Yesterday this blog published a document which was sent from a Barnet Council office (verified by the postmark) and was a printed copy of the selection process for the multi million pound One Barnet bidders. Before this was published, I had to satisfy myself about two issues. Was it legal to publish the document and was it the right thing to do? Firstly let me address the issues of legality. I had received the document anonymously through the post. It contained no information describing any legal reason why the document should not be published, other than a statement that it was confidential and that if it was leaked it could have financial implications for the council. The view was that the document was only confidential because Barnet Council would find it inconvenient to see it published. As the document didn't even contain a Barnet Council logo, it meant that either someone had carefully doctored the document or the council had deliberately removed any information so they could claim "plausable denyability". Having decided that there was no legal reason why the document shouldn't be published, we come to the question of "whether it was the right thing to do".
So what were the reasons to refrain from publishing it. The reason Barnet give is that it contains information that could have serious financial consequences the Council. I reject this argument. In the USA, which has a far lower tax base than us, all public tenders and such evaluations are published. This ensures transparency. It ensures that bidders know why their tender was rejected, so they can improve them next time they bid. There is no chance of shenanigans, because a fair playing field is guaranteed. I think that it is highly immoral that a company can be rejected by a public authority and not really know the weaknesses of its bid or the strengths of the rivals. Us as taxpayers should want companies to all put the best bids possible and up their games accordingly. I have been accused of many things since I started writing this blog. Perhaps the most stupid and misguided is that I'm a swivel eyed Trotskyite and that I'm implacably opposed to ANY form of private involvement in the public sector. Nothing could be further from the truth. I've never belonged to a Trades Union, I run a small business which has been a supplier to several local authorities (including Barnet), I'm a member of the Federation of Small business and I stood at the last election as a candidate for for the Lib Dems. The reason I oppose the One Barnet process is because I understand business, I understand efficiency and I understand the concept of competetive tendering.
I oppose the One Barnet program for the following reasons :-
* It discriminates against small business and excludes them from the process
* There has been no transparency at all in the process
* The business case has not been made
* Councillors have been excluded from the process, removing democratic oversight
* There has been no consultation with the people of Barnet to ascertain their views
* The process threatens vital services for vulnerable people
* Barnet Council has a record of botched outsourcing projects, costing taxpayers millions
* Barnet Council has not got its procurement process in order. It is not fit for purpose for such a large contract
When I read the report, it became 100% clear to me that yet again Barnet was running the risk of embarking on a huge contract without correctly identifying the full risk associated with all bidders. This paper removed two of the companies who were bidding without resolving the issues of risk associated with the other bidders. Until all companies can accurately describe the costs and risks associated with their bids, it is completely irresponsible to proceed to the next stage. However Barnet Council try and gloss over this, you cannot exclude bidders if you are not comparing all tenders on an equal footing. Barnet council has had to pay a company called Catalyst, that runs its care homes over £8 million because the contract failed to remove the risk of financial loss from the Council. This project is far bigger, but yet again, despite their previous experience, they are proceeding to the next stage of the tender without resolving these issues.
Whether or not you agree with my reasons for opposing One Barnet, you cannot dispute the fact that risk is being ignored, because this is written in black and white in the report. Barnet Council claims that leaking this report would expose the Council to financial loss. What they don't say is that failing to expose it would have allowed the council to proceed with a hugely risky project. I am a Barnet Council taxpayer. I will ultimately fund this process. I expect my council to represent my interests in a professional and transparent manner. I expect to be able to find out the financial basis for the spending decisions they make. If they want to chose Capita Symonds and EC Harris as partners and exclude Mouchel and Jacobs, I expect to be able to see that this has been done on a fair basis that has delivered best value to me as the funder of the project. There is information that the Council has that should not be published. Things such as details of vulnerable people or plans to cope with terrorism. I also agree that evaluation of tenders should be conducted in private. The point is that once the decison has been made, details should then be published to show that the job has been done, properly. This document was published in November 2011. It does not say DRAFT, so we have to suppose it is the final report. The time for secrecy has gone and the time for the world to see why the decision was made is upon us. The fact that Barnet Council do not understand this shows that they are not committed to transparency and as such cannot guarantee "best value" for me the taxpayer.
It has been suggested that I won't be very popular in the corridors of power in Barnet today. They should be thanking me for doing something they should have done themselves. My blog stats yesterday show a huge public interest in the document. The stats show vistors to the blog from all the bidders along with a host of media organisations and other local authorities. I would propose to Barnet Council that no one leaks a document lightly. The mere fact that a senior member of staff has done such a thing demonstrates the fact that the executive have "lost the dressing room" on this.
It was suggested to me that publishing the document might open the council to the risk of legal action by disappointed bidders. This can only be the case if they have been unfairly treated. If this is the case, then it is correct to have leaked the document. It has also been suggested that I have created an impression that the Council cannot be trusted to look after confidential information. This is ridiculous, I did not leak the information or create the culture where it happens. Had I sat on the document, the Council would have been no more secure, but the world wouldn't have known. I could have secretly contacted the bidders and sold them the info. I'm sure they would have been interested. I didn't, all I did was accurately report exactly what happened. The Council could avoid all of this by opening its processes up to scrutiny. That is the way forward in the information age. There is no place for secrecy in local government finances. Anyone who does not recognise this is not fit to be running a council in the year 2012. One Barnet is a toxic brand. It is time this is acknowledged