Thursday, 1 March 2018

Why doesn't Barnet Council pay residents to save them money?

Making the case for real savings, not slash and burn cuts
I've been talking to rather a lot of Mill Hill Residents of late. It is surprising how many have read the blog. Some love it, some don't, some agree with me, some don't. It is interesting that those who read it want to pick up on all manner of issues which I've raised and many have been coming up with some amazing and very sensible suggestions. I was chatting with one man today, he collared me over a cup of tea in Mill Hill Broadway. He had recognised me from a leaflet he'd received and confessed he was an avid reader of the blog. The chap introduced himself as an "Out and out Tory" with a big smile. He then said "I'm gonna vote for you though, because it will put the cat among the pigeons and they need a kick up the a..e" (family blog here). I was intrigued. If anyone tells me that they are a Tory and they are going to vote for me, I'll always give them a listen.

Any particular reason? His response couldn't have been more clear "I'm a big fan of Thatcher, I hate Unions and I'm all for saving money, but I've been reading Mr Reasonable and you about Capita and they council are being taken to the cleaners". He then told me he'd worked as a senior executive in a large multinational company. He explained that his company would always make sure that they'd have a whole range of suppliers. They could then play them off against each other and get the best deal possible. He said "You've got to keep them hungry and on their toes, this Capita deal does the opposite and I am paying through the nose for it". He told me that he'd expect the council to be able to save 15-20% on services etc if they had a real market and competition. He felt that Capita were just a corporate version of a unionised in house system.

He then got onto the subject of Gainshare. This is the system whereby Barnet Council pay a percentage of any savings identified to Capita. This can be up to 30%, so if Barnet Council identify savings of three million quid, they give nearly a million quid to Capita. He felt that this was completely bonkers. He said "Our company had a staff suggestion scheme. If a member of staff suggested a saving, they got 5% of the savings back, up to a million pounds. He said that it was massively successful and several people had got payments of hundreds of thousands of pounds, saving the company a small fortune. He asked whether Barnet Council have such a scheme for staff. I have no idea. He then said "why don't they offer the same scheme for residents?" He said that many residents see all manner of silly things that the council are doing. He pointed out that there is absolutely no incentive for residents to make suggestions. I asked him for an example. He said "Years ago, you made the case for Solar panels at Barnet Council libraries. If they'd put them in when you said, then they'd have paid for themselves, all of the Libraries would have free electricity and they'd be paying for three or four librarians with the generous feed in tariffs that got paid back then". He said "By my reckoning, you'd have earned at least £20,000 if they'd given you 5% of the savings and income". He went on "Because you had no incentive to actually develop a plan, you suggested it and left it there. If you'd have had the chance to earn twenty grand, you'd have pushed it, got a few quotes and made damn sure they did it". At a conservative (small "c") estimate, if the council had fitted Solar panels at all the Boroughs libraries the savings and feedback tarrifs would have raised in the region of a million pounds, after the installation costs were deducted over eight years.

I thought about it. I had made the suggestion in 2010 as I was looking at ways to guarantee the long term future of Barnets libraries. It was dismissed out of hand. I did all of the sums at the time and it seemed like a no brainer. Sadly the Councillor in charge of libraries back then had no brains!

I thought about it long and hard. Capita get 30% of savings, even if it is stuff like closing libraries. Residents get diddley squat. Now I am not someone who writes a blog for money or to boost my retirement plan. Although a £20,000 cheque from the council would be nice, it wouldn't change my life. There are plenty of local sports clubs, scout groups and other charities who it would make a huge difference to. Just suppose that the council said "Well you can have 5% of all savings you can identify into your own account or we'll double it if you specify a local charity". So had they taken my suggestion and had a million quid in the coffers, then I could have raised £40,000 for a local organisation such as Mill Hill Rugby club. They have recently launched a Ladies Rugby club and a Special team in association with Barnet Mencap. I am convinced that if local people knew they could support such oranisations by making the council more efficient they would pile in big time.

When we talk about cost savings and efficiency, I am not talking about the Slash and Burn style savings that Barnet Council and Capita seem intent on imposing on the Borough. I believe that things like the closure of Mill Hill childrens library are acts of social vandalism. I am referring to win/win schemes such as solar enegy in libraries. Another huge saving that the Barnet bloggers won for the council occurred when we exposed the Metpro scandal. Barnet Council were paying 30% over the top for security services from an unlicensed security company. After the audit which we persuaded the council to perform, they even found that many of these services were unnecessary. The resulting changes have saved the council millions. Barnet Council has refused to disclose the terms of the agreement with Capita on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. To me this is ridiculous. There is no transparency. I firmly believe that all commercial contracts in the public sector should be published in full. There is absolutely no reason for a council to hide the details of a contract once it has been signed. If the supplier knows that this will happen before they sign, then they have absolutely no grounds for complaint. The only reason to keep it secret is because they know that they are not giving Barnet council the best price. I fully understand why a negotiations are confidential, however once contracts are signed, they should be fully available for scrutiny.

I believe that if the One Barnet Contracts were available for all to see, then there would be real pressure on Capita to reduce costs. I have no doubt that Armchair auditors such as John Dix, AKA Mr Reasonable, would identify millions of pounds worth of savings, especially when contracts came up for renewal. If Barnet had a culture where residents are listened to, then costs would soon start to be chopped. I am also sure that local firms would

Many residents who use council services can see all sorts of flaws. Many years ago I can recall discussing the provision of services for disabled people in Barnet. The father of a disabled adult told me that the way the council was organising many aspects was hugely inefficient. He explained a whole series of minor tweaks that would have saved money in his daughters care package. Not only would these have saved cash, they'd have meant that his life and his daughters life were far more pleasant. Minor tweaks to transport arrangements, timings of visits to discuss care packages etc. He explained how the council didn't seem to plan visits in a logical manner and there was huge bureaucracy around them. He explained that every letter from the council cost a pound to post, as well as the time spent writing it. There are thousands of disabled people in Barnet and all are swamped with all manner of pointless communications from the Council. He stated that he'd filled in countless surveys, each which cost the council tens, if not hundreds of thousands of pounds. All he'd ever seen was a letter telling him of the results. Nothing was ever changed, no comments ever listened to. All that happened was that the survey concluded Barnet Council was doing a good job. He told me that if the parents of disabled people were actually listened to, the council would save millions, but that was never going to happen. He said that in his opinion surveys were pointless and he'd given up answering them. It would be interesting to know how much the council spent on surveys and how much they could identify as a net saving as a result. The council would no doubt say that it's not all about savings, and the results have helped them make the services better, but I am not aware of a single service that anyone has told me has improved over the last eight years.

One of the reasons why many on the left are resistant to such a culture is a fear that this will bring in privatisation by the back door. If residents could propose changes and get a cut of the savings, then might they organise their own rubbish collections and street cleaning and put council workers out of jobs? If they did, would this mean that the remaining council services would become more costly as the economies of scale diminished? This is a genuine concern and a holistic view must be taken. If, for arguments sake, Hampstead Garden Suburb organised its own bin collection service, because it was cheaper than the council service, but this then meant a net increase in the rest of the Borough, then clearly this must be factored into the equation. I know some single people who work in the city, claim they use hardly any services and claim they should pay far less council tax as a result. Often they fail to realise that they use roads, street lighting and street cleaning services. They don't realise that if they have a stroke and need social care, the equation can change in a second. They may not use the schools, parks and open spaces, but the proximity to them adds to the value of their property. There are many aspects of what the council provides that have a massive impact on our finances, but we simply don't associate this with our council tax bill.

Next weekend, there is a community litter pick being organised by local residents, meeting at Mill Hill park at 11am. I don't think any of the residents would want a kickback from the council for doing this. The payback is that we have a nicer, cleaner park and that hopefully our community is a better place to live in. That should always be the primary motivation for getting involved in civic life. I do however believe thatmy Tory neighbour is 100% correct in stating that if we offered a financial incentive for people to get involved and provide sensible and practical cost savings using their professional expertise (in the way John Dix does), we'd see a better, more engaged residents, a better council and spirit of co-operation. I am sure some won't want the cash and won't want to give it to charities either, they will just want it to be used for local services, this of course should be an option. The one stipulation is that any money to residents/charities, should be paid after the savings have been audited and verified. So only if they are real savings and not just accounting tricks, as I believe many of the savings we see quoted by the administration appear to be. I'd be interested in your thoughts.

1 comment:

Mr Reasonable said...

A very interesting topic Rog. You may recall that back in January 2011 the Council launched an initiative called Pledgebank. As a concerned citizen I made an offer as follows:
“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 it was a very serous offer. I review costs on projects for a living. This would have been a significant commitment from me. Barnet however were flummoxed. Accept and people might start realising what they actually spent our money on; reject it and they would be accused of secrecy. So they did what ever politician does in these circumstances - absolutely nothing. I queried it 11 months later and they confirmed that yes they were still considering my offer. Guess what. Five years later I queried it again and they still hadn't made a decision. Think how much money could have been saved in that time. But that is the Barnet way.