29 September 2011

FOI - Barnet Council nonsense

Mr Mustard is engaged on important business at the moment and hasn't got time to blog but the bloggers early warning system alerted him to some patent nonsense put out by Cllr Thomas today which you can read here and this quick blog was necessary.

Firstly the sum of £40,000 has not been spent answering FOI questions. £nil has been spent. All  FOI questions are answered by staff in the normal course of their work. There are over 3,000 staff employed by the council so answering one question a day between them is hardly going to stop normal work.  No extra staff have been employed.
There are 462 managers at the council so it isn't even one question each in 6 months. That isn't a severe case of overwork now is it?

The council should be delighted that residents want to know more about the workings of the council.

Mr Mustard can't speak for the other bloggers but he can say that many of his questions are very simple such as how much the cost of room rental was for the last 4 residents forums. So someone simply has to look up a total of 12 figures in the accounts. The results will surprise you but that is a story for another day. If each figure took more than a minute to look up that would be the result of incompetence. Cllr Thomas has relied on an average response time of 9 hours for each and every request which is not valid for Mr Mustard's requests. 

Why are requests necessary? Well partly because the information that Barnet Council publishes is inaccurate. Try and find payments to the Chief Financial Officer himself made via his Limited company Halliford Associates Ltd in this financial year and there seems, from memory, to be only one payment of £1,000 which is odd as he will have been drawing £20,000 most months.

The payments that are made have no detail which enable one to judge if they are sensible spending or not and hence FOI questions are necessary.

It is known that only 80% of contracts are in place and this inevitably leads to questions.

The attitude of Barnet Council to answering questions is a secretive one. Mr Mustard asked for a copy of the May Gurney contract for recycling. It came with so many passages blocked out that it was next to useless and will end up being the subject of an appeal to the Information Commissioner. Hackney Council, on the other hand, sent the entire contract without a single figure or  word crossed out. Is that related to the fact that they negotiated a much better deal?

One Barnet is not transparent. There is no need to carry out a survey. When Barnet Council locked out workers who wanted to work as they only planned to strike later that day the workers didn't waste their time, they toured Barnet spreading the message. It turned out that residents who had heard of One Barnet were rarer than hens' teeth. Mr Mustard hadn't heard of One Barnet until he became interested in the badly run affairs of the council this year. 

Cllr Thomas seems to have forgotten that it is the law that says requests for Freedom of Information requests have to be answered and so he should direct himself to central government if he would like to see the law changed.

Mr Mustard tries very hard to obey all laws and pays his taxes in full and on time. He will therefore exercise his democratic rights whenever the mood takes him.

And, dear reader, if there is anything you want to know, absolutely anything at all about Barnet Council, then send your request in to foi@barnet.gov.uk You can send in as many requests as you like if they are all different,

and if you think that Mr Mustard shouldn't send in more than a certain number of requests per week please do write and tell him at mrmustard@zoho.com 

if on the other hand you think that Cllr Thomas should stop sending press releases and get on with something useful then I am sure he would be delighted to hear from residents on this email address 

Yours frugally
Mr Mustard

27 September 2011

Recycling - Will this little initiative really make much difference ?

Here is a recent press release issued by Barnet Council:-

Mayor Lisa Rutter & Councillor Old ( rather crumpled suit ! )
A new campaign has been rolled out on the roads of Barnet aimed at raising awareness of the economic benefits of recycling.

Funded by Recycle for London (RfL), new banners have been added to 10 of Barnet Council’s refuse collection trucks, highlighting how much money residents have saved over the course of the last year.

During 2010, Barnet residents saved a staggering £1 million by recycling materials through the council’s weekly kerbside collection scheme and by using the recycling banks service.

Unveiling the new banners at the Council’s Mill Hill Depot yesterday afternoon (Monday 19 September), The Worshipful the Mayor of Barnet, Councillor Lisa Rutter said:

“This is an excellent achievement by our residents who are conscientiously sorting their household waste for recycling each week. I am delighted we have saved so much by diverting valuable materials from landfill, although there is still much more to do.
We're now able to recycle over 70 per cent of our total household waste, but at present only around 33 per cent of household waste is being recycled.

"The rising cost of landfill tax will only make this more of a challenge in the future. However I'm sure with our residents' help we can all play our part in recycling more."

Contact Press Officer: Mike Langton

Now Mr Mustard is all in favour of recycling, he would start with his 3 ward councillors but he has to wait until 2014 to do that, and so he ought to be pleased with this little effort that has been made but he isn't and this is why.

Well for a start these posters will only be seen by residents who happen to be around.

The banners are not so inspiring that they are likely to get new people to recycle.

They have been funded by Recycle for London and the cynical bit of Mr Mustard thinks that is the only reason why the initiative has happened. If Barnet Council hadn't been funded they wouldn't have bothered?

They are only on "10 of" the refuse trucks i.e. not on all of them. If this is such a good idea why not put the banners on all trucks and on the recycling lorries and every other vehicle that Barnet Council possess including the mayoral car.

Residents may have saved £1m but the payment to May Gurney is £290,000 a month so that equates to £3.5m in a year ( including for running the Summers Lane facility ). May Gurney get half of the value of everything that you recycle that is sold. Does that sound like good value to you? No, nor to Mr Mustard.

May Gurney got a bonus of £889,000 for this in the year to 31 March 2011. That is money that should have come off your council tax bill. About £3 each.

The recycling rate of Barnet isn't "an excellent achievement" Recycling 33% of waste against a possible 70% is a diabolical performance. In Barnet Council it is normal to miss targets by such a wide margin and think it a reason to celebrate.

Yes people should recycle more but these banners aren't the solution.

You need to be much more dynamic and radical Barnet Council. 

Go back to the drawing board and start again with a clean sheet. Look at what successful boroughs and successful countries do and make radical changes to the whole set-up.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

26 September 2011

An open letter to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

An open letter to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Barnet Bloggers are fed up with the lack of transparency at Barnet Council, particularly their attitude to Freedom of Information requests. Set out below is an open letter to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Dear Mr Pickles

In June last year, as part of your stated policy of commitment to the principle of ‘localism’ and greater accountability by local authorities to the communities they represent, you issued the following statement:

New era of transparency will bring about a revolution in town hall openness and accountability

“Getting council business out in the open will revolutionise local government. Local people should be able to hold politicians and public bodies to account over how their hard earned cash is being spent and decisions made on their behalf. They can only do that effectively if they have the information they need at their fingertips.

“The public should be able to see where their money goes and what it delivers. The swift and simple changes we are calling for today will unleash an army of armchair auditors and quite rightly make those charged with doling out the pennies stop and think twice about whether they are getting value for money.”

As part of your programme of action to make local authorities more accountable you have created an obligation for them to disclose details of expenditure and have expressed the intention to compel councils to allow citizen journalists to film, photograph and tweet reports of council meetings.

In conjunction with these new directives, you have expressed the wish that residents use existing legislation in order to scrutinise the processes of local government, including, most importantly, the rights given in the Freedom of Information Act of 2000.

All of these suggestions are commendable, and should indeed further extend the powers of scrutiny to local communities.

It is deeply regrettable, therefore, that here in the London Borough of Barnet, rather than embrace a policy of greater transparency, the Conservative administration is making every effort to resist any obligation to be more accountable to its electorate, and is, in direct opposition to your wishes, obstructing the efforts of the armchair auditors that you so applaud.

In a speech at the CIPFA conference in July this year you made the following remark:

I was shocked by a recent case in Barnet. The council had hired a private security firm, MetPro, which included “keeping an eye” on local bloggers - at a cost of over a million pounds. The contract had been awarded without a tendering exercise, without a written contract, and no proper invoicing. An internal audit showed there “serious deficiencies in current procurement arrangements”, and there were no guarantees that against a repeat of such practices.

Irony of ironies - this misuse of public money was uncovered thanks to the determination of local bloggers and activists, including Barnet Eye, Mr Mustard, and Mrs Angry (as she had every right to be.) Exactly the same people MetPro snooped upon.

I've got news for Barnet. Live blogging from council meetings. Microjournalism. Call it what you like. It's here to stay. In fact this citizen samizdat - local people reporting on their local council's triumphs and shortcomings - is the perfect counterblast to town hall Pravdas.

As you know, Mr Pickles, here in Barnet bloggers have had to fight for the right to film council meetings, and we have made huge efforts to uncover the ‘deficiencies’ which lay at the heart of the MetPro affair, as well as bringing to the attention of the community a number of other serious issues of concern to all residents.

Earlier this year, in defiance of the move to greater transparency and accountability, and to a more meaningful engagement with citizens, we have seen Barnet’s Conservative administration attack the local constitution, restricting the right of elected councillors to speak at meetings, and worst of all, censoring the local Residents Forums so that absolutely no discussion of any council ‘policy’ may now be raised, nor any issue alluded to within a six month period be submitted for inclusion. These and other draconian and undemocratic regulations are read out in detail at every Forum, and their imposition has caused enormous anger and resentment amongst residents.

Even more worrying, perhaps, is that the culture of secrecy and fear of transparency which is so endemic in this local authority has now extended to the council’s flagrant abuse of the Freedom of Information Act.

Barnet bloggers and armchair auditors – and other residents – who have submitted FOI requests to Barnet Council are increasingly having their enquiries obstructed or needlessly delayed, particularly enquiries on issues of political or financial sensitivity.

Two FOI requests submitted by residents in regard to the MetPro affair, for example, were only answered a few days ago, on 16th September, after an inexplicable delay of several months.

One request had been made in early April, the other in early May. As you will know, the statutory period within which responses must be made is 20 days.

Another request made in relation to potential declarations of interest between senior officers of the council and a major private company was ignored for months and then obstructed on a pretext, despite a current outsourcing tender process for a package of services worth a staggering £750 million in total, in which this influential company is now one of those shortlisted.

In Barnet there is no open declaration of interests, gifts, or hospitality given to senior officers, and one response given to an FOI request by a blogger in regard to such declarations was sent with the identities of donors withheld, invalidating the information and again obstructing the purpose of the enquiry.

The FOI request in regard to the tendering company was reported to the external auditors at a meeting in July: despite an assurance that the issue would be investigated by them under the terms of their remit, we are not aware of any progress in their enquiry.

After struggling to hold the authority to account for FOI responses which were withheld, delayed, or misleading, one Barnet blogger has recently been sent, in reply to a perfectly valid question regarding a hugely over budget IT system, a response refusing to address his request for information, on the grounds that it is ‘vexatious’ and because of the alleged number of previous enquiries.

In Barnet, bloggers, armchair auditors and residents are obliged to resort to making an increasingly large number of FOI requests in response to an obstinate refusal by the authority to comply with the intentions of your stated commitment to greater openness, accountability and transparency, and in order to place the necessary information in the public domain, in a medium easily accessible to all.

Despite the demonstrably inadequate state of preparation revealed by the MetPro audit report, and despite the concerns of so many backbench Conservative councillors, a highly controversial programme of massive outsourcing is being promoted by Barnet’s senior management team and council leadership as the keystone policy of the ‘easycouncil’, One Barnet agenda. There could hardly be a time in which a need for openness and accountability could be more pressing. Public confidence in the governance of this borough is, however, at an all time low, and we, as residents and citizen journalists therefore ask that you, in defence of your stated policy of localism, investigate the obstructive and anti-democratic practices employed by this authority in a sustained attempt to prevent proper scrutiny of its actions and decisions.

Yours sincerely

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne

23 September 2011

HR horrors

Mr Mustard has looked at the performance overviews for all seven directorates. 

What Mr Mustard has now noticed is that problems in HR are a recurring theme.

Mr Mustard has produced a table of the Human Resources Ratings, the number of active Employee Relations cases ( i.e. those where the council and the employee are not seeing eye to eye ) and the number of temporary staff provided by Hays. Here is the table.

HR ER Hays
Adult Social Care -5.5 5 38
Children's -6.0 30 96
Environment, Planning & Regen -5.5 46 117
Commercial Services -4.0 5 15
Deputy Chief Executive -5.5 5 71
Chief Executive -5.5 6 19
Corporate Governance -2.0 6 6
Totals -34.0 103 362

This is absolutely shocking. Every single directorate has Human Resources problems.

There are 103 employees in some sort of wrangle with the council. The full head count of the council is 3178 and so 3% or 1 in 30 have a problem. That simply cannot be acceptable.

So 362 temps out of a headcount of 3,178 is 11.4% of the workforce or 1 in every 9 employees. They can't possibly learn enough about the council in a short-term stay to be as effective as a permanent employee.

Mr Mustard can't help but feel that having 362 temps from Hays is not the best way to have a cohesive, efficient and dedicated workforce. There are, of course, also other temps from other agencies or interims or contractors or people on fixed term contracts which all dilutes the effectiveness of the council. All of these temps have to be supported by permanent employees who have their own jobs to perform without wet-nursing a temp who might be gone next week. 

So what is the cause of the HR problem? Have a think about it during lunch or over the weekend.

Mr Mustard thinks that the following might be reasons, but you may have other, better ideas:-

Is it the decision to "maintain a flexible workforce"?

Is the corporate management team, from the Chief Executive down, simply not up to the job?

Is the head of HR, not herself a permanent employee on PAYE but paid through a Limited company ( Jacquie McGeachie HR Consulting Ltd ), despite being at Barnet since 2009, simply not up to the job? See the Mr Reasonable blog to see what she was paid last year alone.

Is the idea of outsourcing 2,700 jobs ( or however many it is, a big number anyway ) causing the staff to be unhappy and affecting their behaviour?

Is One Barnet distracting the management team from their day to day management role?

Whatever the cause, some radical changes to effect improvements are due. Barnet Council simply cannot go on as it is.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

Adult Social Care & Health - performance overview

Purely for the sake of completeness and as Mr Mustard is about to summarise 3 key numbers across all directorates here is the overview for the final directorate. It isn't any better than the other ones.

click to enlarge; back to return

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

New name - same old poor performance

So the department for Environment, Planning & Regeneration is new so Mr Mustard won't give its first performance overview the complete kicking that it deserves. He will save it for the next quarter.

Here it is anyway; a sea of red.

click to enlarge ; back to return

The usual sea of red, especially in HR which is managed by a contractor who doesn't seem to be managing?

Mr Mustard isn't convinced that taking away free parking bays has made the borough a better place. It was a grubby money raising strategy.

Heading on one page, detail on the next. As useful as usual.

Sorry it is sideways; out of Mr Mustard's control. Not much green ?

Waste is still a problem. Barnet in the 3rd or 4th quartile, i.e. towards the bottom.

Our roads are falling part and not enough PCN's being dished out.

Be careful with the waste graph on the left which appears to show a huge variance. If you redraw it and mote that it starts with 0.6 tonnes on the scale to the left the variance is much less marked. The chart is a statisticians delight, it over-emphasises the variance. Barnet Council need to think up a brand new waste and recycling strategy.

The performance for 10/11 has been worse than for 09/10.

No green on this page.

Plenty of risk here.

Only 3 months to wait for the next report.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

Security - every 3 years - nothing happens

I hope that you have all read Mrs Angry's blog post here about tenders for security services mysteriously not being completed in 2006.

Fast forward to 2009 and the following Delegated Powers Report.

click to enlarge; back to return

So did that DPR end up with a security contract? It seems not.

Fast forward again to the post MetPro panic. What is happening. Well a temporary arrangement was made ( popular those arrangements - much quicker than boring formal contracts that take ages to negotiate ) to extend another security providers service under emergency powers and to arrange a tender of security services which will doubtless take us into 2012. So every 3 years a tender of security is organised, at what cost? and then it falls down a crack in the pavement and never results in a formal signed contract. Here is DPR 1315 which mentions the proposed tender:

Ooh look, Captain Craig Cooper signed this DPR. An ugly rumour reached Mr Mustard that Captain Cooper is no longer flavour of the month, if he ever was?, and that he is off to join a new regiment. It might be less dangerous off the One Barnet battlefield Mr Cooper. Do let Mr Mustard know if you are about to break camp so that you get a suitable send-off. If Captain Cooper does depart this could well be the reason why the security contract doesn't come to fruition yet again and bloggers are still blogging about MetPro in 2015. The stuff of nightmares.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

22 September 2011

Red & green pies Q1 2011-12

Thank goodness someone at Barnet Council has realised that the previous graphics used were not one's which the brain interpreted easily. Our brains cope easily with pie charts. The pies are pretty. Pretty appalling! 

click to enlarge; back to return

Performance is going from bad to worse. It's obvious from the pie chart format that things are pretty rotten - look at the size of the red segments.

Have you ever seen so many missed targets? Some, like pledgebank, will probably be red for ever, well at least until the day that pledgebank is quietly dropped ( there won't be a press release for that ).

Instead of messing about with One Barnet Mr Mustard thinks that you should spend your time having a radical rethink of waste and recycling and start again with a clean sheet.
In the perfect world how would waste and recycling be organised?
How can the amount of waste generated by people be reduced in the first place?

Look at that. Only 48.3% of telephone calls were answered within 20 seconds. That probably means that a huge number were never answered at all. It's a shambles and a disgrace. On emails, 1 in 5 were not answered within 10 days. Get back to basics Barnet Council. If you scrapped One Barnet and started to become boring reliable council, no stupid schemes like Pledgebank and the Innovation "Bank" giveaway then you would find that the number of complaints plummeted and the Barnet bloggers would reduce their output, because if you were perfect there would be nothing to pick up on. Now there's an idea worth some thought.

Is it really a good idea to reduce the number of vendors ( suppliers ). You presumably want to support local businesses? and you also need to have at least two in competition for every service in order to keep them on their toes and the price down.

Now these figures for parking income. Down from 3.1 to 2.6. Is that £millions because you don't say what it is. Why has the income gone down.

Well these are the probable reasons :-

When PCN's fines were increased people responded by better compliance ( a good thing )
When car park & permit charges went up some people decided to park elsewhere and avoid the charges ( personal budgets are tight )
Everyone stocked up on £1 visitor vouchers and won't be buying them at £4. My future visitors will be asked to park in The Spires.

Mr Mustard has already predicted that the roads will be worse than ever this winter ( I hope you are reading this Cllr Rutter ) and look even in summer the council cannot keep up with filling in potholes which means that there will be more compensation claims for damaged wheels than there could be. For want of a nail...

Overall performance - pie-eyed!

Pie-eyed ( from Time magazine )
Yours frugally

Mr Mustard