Friday, 16 December 2011

Barnet Council - Indecisive or obstructive. 11 months and still waiting for a decision.

Back in January Barnet Council launched its Pledgebank website to great fanfare. At a cost of at least £30,000 it was aimed at encouraging the community to volunteer for civic activity. It states:

“The website is based on the simple principle that the person making the online pledge will work to make it happen “but only if” a number of other people commit too”.

So on January 12th Mr Reasonable submitted the following pledge:

“I will pledge to give up 4 hours of my time every month to scrutinise and challenge all invoices over £10,000 to help the Council reduce unnecessary spending so long as five other people will make a similar time commitment to sit on the panel and that Barnet Council will genuinely participate in the process and listen to the advice and opinions given.”

Now there was a very good reason for offering this pledge. I had already raised significant concerns about purchasing and procurement monitoring at the council and genuinely felt that having an external panel of people to review and scrutinise these invoices would have helped the council. Perhaps this panel would have picked up things like the MetPro scandal and RM Countryside situation earlier. Perhaps it could have discovered a number of other contractual problems which have been highlighted over the last six months.

But Barnet Council don’t like residents asking awkward questions. So having submitted my pledge on 12 January I waited and waited and waited......
By the end of April I thought I had waited long enough so on 27 April I sent the following email:

Dear Barnet Pledgebank,
Back in January I submitted a pledge – see the email below. It was not accepted but I have never been told if it was rejected. Please can you let me know if it has been:
a) Accepted - and if so when will it be put on the pledgebank website so others can sign up;
b) Rejected - and if so on what criteria;
c) Undecided - and if so when a decision is likely.
Thank you for your help.
Kind regards


I waited for a response. Now I am a patient man but no reply was forthcoming, not even an acknowledgement. Complete and utter silence until September when reading the response to a Freedom of Information request (not submitted by me) that my pledge was still “under consideration”. I duly email Barnet again with yet another polite email:

Dear Barnet Pledgebank,
I submitted a pledge on 12 January 2011 for which I have never had a response. Indeed, I wrote again on 27 April chasing up this pledge but again I did not even receive the courtesy of an acknowledgement. Yesterday (2 September) in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, Johnathan Schroder, Internal Communications Manager, Chief Executive's Service at Barnet Council stated that my pledge was “under consideration”.
Given that it is now 9 months since I submitted my pledge, please can you tell me how much more time you need to consider my pledge and when a decision is likely.
I look forward to an early response.
Thanks


Now you would have thought that might have elicited a response – but you would be wrong. No reply not even an acknowledgement. So after a couple of weeks I rang the council. "Someone will ring you back". No they didn’t. Four weeks later I rang again “Someone will definitely ring you back”. Are you sure? “Yes someone will definitely ring you back today”. Guess what – not a peep, no one rang back.
By November my patience is wafer thin. I rang again but this time, when I was told they would ring me back, I asked to speak to their manager. A few seconds on hold and then told he had just left the office but that he would get back to me. Who is your manager I asked. “Chris Palmer, assistant Director of Communications.” Ah, a Senior Officer and someone who has some clout, maybe? So on Monday 21 November I at last received a response from Mr Palmer.

I am responding to your request for an update on your pledge earlier this year.
This is being reviewed again and I will give you a definitive answer tomorrow.
The criteria for inclusion on Pledgebank are:
• Does this support a civic activity?
• Does the pledge include a deal by at least two parties, to a common end?
• If a pledge requests an action by the council, it should support council priorities.

Pledges may be rejected if:
• They are political by nature
• They are promoting a commercial activity
• The transaction does not support a civic activity.
• The pledge runs counter to the council’s stated policies and objectives.
• The pledge is a statement rather than a deal.
• The pledge maker makes no commitment themselves
• The pledge asks for a commitment from the council that cannot be supported within current resources. “
Obviously Pledgebank is intended to encourage activity outwith the council, i.e. civic activity was always intended to mean activity across society rather than simply further activity from, or about, the council. Your pledge has represented a conundrum in that it does not match the original intentions for Pledgebank and has therefore been a source of debate within the council. For that reason I apologise for asking you to bear with us again, but I will respond in full with a final decision tomorrow.
So, in answer to your question below, c) and 22 November.
Yours sincerely
Chris Palmer
Assistant Director, Communications.


Now as far as I can see my pledge meets all of the relevant criteria so you might expect a swift response as promised. Not at Barnet Council.
Further chasing has still not brought a definitive response. I emailed again last week and again received a reply saying there was still no decision.
Barnet Council, you have had 11 months to make your mind up. I reckon that if this pledge had been accepted it could have benefited the council and more importantly Council Tax Payers by highlighting wasteful spending. It might have picked up Metpro earlier. It would have certainly challenged the huge spend on companies who do not have a valid contract with the council. It might have asked pertinent question like why we are spending millions on consultants with no tangible outcome. It might not have stopped these thing happening but it would have at least added some checks and balances. I was offering half a day a month of my time for free. Not a penny of expenses or allowances. Nothing at all. My only objective to help save the community money.

Barnet Council hate people looking at what they do. At cabinet resources committee on Wednesday Cllr Coleman made a sneering remark about the detail of the increase in charges being something that “the bloggers can pore over at midnight”. Surely everyone should be looking at what they are going to be charged. Public scrutiny should be embraced not sneered at. That is what is wrong in Barnet. They expect us to take what we are given without debate or challenge. Well that must change.
We need much more public scrutiny of Barnet Council and we need it now.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Last Night's Audit Committee - a toothless talking shop?

Last night’s audit committee was a long and unsatisfactory meeting. I’m afraid that due to work pressures this is a rather perfunctory blog. I was aware right from the start that there was a tension in the air, referred to by Cllr Rayner as “the elephant in the room”, the subject of RM Countryside’s contractual relationship took over two hours before it made a brief and unsatisfactory appearance.

Mrs Angry and I had asked a number of questions, all successfully evaded or denied in the written responses. The one response that surprised me was the admission that One Barnet, the council’s transformation programme is “inherently risky”.

Procurement remains a running sore in Barnet and the latest date for centralising the purchasing function is June next year, almost a year since it was determined that it should take place.

I have long maintained that many of the problems identified at the audit committee last night are straightforward business issue that should never have happened in the first place. I am convinced that they have arisen because senior management have spent far too much time concentrating on implementing One Barnet and far too little time making sure the day to day business of the council is operated efficiently and effectively.

Procurement is a serious and immediate problem. At the same time, £200,000 a month is being paid to just one firm of external consultants to help implement One Barnet. If Barnet were to divert some of that consultancy spend into speeding up the centralisation of procurement I’m sure it could have been implemented by now.

Sadly, the audit committee is a bit of a toothless tiger; it may roar (or purr rather loudly) but ultimately officers don’t give a stuff because the committee has no power to call officers to account, admitted several times by chairman Lord Palmer. Cabinet members are the only people who can do anything in Barnet and, whilst that remains the case, the audit committee will remain the impotent talking shop it has become.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Barnet Council Procurement Scandal - Another MetPro?

Move over MetPro: here comes another Barnet Council procurement scandal, and this one is even bigger.

Barnet bloggers earlier this year exposed the scandalous use by Barnet Council of MetPro, an unlicensed security company which was paid a total of more than a million pounds worth of residents’ money despite the absence of any tender process, contract, or properly regulated payment system.

MetPro proved to be just one among hundreds of similar irregular arrangements sanctioned by the Tory authority, which is currently negotiating the outsourcing of £1billion worth of our council services to the private sector under the One Barnet programme.

During the months of the outsourcing tender process, in blatant defiance of the government’s stated policy commitment to transparency and greater accountability by local authorities, Barnet has consistently resisted, delayed or obstructed Freedom of Information requests by bloggers in relation to matters of public interest, including the much criticised procurement of contracts with service providers. We think we know why that might be.

At this coming Thursday’s audit meeting, 8 December, we are submitting questions to the committee about another case investigated by local bloggers involving the council’s long term use of another private company, RM Countryside, which has been paid more than £2 million pounds of local tax payers’ money with an apparent lack of compliance with the proper processes of tendering, contractual arrangements and the regulations set out in the Constitution.

We are questioning the efficacy of the internal and external audit procedures which are supposed to regulate the commercial activity of the London Borough of Barnet.

The integrity of the One Barnet outsourcing programme is clearly fatally compromised by the failure of the authority to regulate its own procurement, contractual and payment processes and we call therefore for an immediate halt to be made in this programme, and for an urgent, independent inquiry to be held into the disastrous lack of control of the authority’s commercial activities. MetPro was a warning: a warning which has been ignored. Now is the time to stop, investigate and hold the authority to account to the residents and tax payers of Barnet.

Signed:
Derek Dishman
John Dix
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Oh Yes It Is - Oh No It Isn't - The Bin Lorry Depot Saga Continues


This morning I trotted off to see my local councillor at their surgery in New Barnet. A couple were already ahead of me in the queue very unhappy with the proposals to let out the parks for private hire. Cllr Evangeli spent 35 minutes with them trying to address their concerns. I couldn't hear what was being said but when they came out I got the impression they were not convinced. Now it was my turn. I came straight to the point why do the council want to build a satellite depot for bin lorries in Oakhill Park. Ah but they don't said Cllr Evangeli, "I have been reassured by the leader that it will not happen". Well that's all very interesting but I held in my hand a copy of a delegated powers report authorising an architect to prepare drawing in readiness for a planning application no later than 31 March 2012. "No it not going to happen" repeated Cllr Evangeli. Well my problem is that the Commercial Director of the Council Mr Craig Cooper has authorised the retention of an architect at a cost of £51,800 PLUS an additional allowance of £35,000 for any necessary surveys. Now Cllr Evangeli says it won't happen but Mr Cooper has just authorised a spend of £86,800 to make it happen. Talk about left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. I made it clear to Cllr Evangeli that when the Council is cutting from line services, a senior officer frittering away 86 Grand is frankly nothing short of a disgrace. I await what happens next.