Monday, 29 October 2012

Smooth operator: BT, outsourcing, and some Cornish connections


Marconi, busy inventing the first Cornish telehealth call centre

Cornwall has a unique place in the history of modern communication systems: the first transatlantic radio signal was transmitted from Poldhu Cove, in 1901, 'pip pip pip' heard far across the Atlantic by Giuseppe Marconi, waiting and listening in Newfoundland, using a glass tube filled with iron filings, and antennae held high in the air by balloons. 

Those three pips, spelling out in code the letter S, signified the genesis of a new age, in which the world was to be transformed by broadcasting, telephone networks, satellite systems, mobile technology and the internet. 

Marconi wrote: I now felt for the first time absolutely certain that the day would come when mankind would be able to send messages without wires not only across the Atlantic but between the farthermost ends of the earth.  

Broadcasting, phones, the internet: messages without wires: the business now of global communications companies: big business in which diversification is endlessly pursued in the inevitable wider and wider search for profitable markets. And no company better exemplifies this commercial enterprise,  perhaps, than BT. 

On its website, BT describes itself as the world's oldest telecommunications company, and even has a helpful family tree which explains how, several generations ago,  the Post Office married various telephone  companies and gave birth to British Telecom, which was then privatised, and grew and grew into the global monster it now has become, with interests in industries and services a universe away from its communications origin, and with a seemingly insatiable appetite for more and more business opportunities. 

This appetite is so voracious, in fact, that its hunger can no longer be contained within the limits of the private sector, and over the last few years has been running wild in the new jungle of the public sector, feasting on the opportunities offered by local authority outsourcing, in competition with a small pool of rival competitors.

So: one of the most revisited posts here in Broken Barnet is this one:

... in which  Mrs Angry explained some of the ways BT has approached the public sector market, by means such as the 'Vital Vision' programme, whose alumni include many Chief Executives ,whose value and interest to BT was explained in a now withdrawn document, 'Vital Vision Final', from 2005, in which we are told that one of the benefits the program delivered was by  'Influencing the thinking of the chief executives to shape their agenda'  ... 

You might wonder, as did Mrs Angry on reading this, quite what business it is of BT, a private company, to shape an agenda which is supposed to serve the policies of a democratically elected administration, but there you go: we live in a world where localism is no more than a doodle on the notepad of secretaries of state, and local authorities are run by senior officers, rather than those representing the wishes of the local taxpayers.

BT has been a particularly good friend to the London Borough of Broken Barnet: council leaders, Chief Executives, senior officers - some are Vital Visionaries, some have worked for BT, come to Barnet, gone back to BT. And where Bt has softened up the market for huge outsourcing programmes, its fellow big league bidders have benefited too: Capita, Serco and so on. In these large scale procurements, if one company gets the contract in one bid, another will get it next time: all the gentlemen bidders in the house of fun get their turn, eventually. 

The house of fun is facing hard times, however, and every week we hear tale of more and more outsourcing contracts which are ending in tears and recrimination, or are not reaching the final stages of agreement because of a sudden flurry of uncertainty about such huge commitement involving increasingly high risk - and no guarantee of benefit to the local taxpayer's investment.

Most recently we have seen the dramatic rejection in Cornwall of the Tory leader's failure to push through a controversial privatisation deal involving a joint venture: a vote by the council expressing opposition was initially ignored by the leader, his deputy resigned, a vote of no confidence led to the loss of the leader's position, and a petition to council was voted through which has effectively thrown the plans out of the town hall window - BT, the sole remaining bidder, will have to have its fingers prised from the window ledge, it seems: look at this article in Computer Weekly: here , with the heading -

Cornwall caught in bed with BT as councillors raise red card

Councillors might have put Cornwall's privatisation on probation. But the council had already begun acting as a joint venture partner with BT.

They voted unanimously Tuesday to suspend a proposal to put up to £800m of public services into a company in which BT would own a majority stake. 

BT planned to transform it into a hub from which it would manage the privatisation of other council services around the country, and to operate a telehealth business. 

Councillors withheld their approval and said they wanted to scrutinise the deal properly before approving it. 

But a "confidential" BT brochure mailed to councillors by Cornwall's own executive last Friday said Cornwall was already working with BT on bids for business from other public authorities. 

"We are already in three competitive bid situations for Telehealth/care with Australia Telehealth, Northumbria Telehealth and Hampshire Telecare; where we have named Cornwall as our partner," it said. "And have an expression of interest from others including Surrey."

According to this article, Cornwall's Chief Executive, Kevin Lavery once worked for BT as head of local government. But then again, to be fair: who hasn't? A significant number of our senior officers here in Broken Barnet, past and present, have had links of some sort with BT, or Capita, or Serco. The world of outsourcing is smaller than you might expect. The ubiquitous Mr Max Wide, for example, now working for iMPOWER, the same consultancy company which, with Agilisys, is being paid millions of punds of our money to implement One Barnet, our own sad, mad and bad outsourcing plans, used to work for BT as Director of Strategic Development, Local Government, and was of course seconded for a nice long stay at Barnet, while they had one or two of our officers in return.

Of course both Kevin Lavery and Max Wide are men of undoubted integrity, and very experienced professional managers who have a broad and very useful experience of many aspects of the private and public sectors - and arguably the boundaries between the two are immaterial now, with so much interdependence. 

The question must be asked, however, from the wider perspective: does the free, and in Barnet, anyway, demonstrably unregulated travel of senior employees between private sector to local authority, and back again, in any way enhance the best interests of the local taxpayers, in terms of expertise, value for money, transparency, accountability, democracy, or does it, in the context of the procurement of such hugely ambitious outsourcing projects, represent a serious and far reaching potential conflict of interest? 

When the veil of 'commercial sensitivity' is used to hide even from elected representatives the details of huge outsourcing bids, can this really be a process that is properly open to scrutiny?

Incredibly, the article tells us that only when the other bidder dropped out of the Cornish dialogue were councillors made privy to the details of BT's plans: and what plans they were:  

"BT wanted to build a "Global Centre of Excellence" for telehealth and telecare in Cornwall. It would do this by assimilating assets acquired from Cornwall's NHS Trusts. It would turn Cornwall into one node in a network of "business hubs and Centres of Excellence" it was building from its outsource deals across the public sector. Telehealth would become Cornwall's specialism in the national and global economy."

It's a long journey, isn't it, from Marconi's pioneering radio station in Poldhu, to a twenty first century call centre dealing virtually with the personal care needs of dependent older citizens? From communications that connect, to communications that disconnect, here in Broken Britain.

The article continues, and refers to a Cornish Libdem councillor, Nigel Pearce, who said in Tuesday's debate:

 " ... The problem with this bid is there's too much marketing. There's very little information on the finance," he said. "And also about the operation, how its going to work, the nuts and bolts. We do need to avoid some of the flannel-speak." 

The choice, however, was clear. It was the difference between the soothing noises made by BT's army-sized sales and marketing department and the infamous Barnet Graph of Doom that claims to show how council budgets will be squeezed so severely by 2030 that they will need to flog off their services.

Oh dear: the infamous Barnet Graph of Doom ... wonder how that made its way out west to Cornwall? And yes, please note 'claims to show' ... this piece of tosh has been clearly demonstrated by fellow blogger Mr Reasonable to be a discreditable work comprised of data wilfuly misinterpreted by unscientific and subjective assumptions, but is, regrettably, being used spuriously to serve and support the ambitions of a wide range of politically motivated parties.

In the brave new world that will result in the carve up of our NHS, and the savaging of our care services, clients looking for business in the side streets of our wanton local authorities will be spoilt for choice.  Down in Cornwall, last week,  BT got a slap across the face, and was shown the door: back here in Broken Barnet, the door is still wide open, and house of fun awaits. BT and Capita are sitting nicely on the sofa in the parlour: which one will get to go upstairs with us? Well, friends: probably doesn't matter much, in the end - they all look the same in the dark, don't they? Either way, courtesy of One Barnet, we are all going to get screwed.

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