropriate.

“We will encourage social enterprises, partnerships, communities and voluntary groups to get more involved in what we do and what we run. We will look to put the customer at the heart of what we do.

“And we will do this whilst we continue to do all we can to make Southwest One work. But I have to be clear; it is failing; it is inflexible; and it is intransigent. We are therefore looking at all the options available to us.

“I do have one final message for Southwest One – and that is to the staff and our Somerset County Council colleagues and secondees working there.  The message is this: This continuing failure is not about you. It is about the contract, the complications, the failed technology, the missed opportunities, the lack of promised savings.  It is about Southwest One itself, not about the people working for it.”

Comments on Maddock’s speech

Some of the comments on the Somerset County Gazette website were apt. One said “Somerset County Council has finally come to accept what we, the minions, have known for years: South West One is a failure and a pretty expensive one…”

Another said

“At last SCC admits to what everyone in the real world knew from day one …”

Comment:

One of the lessons from IT disasters in the private and public sectors is that things often start to improve once the main parties own up to the seriousness of the problems. The good news, perhaps, is that Southwest One may now be at its lowest point. It has at long last purged its bowels, so to speak.

Ian Liddell-Grainger’s website.

Southwest One gets £10m IBM amid “staggering” losses.

IBM struggles with SAP two years on – a shared services warning?