Outsourcing and contract management in Suffolk and Barnet

The easyBarnet outsourcing scheme, to which Suffolk’s New Strategic Direction bore some uncanny similarities, has come under pressure this week with a damning audit report on a security contract.

Patrick Butler, in his cuts blog at the Guardian, examines how the MetPro scandal was uncovered by bloggers. His post starts:

After the demise of Suffolk’s “virtual” council (and the electoral scuppering of Bury’s “enabling” council) it is the turn of the daddy of all Conservative-led, outsourcing-driven council reforms programmes to come under the critical spotlight: Barnet’s Flagship “easy council” project.

MetPro was given the security contract without any of the basic checks and without putting the work out to tender. But it was filming of members of the public attending council meetings that brought it to attention of Barnet’s effective group of bloggers.

It was also Barnet bloggers who first spotted the co-incidence of the similarity of the Barnet and Suffolk councils policies and the common factor of Max Wide, who had been seconded to both councils by his employer BT.

He has been described as playing a pivotal role in both policies. See my earlier post, Has BT gained too much influence in local government?

As in Barnet, the control of contracts is an issue in Suffolk. Michael Gower, who resigned from his job as head of supplier relationship management at SCC a year ago, told the Guardian he had made proposals to cut costs in the £100m Consumer Services Direct deal with BT. He continued:

Every attempt to make these changes was frustrated, mostly as a result of interventions by the chief executive.

Suffolk county council is not getting value for money out of one of its largest contracts. We were incapable of making the decisions needed to deliver the multimillion pound savings to the benefit of the council taxpayers of Suffolk.

Realistically, the new leader of the Suffolk Council, Mark Bee, has not had the time yet to address this issue and follow his mantra of transparency by telling us what he has done.

The council has announced it is to press ahead with the sale of elderly care homes, after the Southern Cross debacle (Evening Standard). The company owns eight homes in Suffolk.

Lib Dem councillor Caroline Page has quoted Age UK as saying:

In future, we would like to see all home care providers having to demonstrate to regulators a solid business model. Without this they should not be able to run care homes. The sector would benefit from greater transparency.

It would have been good to hear a similar endorsement that view from Mark Bee and the ruling conservative group.

And this week the scrutiny committee’s libraries report included this recommendation:

that the Council retain the ability to ensure that the terms offered by the community interest company were sufficient to maintain a sustainable service.

Why did the all-party committee feel that needed saying?

It is reasonable to expect that SCC should provide credible evidence that its risk assessment, supplier management and audit systems are capable of effectively dealing with the complexities of outsourcing to private companies and social enterprises.

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