Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Beware if you want to do business with Toxic One Barnet Council

Yesterday the Barnet Eye posted details of a DPR assigning a contract of not more than £74,999 to Addleshaw Goddard, a legal firm.This is what Addleshaw Goddard say about themselves

Welcome to Addleshaw Goddard. If you want to find out more about us, you should find it here. Our key facts give you a snapshot about us and our external profile, our Client Serviceswill tell you what we do, who we do it with and how we've helped them, and our international pages talk about our global capability. 

I was interested to see that the Barnet Eye had about 20 hits yesterday from the Addleshaw Goddard domain. This isn't surprising, given that we'd mentioned them in a blog. Most companies are very keen to see what is being written about them and hope that all coverage will be as positive as possible. According to the Barnet Council DPR, the firm had advised Barnet on a contract to replace street lighting and were again being engaged as this contract had run into issues with European tendering rules. Barnet have re-appointed the firm to advise on the issues raised. The Barnet Eye asked the question as to whether they were the best firm to take forward the case, given their previous involvement. It may come as no surprise to Barnet Eye readers that we have our own legal advisers (who give us free advice in exchange for the odd beer). They called yesterday to inform me that this was actually quite right and proper in this case and would be the most cost efficient way forward. The reason being that they are fully conversant with the contract and could hit the ground running. Another firm would have to start from scratch and incur a huge cost to the taxpayer, coming up to speed. Such legal issue crop up all the time and firms are not instantly dropped whenever there is a problem. If they were, then nothing would ever get done and legal costs would be enormous.

This seems to be a reasonable explanation as to why the firm were used. As was also pointed out, we have no idea at this stage whether the issue is a minor technicality or a major problem, that will presumably only become apparent as the complaint is processed.

What the issue does highlight is the way that the One Barnet project has become toxic for all involved. Barnet has a team of five highly committed political bloggers who pore over every One Barnet related DPR and other council paper. They have a huge team of informants within the council (and it's suppliers) who point us in the direction of the things Barnet don't want us to know. We use FoI requests to glean information and have become adept a making sure no stone goes unturned. We also get bundles of secret paperwork delivered to our doorsteps. Sadly Barnet Council consider information that other more open Tory Councils such as Windsor and Maidenhead put in the public domain, to be to important to share with the taxpayers.

Companies spend a fortune on PR and advertising, to ensure that potential clients and business partners know that they are good firms and do a good job. What any firm wishing to get work from Barnet Council on any One Barnet related outsourcing project should realise is that there is an enormous amount of public scrutiny in Barnet. Any firm involved in any project which goes pear shaped is extremely likely to find itself mentioned when the problems come to light. In this day and age, any sensible customer will at least do a quick google search on potential suppliers to see what sort of public image they have. This blog typically gets a very high rating, as you'd expect with over half a million hits and links to it from the Guardian, the BBC and a stack of other respected media outlets. Every blog we post gets displayed promenantly on the Guardian's London pages. The Barnet bloggers have dozens of other hits on a daily basis from various local, regional and national news organisations. Over 30 stories broken on this blog have been featured in other established media. Two of these have been on Prime Time TV - The parking protests on an ITV Tonight documentary and the Friern Barnet Library protest on the One Show on BBC 1.

Barnet Council has never released details of the business case for the One Barnet program. In fact, their own accountants said there wasn't one. Every major detail of the program which the Barnet bloggers have analysed appears to be flawed. The Association for Public Service Excellence described the project as flawed and risky. If you are involved in a company bidding for work on the project - Capita Symonds, BT, EC Harris, etc, you run the risk of all manner of bad publcity. Do not for one second believe that issues will be swept under the carpet, because they won't.

The Barnet Eye knows for a fact that Barnet Council has had to have many meetings in the offices of it's legal advisors for fear of leaks to bloggers. What does this tell you? Surely if the case stacked up, they would be shouting about it from the roof tops. The Barnet Eye believes that the One Barnet project is toxic and the reputational damage which firms face should be a primary consideration for these companies when bidding on it.

It is worth also making the point that the Street Lighting contract which Addleshaw Goddard advised on was not a One Barnet outsourcing project. It was a small (in comparison) deal of several million pounds. The One Barnet deals are £250 million an £750 million. The sad truth for all companies working on all outsourcing projects is that they are likely to be tarred with the same brush. Mud sticks

1 comment:

Don't Call Me Dave said...

I am not sure that your legal adviser is correct. There is a clear and obvious conflict of interest in a company investigating its own conduct. Turkeys do not generally vote for Christmas.

When Barnet Council ordered an investigation into the Underhill sale (my favourite subject), the same officers responsible for drawing up the contract, carried out the investigation. Surprise, surprise, they found no wrong doing. When an external investigator took charge of the situation, a different picture emerged and the deal was eventually ruled unlawful by the High Court.

There needs to be an independent investigation as to whether Barnet broke EU procurement rules. There is no reason why this should be a particularly onerous task as there must be a proper paper trail. If the council has complied with the law, it will be able to prove it very quickly.

If the council has broken the law, then it can sue Addleshaw Goddard for negligence and damages.

Of course, if Barnet did not insist on negotiating contracts under a veil of secrecy, these sorts of difficulties would be less likely to occur.