Suffolk County Council

Has BT gained too much influence in local government?

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’s New Pragmatic Direction

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”.

Do events in Suffolk signal end of ‘big society’ local government reform?

Is it all over for local government reform? asks Patrick Butler in the Guardian’s Joe Public blog. He looks as what has been happening in Suffolk and other places and concludes with another question:

It’s a big issue for Labour politicians, too: will newly resurgent Labour-run councils, faced with some of the most drastic cuts, pursue municipal reform or retreat into their electoral comfort zone?

On Conservative Suffolk he writes:

Suffolk was a role model for its “big society” approach to service delivery.

But how can the government persuade council leaders and their employees that salvation lies this way? Local politicians and chief executives will look at the wreckage of Suffolk – and the careers of those dragged down with the ship – and wonder if it is worth the risk.

There will be forensic scrutiny of why the New Strategic Direction crashed so dismally: Suffolk’s arrogance; the poor communication; lack of trust; difficulty of pursuing organisational change while trying to deliver huge cuts and imposed with reckless speed by ministers.

And yet strip away the big society posturing, and at the heart of the direction was a belief not just that public services could and should be more efficient and responsive to local communities but that in the age of austerity, the council had a duty – an imperative even – to seek better ways of delivering them.

Having watched with care what has happened in Suffolk for a few months, my first reaction is that I am not sure the Conservatives here are as ready to abandon all their plans so completely as is being suggested.

Yes, they will talk more, listen more but still have cuts to make. I do believe that we may be able to find a constructive way out of the wreckage.

The biggest problem is that heavy funding cuts and reform of the way local services are delivered do not sit happily together. There are approaches which will deliver the same or better services at lower costs in the long term, but the transition does not come cheap.

People are happy to volunteer to improve services, but they are not happy to meet the redundant worker they have replaced in the shop or pub.

There is also a feeling that what Butler describes as the “nascent social enterprise movement” is an alternative bureaucracy in waiting. They talk in a jargon ridden language just like the people in council offices and that does not engender confidence.

If reform is to work it has to be rooted in genuine support from communities that feel the projects are their own. Finding a way through the cuts without devastating services is tough and it is going to require genuine co-operation not just from Joe Public but between politicians of of all colours. Are the politicians ready for that?

For all its faults the Suffolk experiment has parted the curtains to reveal that there is a possibility of doing things better. It has raised aspirations and made people think about ways in which they may be achieved, although the ways are often not those of the council cabinet.

Police making inquiries into death of Suffolk legal officer

An inquest into the death of David White, a senior legal officer at Suffolk County Council who was found dead in Butley Woods last month, has been opened and adjourned “pending police and partnership agency inquiries”, Suffolk Police said today.

This morning the Daily Mail specifically linked Mr White’s death with Andrea Hill’s leave of absence from the council in a headline reading: “£218,000 town hall chief is told to stay at home in ‘staff suicide probe’.’

There is little new in the Daily Mail story which is generally what has already been said in many newspapers and local government publications except for the explicit link and reference to an inquest.

The Mail said Andrea Hill, chief executive of Suffolk County Council, was “told to stay at home on full pay while an inquiry looks into the death of David White, the acting head of the Tory-run authority’s legal department”.

An independent inquiry  has been set up by the council (“partnership agency”) to investigate complaints about the treatment of staff in the legal department made in an anonymous letter after Mr White’s death. No detailed information about the inquiry, who is carrying it out, the terms of reference or how long it will take, has been issued by the council.

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 and another official, Graham Dixon, the director of resource management at the end of March.

These resignations were quickly followed by that of Jeremy Pembroke, leader of the council.

A few days later, on April 4, the body of Mr White was found in Butley Woods, near Woodbridge (Evening Star). In an email to staff Ms Hill said the police had confirmed a sudden death without suspicious circumstances, believe to be suicide.

Ms Hill was was expected to return to work last week after a holiday but was asked to remain at home on extended leave.

Suffolk Police today confirmed to Wordblog that an inquest had been opened and adjourned to a date to be fixed, pending inquiries. The spokesman said they did not know when the inquest would be held but a press release would be issued when the date was fixed.

Police inquiries are normal in deaths where suicide is suspected.  The inquest into Mr White’s death would be expected to examine whether personal or work issues contributed to his death.

Council says Hill’s leave is while whistleblower’s allegations probed

A little more information about Andrea Hill’s extended leave from her work as Suffolk County Council’s chief executive seeped out this afternoon. A council spokesman said:

The Chief Executive has been asked by the council to take additional leave so that preliminary investigations can be made into anonymous whistleblowing complaints received by the council.

Andrea Hill has agreed to remain away from work so that the review can be carried out independently.

This statement is carried on the Evening Star website this afternoon but it appears to have been too late for the printed edition.

It relates to a letter sent to the council chairman and others after the resignations of two senior managers and the sudden death of a third, about morale and work pressure in the legal department (see earlier post).

An independent inquiry into the allegations was ordered last month and although there have been widespread suggestions of a connection between this matter and Ms Hill’s extra leave, this is the first time an explicit connection has been made publicly. Details of who is to conduct the inquiry and the terms of reference have not been revealed: more to seep out in the coming days.


Hill’s leave ‘linked to county staff morale’

The Local Government Chronicle today has a story headed Andrea Hill’s leave ‘linked to morale’. The first ten words are: “Suffolk CC chief on extended leave as sources cite staff issues…”

The linking of the “morale” issue and Andrea Hill’s leave of absence from her job as chief executive of Suffolk County Council is not at all surprising and has been widely hinted at.

I can’t tell you any more about the LGC story because it is a subscription journal. I guess that some readers of Wordblog have access and might like to share anything new with us.

A story published on the Daily Telegraph website this morning quotes a source as saying: “A number of issues concerning her personal style with staff were raised before she went away .”

It continues to say the source denied her leave bore any relation to the rethink on one of her most controversial policies in her absence.

That is in accord with what I have heard.

Friday 5pm. LGC now has an updated story that is not behind the pay wall.

(This post has been added to since first publication)

Andrea Hill on extended leave ‘at request of Suffolk County Council’

Andrea Hill, Suffolk County Council’s controversial chief executive, is on extended leave for “personal reasons”. This evening a council statement confirmed the leave had been agreed by Jane Storey, the acting leader of the council.

Radio Suffolk was reporting that Mary Orton, of the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives, said the extended leave was at the request of the council. Ms Hill was keen to return to work but had been under a lot of stress according to the union.

This evening the Guardian says:

The chief executive of Suffolk county council may be forced to resign her position after the council’s U-turn over outsourcing all of its services and becoming a “virtual council”.

Ms Hill began a planned holiday on April 18, the same day as the Conservative group chose Mark Bee as the leader-elect, following the resignation of Jeremy Pembroke. He immediately promised a review of policies and excluded the term New Strategic Direction which originated with Ms Hill.

Cllr Pembroke’s resignation followed immediately after those of two officials, Graham Dixon, director of resource management, and Eric Whitfield, the monitoring officer. The following week the interim head of legal services, David White, who had taken on extra responsibilities, was found dead in Butley Woods. An inquest is yet to be held.

After an anonymous letter was sent to several councillors, including the council Chairman Eddy Alcock, raising concerns about the welfare of staff in the legal department. Cllr Storey confirmed that an external enquiry would be held. No furher announcment has been made and it is unclear whether it is completed or underway, or who is carrying it out.

Yesterday the Guardian reported the “inquiry was begun into morale at the council’s legal department after an anonymous whistleblowing letter, sent to councillors, and believed to be from an employee, alleged staff there had been put under ‘unbearable pressure’. The letter refers to ‘the poisonous atmosphere that exists at present’ in the council.”

In mid April the Municipal Journal speculated that Ms Hill could come under pressure to leave the council although a council spokesman denied that she was under pressure to leave.

Ms Hill wrote a 1,850 word message in the council’s Inside SCC newsletter last month which was seen by many as suggeting that she was under stress.

The Evening Star reported on speculation earlier today.

An item on Wordblog written a month ago and headed Andrea Hill was warned about the sensitivity of her spending has been receiving an unusually high number of hits in the past 48 hours.

Post history: Edited shortly after writing to correct date of start of Ms Hill’s holiday.

Suffolk councillor advocates social enterprises for public services

Craig Dearden-Phillips, Lib Dem Suffolk County Councillor for Bury St Edmunds, is an advocate of spinning off public services to social businesses and mutuals. He runs a company called Stepping Out which aims to help services make the change.

He also writes in Society Guardian and today his column (also on his blog) is about conversations with four leaders who have made the change. He writes:

The vital factor appears to be the benefits of freedom both strategically and operationally. Getting away from a much larger public body seems to have a powerful galvanising effect.

But warning signs abound. A trickle of spin-outs has not yet turned into a flood. Few councils, it appears, are looking seriously at this option, choosing instead to cut their inhouse services and tender them out.

Now, this is interesting in a week when Judy Terry, cabinet member responsible for libraries, announced the intention to form a Community Interest Company to run Suffolk libraries. The scheme remains vague as no details have yet been given.

But it has engendered a lot of interest in exactly what Deaden-Phillips is writing about. He finds that there is a need for leaders and concludes:

It remains in the balance whether potential leaders of new mutuals are encouraged and nurtured – or made to walk through fire before stepping out.

I would very much like to hear his thoughts on possible futures for Suffolk libraries. But I hope he will avoid jargon: what on earth does “public bodies need a ‘playbook'” mean?

Public Libraries News: Suffolk — campaigning works OR too good to be true?

Public Libraries News has a series of links today about the decision of Suffolk County Council not to go ahead with the divestment of libraries to individual community groups under the heading: Suffolk — campaigning works OR too good to be true

As the announcement, of a plan for a community interest company to run libraries, continues to be absorbed and debated, traffic on the internet is very firmly agreed that the library staff are hugely important to a successful future and that they need to be consulted and involved in the next stage.

Mark Bee, the council’s leader-elect has said that one of his tasks is to improve morale of council staff. I trust he is working on this in the library service where a lot of staff are dispirited at present.

Every library user can also help by letting the staff how much they are valued. Give them a metaphoric hug if you don’t think the real thing would be appropriate in a library!

Labour leader responds to libraries announcement

Sandy Martin, labour leader on Suffolk County Council, was asked for his comments on the the plan for a community interest company to run the council libraries (see earlier post). This is what he said:

Suffolk County Council is responsible for Libraries. They are already owned by the people of Suffolk. We don’t know the details of the so-called Community Interest Company – and why do we need it anyway?

By all means let’s make any possible savings that won’t damage the library service, and let’s involve the local people even more than they are already. But how can we trust a word that the Conservatives are saying on divesting libraries?

Why have they released this so-called “news” just 3 days before the local elections? What has changed since this whole libraries “consultation” process first started? Cllr Terry is still talking about local communities running their local libraries, she’s still talking about making a 30% overall saving, and she’s still not categorically promising that all the libraries will remain open.

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