Nick Walkley, the CEO of Barnet recently called a panic emergency meeting of senior staff. The reason? To give them a team talk and rally them to the cause of the One Barnet mass outsourcing project. The information this blog has received indicates that Mr Walkley has, in football terms, lost the dressing room. The reason? Because it is plain for all to see that the wheels are coming off the project and like King Canute, he cannot stop the tide coming in and all his minions can see it.
What did Mr Walkley tell the troops? There were two main message. Firstly he said that other councils were queueing up to talk to Barnet about their experience with the project and secondly that "there is no going back on decisions taken two years ago". Let us consider these statements. The first statement about other councils being extremely interested in what Barnet Council are doing is 100% true. Sadly it isn't true in the way Mr Walkley expressed it. How do I know this? Because I've seen hits on this blog from hundreds of Councils (for those of you not familiar with the art of blogging, I have a stats package which tells me the IP address of all visitors and who owns that domain (For example Buckinghamshire County Council - IP address 126.96.36.199 visited yesterday amongst others. You can put this IP address into the tool in the sidebar and it will tell you details of their domain). Most of these visitors have bookmarked the blog and look regularly. My stats also tell me what they are looking at. They tend not to search for blogs about football, cancer and dyslexia, but are very interested in blogs about outsourcing and leaks.
Why talk to a Barnet blogger? They recognised that this blog has wide contacts within the community. They recognise that we've read all of the analysis of the One Barnet project and the other cost savings/ revenue generating schemes and they wanted to avoid the public relations disaster which has befallen Barnet Council. What did the Barnet Eye get out of the meeting? We got the opportunity to see whether sane rational people running a local authority, of a right of centre persuasion, would be open and receptive to the ideas this blog has been expressing for the last three and a half years. They asked me not to name their authority, which I was happy to agree to.
We discussed the issues surrounding the One Barnet project. I expressed my view that there is no proper business case for the project. If there was then this would be the justification for the project. I explained that for the preferred bidder, most of the savings are "aspirational" and that Barnet had actually put such savings ahead of guaranteed savings from other bidders. Then I explained about the issues within Barnet and its procurement system. I explained how we'd seen massive problems with Metpro and RM Countrysides contracts. I explained the outcome of the Catalyst outsourcing court case, with a multi million pound settlement in favour of the contractor, because they hadn't made the expected profits. I also explained how one care home run by Catalyst had been found to be exposing vulnerable people to Legionella. They asked me a perfectly reasonable question. "If the One Barnet project could demonstrate that it would provide better services for the people of Barnet at lower cost to the taxpayer, would I support it?". They were surprised by my answer. I replied that if it could be demonstrated that this were true AND THAT IT DIDN'T DAMAGE THE WIDER ECONOMY IN BARNET, YES I WOULD. I then explained how small business was excluded and jobs were being exported from Barnet to other parts of the country and even abroad.
I explained that as a responsible local authority, Barnet should consider these factors as part of the bidding process and work out the net positive/negative effect on the economy of the Borough before proceeding. I used the example of the Bombardier exclusion from the Thameslink train contract as an example. To my surprise they nodded in agreement. I then discussed the changes to parking and the way this was destroying business. They explained how their authority has a senior member of staff with a brief for High Street regeneration and this was supported by all parties within their council. As I understand it, they have a committee responsible for this and in their authority moves such as those imposed by Brian Coleman simply couldn't be implemented. The leader explained that they "have a few Labour councillors who are talented and intelligent individuals and as a council we use their talents to the full, in the areas in which we all agree". Perhaps this was the most shocking statement for me. Can you imagine Barnet Council Conservatives giving any Labour councillor any responsibility at all, even if they combined the talents of Albert Einstien, Richard Branson and Mary Portas?
The head of communications was most interested in the relationship between the press, the bloggers and the council. He expressed the view that he was surprised that the council had not engaged with us. I was rather surprised by this. He stated that as the blogs were widely read, he would have thought that the council could have used the blogs as a channel for getting information across to the people of Barnet. The CEO chipped in and asked how regularly the bloggers got to interview Nick Walkley. I laughed - "never". I explained how I occasionally had a chat with Mr Walkley before meetings over a coffee, but he had not once agreed to be interviewed by a blog and virtually never responded to any email I'd sent him. The head of communications said another thing which rather surprised me. "We'd actually be keen to encourage bloggers in our authority and grant all the access they like to whoever they like within reason". I was intrigued. "Why?" I asked. "If ideas are not challenged, then they are not likely to be robust". What about if a blogger did a hatchet job? "If you have a public role, that comes with the territory, you should be big enough to take it. If someone says something which is clearly unreasonable, then they have to live with it." The leader chipped in "I'm a Conservative so I believe in open government and transparent process. That guarantees the best value. In our council it is very hard for Labour to attack us on anything except the priority of spending commitments, where we have ideological differences". And what are the differences? "levels of council tax, which departments we trim with budget cuts". And what about efficiency savings "You must constantly strive for these, surely that is recognised by all". Just before we parted company, I asked "Do you think you have much to learn from Barnet Council". The CEO said "It is a good case study, there is much to learn there". I rephrased the question "So will you be going down the same path". He replied "I really don't think so".
As we parted company, the Leader said "You know, you'd make a very good Conservative Councillor. You should charge a consultancy fee for your services, you could make a couple of grand a day if you did this commercially". I laughed, he said "actually I'm not joking". I googled their council website and some of their local papers. It is quite instructive to see the difference between the general atmosphere of the Borough and that of Barnet.
Which brings us to the second part of what Mr Walkley said. The bit about no changing decisions made two years ago. It is a principle of psychology that when someone makes a statement such as this it is a de facto acknowledgement that the decision was a bad one. If you look at a hugely successful decision, then no one ever discusses changing it. For example, Eurostar made a decision to move it's hub from Waterloo to St Pancras. Does the CEO of Eurostar ever say "We are not going back on our decision to move to St Pancras"? No of course he doesn't, because it was the right decision and the business case stacks up. There is an old axiom in management "If a plan isn't working, change it". There has been a rather decent series on BBC1 recently called Birdsong. This chronicles a young man in the trenches in the first world war. There was a scene this week, where he is brought before the generals as an expert on the local terrain in the Somme. They explained their plan and asked his opinion. He responded by outlining all of the weaknesses of their scheme. The generals derided him and asked the colonel who had brought him, how they'd found someone so lacking in backbone. The history books record what happened next. That is the situation we see with Nick Walkley. The plan clearly isn't going to work, but an ever shrinking cabal of senior executives carry on. They deride and ignore anyone who tried to question their plan. They rally the troops, but the troops all know it is going to go horribly wrong.
If I was the only person in Barnet or the wider world who saw the flaws in the plan, maybe Mr Walkley may have a point. Sadly, every day the number of people who believe in his scheme shrinks as more details emerge.
If you run a local authority and are considering outsourcing or want advice on how to avoid the type of PR disasters we see on a weekly basis in Barnet, please get in touch. Prices for consultancy are negotiable.