Arriving in the committee room on Tuesday night, before the Performance & Contract monitoring meeting, Mrs Angry noted that senior officers from Crapita had already staked out their territory in what is supposed to be the public gallery, seating themselves in carefully chosen places, manspreading on a corporate scale - and watching one of the Labour councillors filling up a bottle of water from the now you see it, now you don't, water cooler.
Now you see it, now you don't, because - yes, you guessed it, Crapita removed the water from the public gallery, not so long ago - why? Because it was free, and there must be no such things as a free glass of water, in Capitaville. Mrs Angry protested, and it was returned, eventually. But she warned the councillor she was being watched by the men from Crapita, and should probably expect an invoice, any day now. For the water, the cost of sending an invoice, and a gainshare payment for issuing an invoice. Kerrching.
The Chair of the committee came in and asked Mrs Angry where fellow blogger Mr Reasonable was, clearly hoping he wouldn't turn up, follow up his awkward questions, or speak to the committee. Here was Mrs Angry's own opportunity for profit: Please tell me, she begged, how you have come to the conclusion, as expressed in the local paper, and by your acceptance of these reports, that the Crapita contracts are ... 'a success'?
He looked bemused. To be fair, it doesn't take much to bemuse Cllr Finn, which is why he has been put in charge of rubber stamping the approval of Crapita's contractual performance. Mrs Angry tried again. You say the contract is a marvellous success, because we save £6 million a year. Yes, he beamed, we do. But ... we are paying many, many times that amount back to them, in extra charges, and gainshare payments, so it isn't a net saving, is it?
He looked flustered.
And it is dishonest of the council not to give residents the true picture, is it not? And isn't the truth that you and your Tory colleagues will never admit you have made a mistake in signing up for these contracts, simply for political reasons?
His mouth opened and shut. Then he resorted to desperate measures. From manspreading, to mansplaining, and all in the course of five minutes. Lucky Mrs Angry. He would taker her out for coffee some time, and explain how economics and the market work. Hmm. Had plenty of interesting offers in my time, Councillor Finn, but that goes straight to the top of the list. No thanks. Although: for a silly woman such as me, it might be a good idea. After all: what do I know about such difficult matters? And good to see that although our Tory councillors are too busy and/or lazy to read all the reports given to them before crucial council meetings, they have plenty of time to patronise the lady bloggers of Broken Barnet.
Later on in the meeting, staring as Mrs Angry often does, due to her feeble, wandering woman's mind, at the feet of the senior officers called to the table, she could not help but notice that one of them was wearing a pair of eye-wateringly high stiletto heeled, black patent shoes, with the tell tale red soles of Christian Louboutin: very expensive, impossible to walk in - any further than a few rows in a committee room, anyway - and a daring expression of swagger rarely seen in any meetings of the London Borough of Broken Barnet. Wasted on the councillors of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, of course, but - a statement of sorts ... perhaps a warning. And useful material for Mrs Angry's purposes.
Clearly our senior officers (who come and go at a dizzying rate of speed) are now paid very handsomely for their endeavours. But it occurred to Mrs Angry, who of course being a mere woman does not understand economics, or the market, but can grasp the basic principles in terms of, say - buying shoes, that telling residents you are saving £6 million a year, while spending maybe ... £50 million a year on extra charges ... is the equivalent of feeling smug and telling your mother that you spent £6 re-heeling your old boots from last year to make them do for another twelve months, then going out the next day and blowing £500 on a pair of Louboutins.
(This is a real example from the Miss Angry school of economic thought, in fact: although she favours Manolo Blahnik, as rather less - well: you know ... and even more expensive).
The level of payments to Capita, up to April 2013, pic courtesy Mr Reasonable
Well: we've put it off as long as possible, but now we must relate what happened at the meeting.
With a look of resignation, and even sadness, on his open, honest face, Mr Reasonable (or Cllr Dix, as the Chair accidentally referred to him ...) sat wearily at the table and attempted to extract some sort of intelligent response to his questions. He knew it was a waste of time, as the officers who compile the answers don't give a monkeys about the points he raises, and nor do the Tory councillors - those that can understand what he is banging on about.
Mr Reasonable queried the process and basis of comparison used in the three year contract review, and the scope of oversight over the next few years.
Why had the reports used the Agilisys contract as a point of comparison, when the cost of this had jumped from a projected £2 million spend to an astonishing £7.1 million? There was a response, but not a reply - one that made any sense.
Why are council tax collection rates lower than they were in 2012/13? Not bovvered: it's guaranteed over a four year term, so Capita will generously top up the money missing as a result of their own inefficiency.
Oh, and - remember that £16 million we paid Crapita as an upfront capital investment, at the beginning of the contract, instead of, as we had been told, being given £16 million as upfront capital investment from Capita? S'all gone now, see, spent on IT, and stuff, and now they want another £9 million. Why? Where did the £16 million go? Well, this story varies, every time you ask the question. This time, we were told it went on 'replacement of the council's HR and finance systems'. Not on the library IT, clearly, which so catastrophically failed, earlier this year.
At one point Mr Reasonable gently reminded the Chair that his knowledge of contractual matters, comparisons, benchmarking etc was based on his own experience of many years in business consultancy. Would he like to name the company he worked for, asked Cllr Finn, in a rather narky tone of voice. No, smiled Mr R: not really. This was a shame, as Mrs Angry knows that Mr Reasonable used to work for one particularly high profile firm where his tea boy ... was one of our local Tory MPs ...
Speaking to the committee, he urged the councillors, if they had not already done so - and by the look on their faces ... they had not already done so - to watch the most interesting BBC documentary, 'Who's Spending Britain's Billions', by Jacques Peretti, on the subject of outsourcing and consultants, and how they are milking our public services for all they can get. Blank faces. Ok. Next: have any of the councillors looked at what their own officers had to say, in the course of the contract review? More blank faces. What you on about?
The Chair asked Mr Reasonable to explain. He pointed out that they seemed to have overlooked a most interesting document, amongst the collection of papers sent to them in preparation for tonight's contract review. Really one has to wonder if anyone in the room, other than Mr Reasonable, had bothered to inform themselves of anything other than the outline of the reports in question. The Tory councillors didn't properly scrutinise the 8,000 page contract, of course, but then one or two mewled like babies, after voting to approve the deal, that they hadn't been allowed to. And so why should they bother to scrutinise the scrutiny handed to them by officers and Crapita of ... the performance of officers and Crapita, after three years of the contract being in place?
Part of the Capita contracts, carried in triumph through the Town Hall after approval, largely unread by your Tory councillors
The findings from the internal interviews with staff, in regard to the CSG Capita contract, are most interesting. Here are a few excerpts:
Both directors and staff raised issues with basic systems and processes, which are
perceived to be complex, slow and not user friendly.
Transparency of costs, additional charges and project spend, and assuring value for money is being delivered, were consistently raised as concerns by directors and staff.
Meetings with Directors and Assistant Directors:
Transparency of costs, additional charges and project spend were raised as key
concerns. It was felt that CSG are often reluctant to go above and beyond the
requirements of the contract without additional charges. Directors reported that the
council needs to be more confident that solutions suggested by CSG, particularly for
projects and capital spend are best value.
Concerns were raised that CSG has a disproportionate focus on the delivery of
process and KPIs over outcomes, creating a more contractual rather than
partnership relationship between CSG and the council. Directors noted that many
KPIs are not relevant and their reporting does not reflect actual service performance.
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera: in fact the whole document is a catalogue of serious concerns, which the councillors should have seen, read and investigated before arriving at this meeting. Frankly, it is an indictment of the state of governance in this borough that they did not bother properly to inform themselves, and inspect all the material included in these reports.
The only positive observation in the staff report is that they are said to 'acknowledge' that savings have been made. That savings have been made is true only in the sense that the limited area of core savings are guaranteed; but beyond that fenced off area is a whole world of seemingly unlimited expenditure, courtesy of the contract variations which allow Crapita to pump more and more money out of the deal, to the extent that the core savings are negligible, when seen from the perspective of net expenditure.
What, asked Mr Reasonable, is your strategy going forward?
Because, he pointed out, that is entirely missing from this review.
Response? Yep. More blank faces. He sat down, with a sigh.
Time to look at the contracted areas of service delivery. Ah - first up:
Here is Kylie to tell us about it.
Telephony. Such a mellifluous, harmonious sounding word for something so ... so f*cking awful : the crap Crapita phone system, as anyone who has been lost in the labyrinthine hell of this 'service' will testify.
Consider the other week, for example, when it took six minutes queueing just to get to someone on the switchboard, only to find - after much effort - that the operator did not know who the Monitoring Officer was, denied there was such a post, or any need for such a post (might have a point, actually) and ... oh, why bother to continue? Or mention the endless dead ends, the disconnnections, the difficulty in making any complaint - or indeed, in the lowest circle of hell, making a complaint about the handling of a complaint.
But Kylie was feeling upbeat.
She declared it was all 'really quite positive'. Yep. There was a - aha - 'a really positive direction of travel'. Hoorah. Although - oh: hang on: 'there are always challenges to keep us on our toes'. Good, good. Wouldn't want you to get bored, and we all like a challenge, don't we?
One of the ways we accentuate the positive, in Capitaville, is by ... well, this sort of thing, as Kylie explained. Instead of worrying about answering the phone in 60 seconds, apparently we, ie Crapita, now recognise that ... well, they can't be *rsed, because that would entail hiring too many operators, and training them, and a loss of profit, and so they 'emphasise a positive outcome' instead.
In other words, look, here is Mrs Angry waiting in a queue for six minutes just to get the switchboard to respond, but we did in the end, and that ... that is a positive outcome. Target reached.
Moving on now to the awful Website, which was supposed to be less awful by now, but appears still to have challenges keeping Crapita on its toes, and looking for positive outcomes. The webforms, for example.
What, asked the Chair of the committee which oversees a contract that includes millions of pounds in payment to Crapita for IT services, is a 'webform'?
Mrs Angry looked on in disbelief.
Let me take you out for coffee, Councillor Finn, and womansplain your website to you, and how it is supposed to work. Then tell me again what a success the contract is.
A discussion about adult social care then, and the revelation of a huge overspend, due, as the Labour councillors pointed out, to the selfish council tax obsession of the Tories, hellbent on cutting or freezing for political purposes even though they know they have less money to spend on such vital support services.
Up to the table comes the man from Crapita. How's it going, asks the Chair? A lot better, we hear. Phew. That's ok then. Oh, hang on: it may not actually be better, but they are 'a lot better at communicating the journey we are on'.
People may not be happy with the roads and pavements, in other words, but they will be bound to feel grateful to Crapita for sharing with them, and describing their journey, won't they?
When things go wrong in Broken Barnet - well, no: they do not go really go wrong, and no one is ever to blame - rather people are, like those involved in this year's election cockup, according to the 'investigation' merely, yes: 'on a journey, and we wish them well'. One of the senior officers involved in the election organisation, in fact, has gone on a journey on a one way ticket, destination unknown.
This is the way the world ends, in Broken Barnet: not with a bang, but a whimper, as officers quietly disappear into the void, never to be seen again. Until they turn up somewhere else as a consultant, that is.
Highways now, we heard, are run on a new basis, of having ideas about stuff, and sort of organising them a bit.
System driven messages, tracking every single job. Every single one: just imagine! How clever. Ward walks. Door knocks. Really? To be fair, we did have someone from Crapita knocking on the door the other week, on a Saturday, in fact, trying to snoop on a neighbour they thought was avoiding council tax, and expecting Mrs Angry to denounce them. A hint of what is to come, now we are back living in the nineteen thirties.
All sorts of wonderful things are happening in Capitaville HQ. A number of 'experts' were now advising Jamie Blake, (a senior officer on a six figure salary, responsible for the disabled travel card cancellations & other brilliant schemes), which Mrs Angry remarked, uncalled for, from across the room, was a very good idea, and better late than never, and she might tell you which officer sat behind her Laughed Out Loud at that point, but perhaps she had better not.
On to another subject of great interest to all, especially the Labour councillors, who go on about it all the time, ie tarmac. Crapita approves the use of a new flexible type of pavement, we heard.
Mrs Angry tried not to think about the comic possibilities of this announcement, but it was hard. Well, not hard, flexible.
Will it become Rutted, worried the Labour councillors?
Mrs Angry tried not to think about the now permanently queenly Tory Cllr Lisa Rutter, who, in her head, was never deposed as Mayor, and the comic possibilities of her being used to assess the new surface, and its flexibility, but failed, and laughed quietly to herself, picturing the scene.
Of time. Veteran Tory Cllr John Marshall, another of Mrs Angry's aged admirers, who has been a politician since the age of dust collectors, dung heaps, and chamber pots, is worried about waste disposal, twenty first century style, ie recycling: food recycling. How can we get people to do more of it?
The man from Crapita tried hard to use the opportunity to say the only solution was fewer collections, but his pitch was spoiled by Tory Cllr Zinkin boasting that clever foxes in his ward, ie Childs Hill, the poor man's Hampstead, were now able to formulate some sort of recycling strategy of their own, open the food bins, and help themselves to leftovers. Yes: very clever. No doubt they also know what a webform is, and have read all the reports on the Capita contract.
Back comes Kylie, still very cheerful. Her positive, Pollyanna like spin on the truly terrible search engine was that it was 'not unhelpful to customers'.
That is always a bonus, in a search engine, isn't it? Not to get in the way of searching for something, even if you can't serve any purpose. Not unhelpful, the search engine, but one might argue it is still not ... helpful, exactly. Stuck between two possibilities, caught in a state of inertia, like a Tory councillor.
Mr Reasonable poked Mrs Angry in the arm, and woke her up, and showed her a photo on his phone, of the Barnet website, earlier that day:
A less than positive outcome, but keeping Crapita on its toes
IT update now, with two officers, one of them the urbane Mr Brett Holtom, outsourcing's answer to Tom Cruise, who was flown in on a charm offensive, as ambassador for the church of Crapita, after the catastrophic library IT crash, which left the system out of action for months, and irretrievably lost a huge amount of vital data, raising huge questions about the risk to other IT systems used by the council, supposedly maintained by Crapita.
It had been 'quite a challenging year', he explained, with masterly understatement.
According to his linkedin profile, he has quite a challenging role: roles 'Account Director at Capita local government, Operations Director at Capita IT Enterprise Services, Partnership Director at Capita'. What, all at the same time?
'Following the disasters',' declared Brett smoothly, with apparently no sense of concern that there had been any disaster at Barnet, let alone a number of them, 'Following the disasters ...' yes? They had done stuff.
Checked things. Thought about improvements. New project processes. New teams. And introduced something that sounded to Mrs Angry like 'death boards': hopefully not a list of local bloggers to be chivvied into an early use of their (pre-used) discounted Crapita graves at the Easycrem Crapitorium, as guaranteed in the CSG contract.
We do feel, said Tom Cruise, with a winning smile, that we are making progress, and are back on course.
The man from Crapita: 'following the disasters ...'
Marvellous. Only taken three years, and an apocalyptic IT failure to get you there. And that is what we are paying for, making progress, on our journey, rather than arriving at a good place, is it not? Better to travel hopefully, than to arrive.
Labour's Arjun Mittra asked politely if, following this acknowledged disaster, we could please have our money back, ie some form of compensation.
There was a look of studied incomprehension on the faces of the men from Crapita. And the Tory councillors agreed there was no need for any repayment, just because we had paid them to undertake a service which had failed so dramatically, and with such serious consequences.
Mrs Angry thought wistfully how different things would be, if Tory councillors were held personally accountable for the failure of contractual performance, and entered into a happy reverie on the subject of surcharges, and jail sentences.
As for the final views on the review of Capita's contractual performance? Labour's Geof Cooke pointed in vain at the number of commitments not delivered: how Key Performance Indicators do not measure the real state of service delivery; that the service credits which follow any acknowledged failure are miniscule in scale; the Chair then stepped in to silence any reference to actual figures, which were contained in the blue papers, in the exempt part of the meeting.
Finally it was time for Councillor Zinkin, the only Tory present with a modicum of political nous (from their point of view) and able to pull things together, and find a way to explain their decision to continue with the contract, in the face of all common sense.
As the 'partner relationship manager' sat at the end of the table, resting his eyes, Zinkin, who is a nice enough chap, but clearly rather naive, told us the contracts were intended to save money, which they had, and although Mr Dix had gone on about the extra charges, well, he didn't think it had been proved that we were paying any more money than we would have done anyway, and yes, some things worked well and some less well, but you know, looking forward, we must focus on making things better, and look on this point as 'a mid-course correction' ... He looked over at Mrs Angry and smiled. Mrs Angry mouthed a less than polite word in return, smiling back, and wishing she could impose some sort of mid course correction on the Tory councillors.
Please understand this, reader. It is quite simple.
Let us repeat it: the Crapita contracts are returning in one hand a nominal and small amount of 'savings' on a limited number of guaranteed areas. Beyond that, due to the variation opportunities hidden in the detail of the massive contract, most of which went unnoticed by your doltish Tory councillors, Capita is able to make vast extra profits from other charges - the spurious renewal and cancellation of some disabled travel passes came about this way - as well as demand whopping financial rewards in the shape of gainshare payments.
As for the claim that there is no proof we are paying out for things we do not need, at a higher rate than normal: why are we paying out so much money, and an increasingly large amount, for consultancy and agency fees? Capita makes gainshare profits from these rising costs, of course.
As Mr Reasonable points out here, this financial year we are now likely to see the bill for interim and agency costs to rise to a staggering £20 MILLION.
How much of the council's work is now being done not by employees on modest salaries, but through hidden and unaccountable agency and consultancy arrangements, and at much greater cost? That bill gives you an idea, and directly challenges Cllr Zinkin's defence of the contract renewal. It also shows how extravagant the council can be, at the same time as cutting your library service to shreds, for a relatively tiny amount of financial benefit.
Why is there so much criticism amongst Barnet's own officers about the contractual performance - and why, Tory councillors, didn't you read that report, before making the decision to carry on as normal?
And why don't any of these Tory members, many of whom privately have as many qualms about this as anyone else, ask such questions, in public?
Because they lack the courage to do so, and care more about being re-elected than standing up for what is right, and what needs to be said. Those that know what is wrong remain silent, and those who don't too easily accept the excuses put before them at the committee table, over and over again.
We are now on the run up to the next local elections: extra PR staff have been paid for, until then, to 'manage the council's reputation', at a cost of £800,000, and at a time when vital services are being ruthlessly cut, on the pretext of austerity.
Nothing in Broken Barnet matters as much to this shameless Tory administration as retaining power, and nothing, but nothing - not truth, nor scandal, nor injustice - must get in the way of that, whatever the cost, literally, or metaphorically, to the people whose best interests they are meant to represent, and safeguard.
Not to worry: only another seven years of this journey we are on together, Barnet and Crapita.
Enjoy the ride.