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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.

Max Wide's twitter profile

Max Wide's twitter profile

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”.

Alan Duce’s unenviable responsibility in battle for Waveney power

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.

 

Andrea Hill stays at £205 a night hotel while councillors make do on £85

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.

Running Scared from Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan wins Eurovision with a song called Running Scared. On Thursday the country had been condemned by the European Parliament for human rights abuses.

And Nigel Pickover, editor of the Enening Star tweets that Azerbaijan are coming closer to home. Their Olympic team is staying in Ipswich next year.

A European parliament press release said:

A few weeks after the two young activists Jabbar Savalan and Bakhtiyar Hajiev used Facebook to call for antigovernment protests in Azerbaijan, charges brought against them for alleged possession of drugs or evasion of military service could result in jail terms of up to two and a half years. MEPs denounce both cases along with the worsening human rights situation in the country, in a resolution that blames the Azerbaijani authorities for increasing harassment and intimidation of journalists and political activists.

MEPs call for the release of the two young bloggers and the newspaper editor Eynulla Fatullayev. They urge the government to drop the illegal charges against them and guarantee the protection of journalists in the country.

Suffolk to sell all elderly care homes while private sector faces problems

Suffolk County Council is set to put its 16 care homes for the elderly up for sale at  time when private care businesses are facing huge problems.

Southern Cross which has 750 homes, eight of them in Suffolk, is demanding rent cuts from landlords of 30 per cent to meet its financial difficulties. It recently said it was on the verge of breaking banking covenants resulting in a 65 per cent drop in its share value (Daily Telegraph).

Other care homes are facing problems too with Anchor, a leading not-for-profit provider with 100 homes (three in Suffolk), telling the Guardian that the average fee for non-nursing care was £550 a week. It was difficult for them to do anything, anywhere for less that £480 but councils were offering £400 take it or leave it.

A Suffolk CC report late last year offered three possibilities: sell all care homes, close all the council’s homes and buy services from others, or sell off 10 homes and close six.

A report to the next cabinet meeting on May 25 recommends recommends inviting “expressions of interest from providers wishing to acquire any or all of the council’s homes for older people and who are able to outline approaches to ensure the availability of required places at reduced costs….”

There would be a further report in February next year outlining proposes terms for sales.

The consultation by the council resulted in 53 per cent of those responding preferring the sale of homes as going concerns.

The report to cabinet says a “flexible approach to property issues will be needed, with regard to both timing and value of any disposals.”

It will also cost £495,000 for a business agenda and there will be transitional costs of about £3.6m over two years. Part of this will be to pay for redundancies. There is reference to cost savings of £49.9m over 22 years.

Local authority care workers have better terms and conditions than those in private sector homes and this is an area where savings can be made.

The decision to sell all the homes is said to have been taken after the consultation and “a detailed market analysis and assessment by the council’s current business agent KPMG”.

KPMG is also working on the restructuring of Southern Cross.

A report in the East Anglian Daily Times yesterday said the six homes threatened with closure were “now likely to remain within the county council.” That raises another question: Who at the county council is spinning confusion at the moment?

The report to the cabinet is here.

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.

East newspaper journalists face job cuts when most needed

At a time when the “localism” drive by central and local government is making high quality reporting and comment vital, the regional press is in a sorry decline, a shadow of its former self.

Today the BBC reports that journalists at Archant Norfolk which publishes the Eastern Daily Press, the Norwich Evening News and a string of weeklies are to ballot on industrial action over plans to cut up to 20 jobs.

In Norfolk a pork pie maker and blogger invited a former Archant journalist to write on what is happening to her local papers. The guest blogger writes:

A few recent examples of the good work regional newspapers can do include the EDP’s campaigns to save RAF Marham, applying pressure for the A11 to be dualled and fighting for better broadband to bring inward investment to the county.

But it’s not just about the big campaigns, it’s also about the little things. If you’re setting up a new business, the chances are you want to advertise it in the papers and you may well benefit from editorial coverage as well.

If public bodies are making cuts (aren’t they all?) who’s going to tell you about it and who’s going to give you a voice to shout about it?

Who’s going to tell you about crime, both major and minor, on your doorstep? Who’s going to tell you about events in your neighbourhood?

Who’s going to highlight the ordinary people who do extraordinary things to help charities and the community?

Who’s going to tell you the quirky little stories that make you smile over your cornflakes?

This reflects what Roy Greenslade, media commentator, former editor and blogger wrote recently about a dispute at another newspaper group in another party of the country. Greenslade, who loves print and has ink in his blood, wrote:

The net is the future, print is not.

I am often described as a doom-monger, a facile criticism. My analysis of the decline of newspapers is based on figures going back 50 years. It is further informed by the accelerating decline since the rise of the internet.

I know there will be printed papers around for a long time. What concerns me is that journalists won’t be.

I want to see the growth of relationships between a skilled professional journalistic cadre and concerned citizens.

Like Roy, I love print. That is where I started my working life, the smell of hot metal in my nose. Now I see online as the future although newspapers will still be around after I have gone.

That relationship between paid journalists and concerned citizens is developing as was neatly demonstrated by one of Greenslade’s Guardian colleagues today.

Patrick Butler (@patrickjbutler), a writer on social affairs, tweeted:

Struck by quality and consistency of political blogs in Suffolk: @andrewga @IpswichSpy @onlygeek @DeardenPhillips

It is nice to be included and I could add more good Suffolk blogs, some of them overtly party-political and others not.

One reason why Butler is reading the Suffolk blogs is that things of national interest have been happening in the county, most of them related to the county council. He needs information and opinion and he is able to get it from blogs as well as traditional print sources.

A concern that many of us have is that the traditional print media in Suffolk has been cut to the bone and overworked journalists are clearly having difficulty in doing the job they would like to be doing, to meet the demands of the community

To some extent bloggers are starting to fill the gap and answer the thirst for information. One day last week when a big story broke Wordblog (only three months old in its present form) had a thousand visitors.

Whether Archant which also owns most papers in Suffolk, including the East Anglian Daily Times and the Evening Star, will attempt to cut journalists here as well as in Norfolk I don’t know. It is difficult to see how they could as they have already cut to the bone.

In the meantime it is clear that online community journalism is strengthening with extremely local news sites developing and more bloggers coming on the scene.

Poundlandisation of services

Because I am thinking about a post on the fragmentation of democracy which is happening, I was taken by this piece by Bob Hudson, of Durham University in the Guardian. It is well worth reading and concludes:

Just as McDonaldization was based upon the availability of a cheap workforce, so the Big Society is premised upon cheap, or even free, labour. What we will witness is the “Poundlandisation” of public services to match the McDonaldization of private goods and services. Welcome to the Big Society.