By Tony Collins
Dave Orr, a former IT employee at Somerset County Council, is now a local taxpayer trying to see if public statements made aboutthe authority’s joint venture with IBM match up to the facts.
Some councillors don’t seem to welcome his scrutiny, or his campaigning which can attract the attention of the local press.
Somerset claims it is saving millions of pounds through the Southwest One joint venture – which is majority owned by IBM. But Orr has learned through FOI requests and council reports that once extra costs are taken into account the council has had a net loss of £53m on the contract. He points to:
– £52m of SAP and “transformation” costs the council paid upfront to IBM
– £4m of council bid costs
– £2m for a written-off loan to Avon and Somerset Police for SAP
– £3m interest on a £30m loan over 10 years
– £3m in contract management costs
– £5m in legal costs over a dispute with IBM
This totals £69m. Procurement savings to December 2013 were £16m – which gives a net loss of £53m. The contract is supposed to save £150m over its 10-year life. The deal was signed in 2007 by IBM, Somerset County Council, Taunton Deane Borough Council and Avon and Somerset Police. The authorities are considering what they will do at the end of the contract.
At a meeting of the council’s audit committee last month, the chairman of the audit committee asked Orr to stop filming. He was using a Panasonic compact camera. A vote was proposed and seconded that the meeting not be recorded.
Five councillors voted in favour and 3 Lib-dems abstained. Those supporting the motion to stop filming included Tory, Labour and UKIP members. Somerset is Conservative controlled.
Orr says the discussion shortly before the vote was taken was on Southwest One and the council’s exit strategy from the contract. Councillors also agreed that they may at a later date go into a secret “Part 2” session to discuss a “lessons learnt” report about the collaboration with Southwest One.
A blow to local democracy?
The government has issued guidance that states explicitly that councils should allow the public to film council meetings. Under the heading “Lights, camera, democracy in action” an announcement by local government secretary Eric Pickles says on the gov.uk website:
“I want to stand up for the rights of journalists and taxpayers to scrutinise and challenge decisions of the state. Data protection rules or health and safety should not be used to suppress reporting or a healthy dose of criticism.
“Modern technology has created a new cadre of bloggers and hyper-local journalists, and councils should open their digital doors and not cling to analogue interpretations of council rules.
“Councillors shouldn’t be shy about the public seeing the good work they do in championing local communities and local interests.”
Before the meeting of the audit committee Orr had obtained informal consent from the council to filming.
Open government is not a party political issue – none of the parties seem to want it. Indeed councillors at Somerset seem at their most comfortable when voting for secrecy. Is this because it gives them a feeling of privilege – having access to information the ordinary citizens don’t have?
In central government one of the first things the civil service does after a general election is give new ministers access to state secrets. It distances the ministers from ordinary people. Ministers feel privileged – “one of us”. Is this the main unspoken reason some Somerset councillors love to have secret meetings?
Councillors may feel weighed down by Orr’s questions and campaigning. But his questions are arguably more important than those raised internally by deferential party politicians who don’t ask the most difficult questions.
If anything they should be asking themselves whether they should ask the questions he is asking.
It’s too easy on big outsourcing contracts for supplier and client to put a gloss on the relationship. It’s easier talking about unsubstantiated savings than explaining why the contract isn’t making the savings originally intended. And it’s even easier when you shun scrutiny from members of the public.