Some Freedom of Information Act requests are frivolous although they can provide the hard-pressed staff in what must be a sometimes difficult job with some light relief. Leicester City Council was asked about preparedness for a zombie invation (hat tip to @waveneydc).
I have not heard of anything like that being asked of Suffolk County Council but they are increasingly busy dealing with information requests as this chart which has appeared on their web page shows.
Rises since the implementation of the act in 2005 would have been expected but the big increase between 2009 (622 requests) and 2010 (978 requests) suggests that something more is going on. One would have hoped that the Act would have made the council more transparent, but it is clear that last year Suffolk people were resorting to FoI requests much more often.
The reasons are not hard to guess. But there must be a lot of similar or duplicated requests which could be avoided if all responses were published.
This would hardly be revolutionary. Government departments do and so does Suffolk Police.
And provided the new county council leader, Mark Bee, delivers on his promise of greater transparency the figure should start to decline. That is an easy cost to cut.
It is nice to have a response, of sorts, to my examination of BT’s influence on local government and Suffolk county council in particular.
The removed document is the entry for a BT marketing award by the Vital Vision programme. It reveals that it was essentially a sales and marketing programme designed to gain contracts by winning the hearts and minds of people in public services. More in my post: Has BT gained too much influence in local government?.
However, the entry document is available here.
Now, why would Suffolk County Council decide to outsource its HR work to a company which has concluded that someone else is better able to manage its own HR?
Answers in the comment box below, please.
Rural poverty comes with a thatched roof, John Gummer told a fairly well-heeled audience for Opera in the Barn, at Crows Hall, Debenham, on Saturday evening.
Lord Gummer was quoting someone else but the point was well made for the audience at the event which was for the benefit of the Suffolk Foundation which raises and allocates money to a wide range of projects throughout the county.
Last week the foundation published a research report, Hidden Needs, into deprivation in the county. It was prepared by the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research in the University’s Department of Land Economy.
It shows that nearly 78,000 people (more than one in ten of the population) live in income deprivation at the most minimal living standard provided by welfare benefits and will below the “poverty line”. This includes 19,000 children under 16 and 24,000 people of retirement age.
While Ipswich and Lowestoft have the worst areas of deprivation, the “hidden” poor of rural areas are vulnerable when resources are allocated to areas with the greets need.
Shockingly, the report shows than in the past few years poverty in Suffolk has risen relative to England as a whole.
The distances that residents in many parts of the county must travel to buy groceries, see a GP or post a parcel are among the highest in England.
On government spending cuts, the report says:
The Local Government Finance Settlement, the Coalition government’s decentralisation policy, the Localism Bill, the Big Society agenda, and outsourcing of public sector services in Suffolk present both challenges and opportunities for different sectors of Suffolk society.
While these changes may present opportunities for social enterprises, charities and small businesses to grow and develop, it is possible that the impact of funding cuts and restructuring of public sector service provision will have most negative effects on the most disadvantaged groups and individuals.
This is a report that should be read by every member of the county and district councils. If they don’t they are not doing their jobs properly
It is not surprising that Suffolk County Council is being very careful with the Andrea Hill inquiry following the Shoesmith judgment by the Appeal Court last month.
The judges ruled that the sacking of Sharon Shoesmith from her job as Haringey’s children’s services director, after the death of Baby Peter was “procedurally unfair” (BBC).
After the meeting of the council’s disciplinary committee yesterday, it was announced that Andrea Hill, the chief executive would remain on mutually agreed leave at least until June 24.
The committee received a report from solicitors Wragge and Co who were asked to investigate allegations, made by an anonymous whistleblower, about the treatment of staff in the legal department.
After the meeting a statement was issued saying that some matters had been resolved but others required further investigation. It also said that “as a result of FOI requests into expense claims by Andrea Hill the committee has asked the investigation team to review those claims”.
The East Anglian Daily Times says today this relates an FoI request it made which revealed the council had paid for Ms Hill to stay at Milsom’s Kesgrave Hall on two nights before early meetings and a night at the Brudenell in Aldeburgh.
When details were revealed of these stays and another at a hotel in Sandbanks at £205 a night during a conference in Bournemouth, while senior councillors stayed in a much cheaper hotel, they appeared to show ill-judgment. But they did not look like serious disciplinary matters.
The Daily Mail also says the hotel stays are the focus of the expenses investigation.
The Daily Telegraph is alone in saying Ms Hill was, “cleared of accusations about her management style, amid claims of bullying and intimidation”.
Intriguingly, LocalGov.co.uk, the online site of the Municipal Journal, referring to the whistleblowing says:
The letter, seen by The MJ, makes a number of serious allegations against more than one senior member of staff at Suffolk.
Whatever path the council is following, there appears to be wide political backing for it. The EADT quotes opposition leader Kathy Pollard, saying:
Obviously the public want a resolution to this but the council is going to have to go through all the procedures and make sure it dots all the Is and crosses all the Ts. People are going to have to be patient.
But the council has to do this properly otherwise it will cost them an awful lot more money.
I don’t think it [extending the scope of the investigation] has muddied the waters, it’s another line of inquiry that the council is pursuing. It’s right to do that.
Blogger James Hargrave wonders if it now the time to reach a deal by which Ms Hill would leave the council. He writes that while it would cost money it would seem an appropriate way for her to go.
But, as Kathy Pollard’s comment says, as well as ensuring the procedure is absolutely correct, they are anxious to avoid a large pay out.
Any settlement would be expensive and politically extremely unpopular. I can see the headlines pointing out how many school crossing patrols and libraries it would have paid for.
I suspect the council is hoping that Ms Hill will review the whistleblower’s allegations and the matters surrounding her expenses and decide to write a resignation letter before it all becomes much more public.
Update Friday afternoon: Andrea Hill to remain on leave until at least June while further investigations are carried out. Statement said that some matters had been resolved but others further inquiries. Following an FoI request the committee has also asked the investigation to look at some of Ms Hill’s expenses claims (BBC).
A statement about the future of Andrea Hill is expected later today after a meeting of the county council’s Dismissals Appeals Committee. Ms Hill, the council chief executive, has been on extended leave for a month while and inquiry into allegations about staff relations in the legal department.
A preliminary report from solicitors Wragge and Co who have been conducting an external investigation will be presented to the committee and council leader Mark Bee, who was chosen after the resignation of Jeremy Pembroke.
The subject of the inquiry has been a whistleblowing allegation made after two senior executives resigned and the death by suspected suicide of David White. Mr White had been given additional responsibility as interim monitoring officer (one of the key local government posts) after the sudden resignation of Eric Whitfield, the monitoring officer, and another official, Graham Dixon, the director of resource management at the end of March.
Police have been investigating Mr White’s death before the resumption of an inquest into his death.
According to the county council website the Dismissals Appeals Committee “meets as required to deal with appeals by Council employees under the Council’s disciplinary and grievance procedures”. The press and public will be excluded from today’s meeting as is normal when discussing such matters. However, there has been no suggestion that the meeting will involve an appeal: BBC Radio Suffolk is reporting that a report from the meeting will go to Mark Bee who has announced the end of the New Strategic Direction policy of which Ms Hill was the architect.
The committee has five members, four Conservative and one Liberal Democrat.
The relvant agenda item for the meeting is:
To Consider a Report by the Strategic HR Manager (Reward and Performance)
(The report relating to this Agenda item has been withheld from public circulation and deposit pursuant to Section 100(A) of the Local Government Act 1972 on the grounds that the meeting is likely not to be open to the public when this item is considered).
The ditching of Suffolk’s New Strategic Direction last week by the new county council leader, Mark Bee, raises the question of whether BT has gained too much influence in local government.
One BT director, Max Wide, has played a central role in developing the Suffolk plan and another controversial and derided scheme to change the face of a local authority, Barnet’s easyCouncil scheme.
In both cases Wide, Director of Strategic Development at BT Government, was seconded to the councils as Director of Organisational Change.
In the words of Suffolk’s chief executive Andrea Hill when he was appointed last year, his job was to “develop a hard-nosed programme to implement the New Strategic Direction”. According to some sources he played a important part in developing the policy.
Two years earlier he had joined Barnet where the then Chief Executive, Leo Boland, welcomed Wide, saying he would help the council respond to changes. The change policy there gained the easyCouncil name because it was said to be similar to the easyJet business model.
Wide’s role at both Suffolk and Barnet is said to have been “pivotal”. He has also helped up to 60 authorities “deliver change programmes”.
Earlier this year Wide was a member of the panel which chose the Local Government Chronicle’s (LGC) 50 most influential people in local government, including himself at number 28.
The citation said: “Max Wide is best known for his pivotal involvement in two of the country’s most high profile council transformation programmes: so-called easyBarnet and Suffolk’s divestment strategy.”
Andrea Hill was at number five and Nick Walkley, now Barnet’s chief executive, at 18.
Wide’s selection was welcomed by Chris Ainslie, vice president BT Local, Regional and Devolved Government, who wrote on the LGC blog that “Max has spent 20 years at London Boroughs and has worked with 60 authorities to deliver change programmes.”
The similarity of the Barnet and Suffolk schemes was alluded to by Mark Bee last week when he told the East Anglian Daily Times: “The days of the council being a ‘light’ council, being an ‘easy’ council approach which I think underpins the New Strategic Direction, are over.”
BT embarked on a systematic marketing programme in 2002 to win the hearts and minds of the top people not only in local government, but in central government, the police, the NHS, the military and other public sector bodies.
Vital Vision takes such people to events at top American universities. A BT public sector brochure describes the programme as bringing together “a unique mix of senior Government decision-makers, BT research partners and leading academic institutions, including Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford and MIT. The objective is to explore current business thinking and look at how it can best be applied to Government. This process is enhanced by the quality of the participants and the genuinely stimulating, interactive environment they create together.”
A rather different story emerges from a document put together to support the Vital Vision team’s application for a BT internal marketing award (it got a commendation).
This document has the title: “Vital Vision. Creative thinking in the marketing approach and customer proposition.”
It says: “The programme supports BT Government’s long-term activities in building ‘relationships that count’ within the inner circle of senior civil servants – a circle many competitors find difficult to penetrate. The programme provides a platform for BTG’s sales activities with the largest contract opportunities across the UK.”
One of those large contracts was the Suffolk Consumer Services Direct 10-year deal worth £300m (since risen to more than £400m) which was awarded to BT by the County Council in 2004.
The following year Mike More, then the Suffolk Chief Executive (now with Westminster council and joint 19th in the LGC list), took part in the Vital Vision programme when he was targeted for a “mobile office” contract worth £50,000 to BT.
The 44 people taking part that year represented “organisations with a total opportunity value of £1.7bn”.
Andrew Foster, Director of Human Resources at the Department of Health, was being offered a £3m contract by a part of BT that helps organisations “change the way they work through the effective exploitation of technology”.
Norfolk council’s chief executive was being targeted for a £50,000 “mobile workforce” product while the county’s chief constable, Andy Hayman, who moved to the Met police that year, was being pursued for an outsourcing contract.
Business opportunities for BT, taken from a customer relations management database, are listed against each of the the participants.
When the kind of people “who will shape the views of others” are invited on to the Vital Vision programme, they are inducted by a personal in-depth interview where BT “determine the key issues with which they are grappling….
“We also explore the individual’s personality profile, learning profile and emotional intelligence to help us to determine the best method of delivery.”
The programme provides “a platform for BTG’s sales activities with the largest contract opportunities across the UK”.
The Vital Visionaries are invited to two week-long visits to top US universities where they attend sessions on such topics as “Leadership in the public sector”, “Competing on the edge: strategy and cultural chaos”, and “Engaging the citizen”.
The first visit is to Boston for MIT and Harvard and starts with a cruise and dinner. The second is to San Francisco where the events are at Stanford and Berkley. Again the programme looks tough but there is light relief with a trip on the Napa Valley Wine Train.
After a year on the programme, BT organises reunions to maintain contact.
The BT marketing document says: “Given the Public Sector rules on acceptance of hospitality and the reputation and benefits of the programme, clients pay their own flights and accommodation costs.” Suffolk’s chief constable, Simon Ash, claimed £2,750 expenses for attending the sessions in 2008.
But Andrea Hill was able to say in the staff newsletter in April this year: “So what about the two trips to America with BT, have they compromised my judgement? In 2008 I did go to both Boston and San Francisco, as part of a training programme sponsored by BT. So did 30 other public sector Chief Executives. So too did my predecessor a few years before me ,and so too have 4 other council Chief Executives or Chief Constables from Suffolk. Not a penny of my trip was funded by taxpayers – not the course, or flights, or hotels, or mileage, or meals, or even a cup of coffee.” (Source 4)
She does not actually say who paid her travel expenses but the implication is that BT made an exception from its rule in her case.
Vital Vision has also, according to the marketing document, “spawned ‘Envision’, aimed at one specific client to help them to implement their far reaching change management initiatives”.
That was written in 2005. But the placing of BT executives in change management jobs has continued with the secondment of Max Wide to Barnet and Suffolk councils.
Suffolk now has the New Pragmatic Direction to replace the New Strategic Direction. Mark Bee the new leader of the county council signalled the change of direction yesterday after being confirmed in his role.
His rhetoric laden speech was understandably short on detail about what his approach will mean. He made it very clear that the need for big financial cuts has not gone away. It will be a tough job to turn policy around in the middle of a financial year.
He told the council:
The NSD has come to be seen as a one size fits all philosophy that must be applied across Suffolk, regardless of the views of local communities.
This has resulted in much of the good work being ignored. With the debate focused around the concept and three or four highly contentious issues.
I believe that has been to the detriment of Suffolk County Council.
I am clear that my Leadership will not be about a ‘philosophy’. It will be about three core principles: Listening to the people of Suffolk, openness and transparency, and above all: Practical, common sense solutions to problems based on the needs of a specific area developed with communities and partners.
The full text of his speech is on the East Anglian Daily Times website.
One of his first tasks will be turning around the administrative structure which under the former leader, Jeremy Pembroke, and Chief Executive, Andrea Hill, has been geared to delivering the NSD. Ms Hill had firmly nailed her colours to this mast and her future remains uncertain as her extended leave continues while an investigation into matters in the legal department is carried out.
There are hopeful signs that the Maoist tendency of the former administration has not succeeded in completing its cultural revolution in Endeavour House. Cllr Bee is going to need the wholehearted and constructive support from the county’s officials.
But we should not imagine that things are going to simply return to the way they were. His speech signalled a continuation of localisation, with community involvement in school crossing patrols, libraries, recycling centres and much more.
James Hargrave, the Stradbroke blogger, who was at yesterday’s meeting (I missed it having just returned from Wales) has interesting views on the change of direction. He is not convinced that the “current leadership realise quite how dysfunctional the County Council has become”.
Alan Duce, the outgoing chairman of Waveney District Council, faces an unenviable responsibility if he decides to attend the annual meeting next week. Will he keep is party in power or will he enable the group that gained the larger share of the popular vote to form an administration?
This unusual responsibility arises because the election earlier this month left the Suffolk council with 23 Conservative and 23 Labour members. The sole Independent will support the Conservatives and the only Green will vote with Labour. But the Conservative/Independent candidates gained 40 per cent of the vote while the Labour/Green alliance got 49 per cent.
The Conservatives controlled the council until the election.
After negotiations for Conservatives and Labour to share power failed, it became clear niether party could form a majority coalition.
So the monitoring officer, Arthur Charvonia, a lawer, has had to delve into the constitution and law, to give an opinion on what should happen.
This is that the chairman of the council, Conservative Alan Duce, who is no longer a councillor, remains the chairman until the new chairman is elected at the next meeting on May 25. So while he will not be able to take part in the initial ballot for a new chairman he will have a casting vote.
He can use this whichever way he chooses. He can vote with his own party or the group with the larger share of the popular vote.
Whichever way he votes it will mean that the new ruling group will be dependent on the casting vote of the Chairman who, as a sitting member, will also have a primary vote giving his or her party an effective majority of one.
But Mr Duce can refuse to attend the meeting (it would be understandable) in which case the vice-chairman, Cllr Patricia Flegg, a Conservative who was re-elected, would preside able to cast her own vote and a chair’s casting vote.
Revelations about Andrea Hill’s spending get more and more difficult to fathom. The latest is that she spent £205 a night on a hotel, while senior councillors, her bosses, stayed elsewhere at £85 a night.
This happened at the Local Government Association annual conference in Bournemouth at the beginning of July last year. Ms Hill stayed at the Haven Hotel at Sandbanks, an exclusive seafront part of nearby Poole.
The council leader Jeremy Pembroke, the opposition Lib Dem and Labour leaders, Kathy Pollard and Sandy Martin, together with cabinet members Colin Noble and Graham Newman stayed close to the conference centre.
It is difficult to think of valid reasons for this to have happened but it would have been natural if the councillors had been very angry. Could it have been after this that Jeremy Pembroke spoke to her about expenses claims? (East Anglian Daily Times and a Wordblog post)
Newspaper reports about the stay at the Haven Hotel, revealed by a Freedom of Information Act request, have appeared in the EADT and the Mail on Sunday. I can’t find a link to the report in the print version of the EADT yesterday nor to the story on the same page quoting a union official as saying Ms Hill would “much rather be at her desk working for the people of Suffolk”.
She is on extended leave while an investigation into a complaint about working conditions in the legal department takes place.