Borough CEO’s role in London-wide project to reduce IT bills

Inside Croydon has discovered more about the activities of the borough’s interim chief executive, Nathan Elvery, who we revealed earlier this week had set up a private company of his own, but for which he says he never did any work and never made any money, but which somehow had a turnover in its first full year of nearly £50,000.

Interim Croydon CEO Nathan Elvery: busy as a "programme leader" with Athena

Interim Croydon CEO Nathan Elvery: busy as a “programme leader” with Athena

Elvery established that company, Sundragon Associates, in 2009. His co-director was, like him, also a full-time employee of another London local authority, Barking’s Tracie Evans.

Inside Croydon has now had sight of the minutes of a meeting of London Councils, the umbrella organisation for local authorities in the capital.

The meeting, held two years ago, was attended by Elvery, on behalf of Croydon Council. And attending with our borough’s representative was none other than… Tracie Evans, representing her employers, Barking and Dagenham.

On this occasion, Elvery and Evans were reporting on something called “Programme Athena”. Elvery has told Inside Croydon that Programme Athena was not connected with his private company, Sundragon Associates, in any way.

Programme Athena was not some council scheme to muscle-in on the high street retail poster and calendar market, but a piece of research into how boroughs across the capital might be able to save millions of pounds of public money by doing something as obvious as using complementary computer systems for their finance and human resources departments. A sort of “boroughs shall speak unto boroughs”, which would allow for significant cost-cutting – an estimated £60 million – on “standardising and rationalising back office ICT systems and supplier provision”. Elvery and Evans were the “programme leaders” for Programme Athena.

Programme Athena was started in 2010 – not long after Elvery’s and Evans’s Sundragon company had been formed to offer “consultancy services”.

By 2011, Programme Athena had delivered a pretty flaky report, full of vacuous phrases such as “shared solutions”, and how they wanted “to deliver significant efficiencies”, and “maximise the opportunities that exist through joint supplier management”. Much as you might expect from someone who is said to like to manage by PowerPoint.

London Councils logoAccording to the minutes of the meeting of the London Councils’ capital ambition board (referred to at the meeting as CAB) which was held at Southwark Street on the morning of October 26, 2011, the board members were less than impressed by the progress on Programme Athena. Indeed, the language used in the minutes betrays some undisguised dissatisfaction with the work of Elvery and Evans.

Nick Lester, London Councils’ corporate director, introduced the report. “The project was on course for delivery, but had been derailed due to a series of misunderstandings,” the minutes record.

“The project leaders, under the erroneous impression that no further Capital Ambition funds would be forthcoming, had released two project managers, and the future of the project was now at risk.”

Not a promising beginning. But it gets worse: “Board members expressed their concerns at the tone and conclusions of the Athena supplementary report.”

When Elvery and Evans were invited to put their position, they explained that they “been required to come back four times to secure the funds required and there had been frustrations about delayed funding confirmations, deferrals and implications for progress with the work”.

An indication of how much public money was being invested in the project came in the request for £488,000 budget for Programme Athena for its second year of work. There was clearly a substantial amount of work to be done for Elvery and Evans, and this all on top of their busy senior executive positions in two London councils, and while they also had their own private company.

London BoroughsAccording to the capital ambition board meeting minutes, the members said that they “had been surprised and disappointed by the language used in the supplementary report” that had been submitted by Elvery and his Athena team. There had been funds available, it said, but some questions “remained unanswered e.g. that there did not seem to be a clear end point to the requirement for … funding towards Athena”.

It went on: “There had been no suggestion from the CAB that Year 2 funding could not be made available and that members were surprised that the project leaders were under this impression.”

And it continued: “There had been mixed feedback from boroughs about their involvement in particular parts of the Athena programme.” In the usually diplomatic language used in local authority minutes, “mixed feedback” is not a good thing.

The minutes continue in a similar tone, and not one which would inspire much confidence in the way that the programme leaders, Elvery and Evans, were running things.

“More clarity was needed about the Year 2 proposal e.g. in terms of what the funding priorities were within the project, and more detail on the project going forward – the sustainable vision for the project over the next 10 years.

“There were clear questions about assumptions made and decisions taken within the project e.g. concerning funding, releasing staff and decommissioning the work. And there were now clear questions about the impacts of these decisions in relation to the Year 2 proposal presented, continuity of the programme and the nature and level of risks.”

Tracie Evans: worked with Elvery on Programme Athena and their private company Sundragon

Tracie Evans: worked with Elvery on Programme Athena and their private company Sundragon

After project leaders Elvery and Evans were asked to leave the meeting, the discussion continued in a similarly critical tone.

“The supplementary paper submitted to the CAB by the project leaders and the character of their presentation to CAB and exchange at the meeting had undermined the CAB’s confidence in the governance and management of the project.”

A little more than a year after that meeting, the same Nathan Elvery was promoted by Croydon to take charge of the running of the council as our interim CEO.

In an interview about Programme Athena given in February this year, “programme sponsor” Elvery said: “The legacy of Athena will be that London and local government will be in a strong position, able to grasp the opportunities for back office system and services.”

There: the words “legacy”, “opportunities” and “back office” all in one sentence. That’s local government poetry.

Elvery continued: “As the public sector makes its way through the less-charted waters of collaboration, Programme Athena will continue to be at the heart of the journey, guiding London’s boroughs toward convergence. Athena will prove that what once was said as impossible is indeed possible and that if this is possible it will enable other opportunities to be considered in the future which are identified as impossible today.”

Programme Athena was wound-up four months later.

Sundragon Associates Ltd, the company which Elvery had set up in 2009 with Tracie Evans to offer “consultancy services”, had been dissolved in April 2012. Evans has in the meantime left her job with Barking and Dagenham, and her responsibilities with Programme Athena.

Evans took up a job as the director of resources with the Metropolitan Police, a job she resigned from in May 2013.

This was around the same time that her former council employers in east London had confirmed that Evans had never sought permission before she set-up Sundragon Associates, and that “…to fail to declare the commencement or continuation of external business activities would be considered to require disciplinary action.”

Programme Athena, on which Elvery was working on behalf of Croydon Council for more than two years, is a project with London Councils say will take 10 years to implement fully across the capital’s local authorities.

Last month, just after interim CEO Elvery had seen his staff move into the new £140million council head offices, it emerged that Croydon Council has entered into a nine-year £73.5 million “IT megadeal” with Crapita.

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1 Response to Borough CEO’s role in London-wide project to reduce IT bills

  1. Kevin Hurley, the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for Surrey, estimates that he could save £20 million a year in back-office costs – enough to employ an extra 500 police constables – by merging his service with that of neighbouring Sussex.
    Imagine how much more money the London boroughs, including Croydon, could save if they merged their back-office services. We could be talking about significant reductions in Council Tax rather than just a freeze.
    All councils collect money in similar ways –Council Tax demands; parking charges; grants from central government – and they all spend their money in similar ways. So there is huge scope for standardisation behind the scenes: indeed, adopting a single best practice would make the whole operation more cost-effective.
    You might still receive your Council Tax demand on Croydon Council headed notepaper, but it could be generated and printed by the same computer as those of many other boroughs, saving all of them money by pooling resources.
    It matters not a jot where a telephone is answered as long as it is done properly: business does it regularly, grouping the incoming calls of a number of small firms in a single call centre, but answering each call with the name of the individual firm.
    None of these practices needs a lengthy, complicated and expensive survey of local government: they are all available and working now in organisations that are looking after their own money rather than wasting other peoples.
    Senior managers in local government are wilfully ignoring these money-saving possibilities because a collective approach might damage their status (as they see it) or reduce their career prospects.
    None of this profligate waste will change unless central government shoulders its responsibilities and requires local authorities and other municipal bodies to merge their administrations.
    Until then, Big Eric Pickles’ entreaties will continue to fall on deaf ears.

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