local government chronicle

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.

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)

Clegg and Pickles in battle over councils’ right to raise taxes

There is a struggle going on at the heart of Government about how local councils should be financed. Over the past 40 years or more the proportion of council spending financed by local taxation has declined and been replaced by grants from the centre.

Now, according to the Local Government Chronicle, Nick Clegg is battling Eric Pickles, the local government secretary over this issue.

I have long believed that real local decision making and democracy depends on raising taxes to pay for local services. In Wordblog’s days as a jounralism blog this is what I wrote in 2006:

Part of the problem is that local news seems less relevant as local decision-making has been stripped away by centralising governments. Councils have become little more than administrators of central decisions and reorganisations in the name of efficiency have removed much of the cut and thrust of local politics.

The Local Government Chronicle reported last week:

… a chasm has opened up between Mr Clegg and Mr Pickles over the breadth and scope of the imminent local government resource review, with the communities secretary fiercely resisting the former’s calls for a much wider-ranging inquiry than that currently planned.

Mr Clegg is pushing for the introduction of local sales and fuel taxes and parking levies to be considered alongside a number of other measures, while Mr Pickles believes the review should not extend much further than the localisation of business rates and the introduction of Tax Increment Financing (TIF). Mr Pickles managed to block Mr Clegg from announcing the expanded review at a speech last week.

The LGC’s chief reporter, Allister Hayman writes in his blog that he is told by sources close to Mr Clegg that he has become increasingly concerned about the government’s lack of ambition in its decentralisation agenda. Clegg wants to “free local government from its overwhelming dependence on Treasury’s purse strings,” says Hayman.

We may question whether many councils, including SCC, are up to having such a large say over taxation. I feel we would be in for a bumpy ride but real power should revitalise local democracy with voters being more careful, insisting on better quality candidates from all the parties.

If the policy of localism is to have any real meaning eth power to tax enough to pay for the services must be devolved from the centre.

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