Whilst Barnet sometimes seems awash with Bloggers, Tweeters and protests, it isn't exactly awash with ordinary people standing up to defend the One Barnet program. We do actually have a right wing blogger, Mr Dan Hope (AKA The Barnet Bugle), who sporadically writes rather strange blogs, making all sorts of bizarre statements about events he hasn't attended. Sadly he doesn't appear to have bought into the One Barnet ideology, so we've had no robust defence from him. We also have Councillor Robert Rams who writes blogs on the subject but these are also rather uninformative. So in the interests of balance, I've decided to have a look at some of the questions which no one on the right has the guts to address.
A question I've been asked time and time again is whether "One Barnet will really be as bad as the left are making out?". The truthful answer is that nobody really knows. For some people, such as those former workers of Barnet Council, it will most certainly be bad, because they have been made redundant. But if you are a resident who doesn't work for Barnet Council and your interaction is pretty much limited to paying your rates and having your car's suspension knobbled by badly maintained roads, what will be the effects for you?
This is where it gets complicated. Research on the subject of public sector outsourcings shows that approx one in four fail completely. As to what the other three in four actually deliver and whether it does what it says on the tin, who knows. What will complete failure mean? Well for those of us who have minimal interaction with the Council, it will mean higher Council Tax bills than would have otherwise been the case. It will also mean that the council will have to go into savage costcutting mode. I made a short list of things which they are likely to attack if the projects fail and the council are left with bills into the hundreds of millions.
1. Parking charge hikes.
2. Massive reductions in council gritting on icy days.
3. Reduced frequency of bin collections.
4. Turning off Street lighting in the middle of the night.
5. Less street cleaning.
6. No park and open space maintenance.
7. Library Closures.
8. Increased prices for Council administered licenses.
9. Increased parking fines.
10. Increases in school meal prices.
There are many other things in the field of social care etc which will also receive massive cuts, but these are the things which will affect most ordinary families in Barnet in some way. As we mentioned, there is an approximate one in four chance of a catastrophic failure of the project, based on the success rate of other outsourcing projects. Although most of us would not buy a car which had a one in four chance of the wheels falling off, we seem to take a different view with public services. The left have also been accused of over egging the one in four failures statistic. Surely this means that we have a 75% chance of a successful implementation of One Barnet. This is a fair point. The question is, what exactly is "success" in One Barnet terms. I asked a Tory Councillor this question. His response was "as far as I'm concerned if we manage to provide the same or better quality of services for less money, One Barnet will be deemed a success".
I asked a follow up question which is "But what if some services are good under the new regime and some fail to meet expectations?" His response was "If it saves money, it will be deemed a success". He then went on to say "The problem for measuring the success is that as we don't know what would have happened if we had gone down another route, any measurement of success or failure is fairly subjective". In other words, unless One Barnet fails catastrophically, it will be deemed a success.
I have also recently had a rather interesting chat with a Capita employee. They informed me that, in their opinion, the left in Barnet were being overly pessimistic about the prospects for One Barnet to fail. Their arguement took four strands.
1) Capita have learned from previous outsourcing mistakes and so are in good shape to deliver the project.
2) Capita have experience of delivering all of the services elsewhere successfully.
3) Capita have not signed the contract with a mission to fail. They want to succeed as this will give them further business opportunities and will deliver shareholder value.
4) Capita can derive savings from economies of scale which a stand alone Barnet Council operation can't hope to match.
All of the points are valid and are deserving of rational discussion.
Here is my take on these points.
1) Capita would be stupid (which they are clearly not) to have ignored the lessons of past failures. At the same time, whilst it is easy to say "We've learned", are the project teams structured in such a way that we can have confidence that the actions match the words and the lessons really have been learned. As far as the people of Barnet are concerned, the jury really is out on this issue.
2) It comes down to the "what is success?" Given that all of the commercials in these cases are confidential, how do we really know what has happened in the "other 75%" of outsourcings which have not completely failed.
3) Success of the mission in Capita terms is delivery of profits for the shareholder. So long as they do this, the projects will be successful as far as they are concerned, whether they save Barnet Council money or not.
4) The argument for this is undeniable. The reason that they can do this is because they are exporting jobs out of Barnet. Whilst this may reduce council tax (if the project delivers the savings Barnet Council hope), it will have damaged the wider local economy and removed jobs. Is this a price worth paying? The jury is most definately out.
So is One Barnet really as bad as the left are making out? The honest answer is that we will only know if it goes completely wrong. If there are major issues, which are shrouded in corporate secrecy, we could be paying a lot more than if we'd continued to use the in house solutions, but we won't know. The truth is that One Barnet is a gamble. Barnet Council are playing it with our cash. I personally feel that Barnet Council do not have the corporate know how to successfully manage an outsourcing on the scale of One Barnet. The failure of past Barnet contracts and the track record of Capita fill me with trepidation. But the truth is that no one will know the answer to the question until it is too late. If it does go wrong, Barnet will have disbanded the in house operation and will have no place to run. Unlike G4S at the Olympics, the army won't be on hand to bale out the taxpayer.