Friday, 24 January 2020

Barnet Council need your help! We've offered our suggestions

Barnet Council need some help! How do I know? They tweeted it a few minutes ago.

As someone who has spent the last twelve years trying to help Barnet Council to improve their customer service. I have to say that I've failed miserably. When I started writing blogs about Barnet Council, they were rated as a five star authority. This was the highest rating that an authority could receive. The vast majority of services were highly rated and run by in house teams. But sadly, this was all to change. The Leader was Mike Freer (now MP for Finchley). He had a cunning plan. He believed that if you outsource everything, it gets delivered better and cheaper. I first learned of this in 2007, when they outsourced the Meals on Wheels service to Sodexho, a large multinational company, who put the lowest bid in. I'd not paid much attention to the Council before. Sadly for me, my mother relied on this service for her lunch. On the day of the new service, it didn't turn up. My mother lived independently and paid for the service. Due to various medical conditions, she needed regular meals, and this was a massive issue for her. Previously she'd known exactly what time the delivery would be made and would be ready for it. The stress caused by this was immense. I found out that the delivery round said that they would deliver 40 meals in two hours. This was simply impractical. Calls to councillors, letters to the press and my wife dropping in dinners got us through. But it was awful for the residents who relied on it and didn't have stroppy kids to make a fuss and a daughter in law down the road. I realised that there is more than a financial aspect to these cuts. If you didn't know why I feel so passionately about the subject, you do now. A year later, in early August 2008, my mother died. As I had become a vocal critic of Freer and his policies, he responded to the news of my mums death by publishing a comment on his blog about "Armchair critics" "cossetted by family money". I was appalled by this. When challenged, Freer told the editor of the Times that the comment was aimed at no one in particular.

What I didn't realise was that this told a story that we would see played out time and time again. The story was one that the Conservative administration had no respect for the views of local people and did not want to listen to what they wanted to say. Freers masterplan to outsource the council services became the "One Barnet" programme. Wheras previously the people who ran the services, answered the phones for the council and kept an eye on the finances were locals and had a vested interest  in doing the job properly (if they didn't they would suffer bad services and higher costs as well).

Under the previous Labour/Lib Dem administration, much work had been done to engage local people. The reason was that the administration believed that by involving local people, the council would be better able to deliver services. The flagship of this was the 'Local Area Forum'. These meetings were packed, with dozens of questions from often disgruntled residents. Councillors and officers had to face the music and often didn't enjoy this, however issues got raised and dealt with.

I started blogging for the Barnet Times in May 2008. This blog I wrote for the Times details just how engaged the public were. I have included an extract.

And on, by this time it was 7.45pm (meeting started at 6.30). We were only up to question 17 out of 38. Councillor Gordon was starting to look worried. Not only might he not be home for cocoa at 8.30pm, he may not be home for Rosh Hashana. Up stepped Mrs Cohen. Her question was 2 1/2 pages long and had points a through to i. Now I have to confess that yet again I couldn't hear what she was on about. Not only that, but the 2 1/2 pages of notes only give the faintest clue. It seems she's unhappy with some aspect of the council's policy regarding a neighbour carrying on business at a private address. That is only a small part of the story though. 
It seems much of the juicy detail was removed from the notes we got. Mrs Cohen was unhappy. After approx 20 minutes of her giving us the full text of her question, she noticed that Councillor Gordon was chatting away to Ian Caunce and completely ignoring her. Was she prepared to stand for this, no she wasn't she gave him a piece of her mind in no uncertain terms. Councillor Gordon responded that he'd listened to every word she'd said. Now either he possesses the hearing abilities of Superman or he's telling porkies, as she was completely inaudible apart from the odd "disgraceful" or "unacceptable". Anyway thoroughly chastised by his nemesis he tried to maintain focus. As to Councillor John Hart, for the entire meeting he had not uttered a word. As Mrs Cohen made sure we were all aware of her grievance I became fascinated with his demeanour.

I suspect that the good councillor is not actually a human after all. He has the aura of a Jedi Knight. He sits there stoically saying nothing, but seemingly fighting an ever more desperate battle to not cross to the dark side. He clearly realises that he could simply snuff Mrs Cohen out using "the force" but then he'd no longer be a good guy. If Mrs Cohen disappears and a black caped knight in a welding helmet strides through to the next council meeting we know that the dark side won. On Mrs Cohen ploughed. At some point she realised that Leslie Feldman, the planning officer wasn't paying attention either. In she went, verbal daggers swinging. Councillor Gordon tried to defend the honour of Ms Feldman, but was dispatched with a swift comment along the lines of "I've already dealt with you, little man, be quiet". On she went. It was clear that council officers had ignored her. It was clear she was unhappy. At this point, she noticed that the third council officer (sorry, didn't catch his name) was also not paying attention. "Look at me when I'm speaking to you" she bellowed. Councilor Gordon said "This is not the forum to raise this". Mrs Cohen yelled back "I am a resident, this is the residents forum, you have to listen to me. It's not your forum". Councillor Gordon slunk back. 

 I highlighted the second last sentence, because this was the key point. Mrs Cohen wanted the council to listen and she had attended as it was her forum. This all soon changed. The forums rules were amended so that questions had to be submitted well in advance and were limited. Now no one bothers with it at all. No more 38 questions and councillors missing their cocoa.

Residents also used to have the right to ask detailed questions at council meetings. Last year, the first act of Councillor Thomas on becoming the new leader was to pick up what Freer started. Questions at meetings had to be less than 100 words long and there were restrictions on the numbers that can be asked. I've given up going to Council meetings. What is the point? How can you get a sensible answer for a budget of thousands of pages in one question of 100 words? I feel that by playing along with this charade legitimises it. But the point I am making is that the council has wilfully cut itself off from the people. Moving out the staff who engage with the public to other parts of the country has resulted in their being no civic pride. Destroying the local forums has ensured that the likes of Mrs Cohen, who was not at all political, just a disgruntled resident, are ignored. For what? So Councillors and officers get and easy time. As for questions at meetings, councillors have made it abundantly clear that they are not interested in what residents have to say.

Where has this lead us? Now the council want to set up focus groups. This is to replace the honest, open engagement that used to exist. But this is a very different beast. It is not real engagement, where the council don't know and can't control the agenda. It is a slick PR exercise that will cost a fortune and deliver nothing.

Of course there is a simpler and cheaper solution. I tweeted  as much. Fellow blogger Mr Reasonable then spotted that the council actually see a bad telephony service as a way to save money.

You don't need a focus group, I have a simple plan

1) #KickOutCapita 
2) #StopGaggingResidents 
3) Revert to the pre 2010 format for local area forums.

You couldn't make it up. If you made it into a comedy sketch, people would claim that it was too unrealistic to be funny.

My band, the False Dots wrote and recorded a song to document how outsourcing is destroying public services. We made this video to mark the launch of the #KickOutCapita campaign. I think it sums it all up. Have a listen.

No comments: