Ticking boxes – how our council lets down staff and public

CROYDON COMMENTARY: A former council insider responds to our report about the borough’s vanishing street bins with their insight into the authority’s procurement process – which they find to be disorganised and open to potential corruption

You’ve bin done: the council has a rubbish contract with Veolia

There is a big problem at the council with those writing the contracts.

It all begins with a lack the knowledge or basic understanding of what they wish to purchase in the first place. You then have different departments all wanting to stamp their “speciality on the process. There’s the buying team, the procurement team and thereafter the department that wanted a contract tendered. None of them know what they want.

In reality, most departments in Croydon Council don’t actually do anything; they just write “policy”. Everything is then delegated to the service delivering and they are expected to understand and deliver the “policy”.

When the council signed its first IT contract back in 2002-ish, an audit was done of what the council and its staff would need. This was all done without the staff and teams even being spoken to or asked what their IT needs might be. A big, shiny expensive contract was signed and the lowest common denominator of kit was placed on the desks of council staff.

Staff asked if there were any scanners available. No scanners had been ordered in the contract. Obviously, the supplier was very happy to add this on to the contract after the fact, but only at a ridiculous additional expense.

Five years after the first contract began and Crapgemini (as they were known by all council employees), were handed a five-year contract extension, to continue to handle all the council’s IT and telecommunications infrastructure and networks, including 4,000 desktop computers, as well as “key business applications including finance, procurement and customer service”.

Crapgemini were even appointed as the council’s consultants to provide “expertise to support the wider transformation of local services”. Putting them in pole position to advise on what a wonderful IT network Crapgemini had provided… And all at a cost to the council of a cool £83million.

But that’s how procurement at Croydon Council works. Or at least, how it works for the outsourced service providers, rather than the borough’s residents.

For years, under an agreed contract, Veolia’s door-to-door domestic refuse collections have been monitored by… Veolia. It was a rubbish system when it was introduced when the Conservatives were in power at the Town Hall, and it is a rubbish system which was allowed to continue under Labour.

Croydon simply does not have the calibre of business-educated senior management. Just the merry-go-round of low-grade local government senior managers who are often too arrogant to ask for advice from their staff or those who actually deliver the services.

This is the way Croydon Council works. The procurement department doesn’t actually buy anything. They just write policy. Finance don’t actually do any accountancy. They just write policy. HR don’t actually do any recruitment or HR-ing. They just write policy. And on and on and on we go, leaving the poor middle managers expected to understand, implement and deliver. All devolved responsibility.

It is a system stripped of any initiative or commonsense, all reduced down to a series of box-ticking exercises to comply with policy…

Fisher’s Folly: No one has ever been able to explain why it cost £150m to build the council office building, three times the price of similar builds

In 2006, a local business who had served Croydon Council for more than 20 years, were removed as an approved supplier because they failed one of the procurement requirements, as laid down in policy.

That requirement was to provide a recruitment advert showing they were an equal opportunities employer. The local business could not provide such an advertisement: they were a family firm and had not recruited any staff for 40 years. So one day they were approved and OK to work for the council, the next they were dropped.

The procurement people at Croydon Council also don’t audit the council’s need for a product or service when placing a tender or contract. That is of no interest to them, only the box-ticking process of placing an advert according to EU or government rules and ensuring all responders tick the boxes required.

The procurement team has zero interest in the product or service delivery of a contract or purchase that they are responsible for.  All they are concerned with is a legal tendering process and the processing of the placement, or review of submissions. Quality, service delivery, price and the needs of the service are of no interest in the process.

Ticking boxes is the focus to them.

  • The author of this commentary column worked for Croydon Council for 30 years, and has asked that their identity should not be revealed

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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18 Responses to Ticking boxes – how our council lets down staff and public

  1. Ruth Caucutt says:

    Very well written and so very true! I worked for the council for 18 years and found their processes appalling. And crapgemini should have been sacked within the first few years for providing a shoddy system that was slower than a snail and was never fit for purpose.

  2. Maverick says:

    Totally agree with all that has been said , I worked for the Council for over 28 years and have worked on the tendering process. Unfortunately it was like pulling teeth . I was once asked to scrutinise a submission for one consultancy contract for the council , I raised concerns that the company that senior management preferred had no experience. I was over ruled and it was awarded to the company. Unfortunately whilst you have management who don’t know their arse from their elbow you will get nowhere

  3. Rod Davies says:

    It is all very entertaining and indeed comforting to pile opprobrium upon contractors, and much of it may be deserved. I too worked for Croydon Council, and from my perspective the problems that evinced themselves in successive unsatisfactory contracts were rooted in the long standing organisational dysfunction across the council.

    Croydon Council by the end of the 1990’s was famous for its entrenched silo-mentality where each department operated as a defacto separate organisation. There was no functioning corporate H&S policy, HR policy, IT policy and so on. It’s finance system was not fit for purpose and incapable of accurately reporting expenditure.

    There was no widespread acceptance of the problems nor any real buy-in to change, and it was the product of decades of mismanagement.

    The CapGemini (CG) IT contract was flawed to begin with because the council’s programme / procurement team relied on Capita’s asset register and system architecture descriptions. Capita was in fact the original winning bidder. Right up to the end, Capita struggled to get information out of the council’s users, and so the asset register was incomplete.

    The initial CG UK team were terrible partly because of their organisational culture and partly because the council’s programme team failed to assert any control over CG UK. When CG eventually pulled out the CG UK team, its CG Netherlands team walked into the chaos and toxic environment that both CG UK and the council’s team had created. It was a wonder that they managed to largely turn it around.

    CG assumed that the council would have software licenses to match the applications in use. They were rapidly disabused of that idea. Quite what the council had been up to over the decades regarding software is anyone’s guess.

    At the heart of the flawed IT programme and many other failures is a failure of leadership and management. There was no real drive to change the organisation because those who held the levers of real power were the beneficiaries of it. The situation will not change until there is consistent cross-party will to implement reform – but sadly both Labour & Tory are more interested in scoring points than fixing the problems.

    • Lancaster says:

      Rod is correct, and today “silo-mentality” still exists – nothing has changed here despite multiple internal initiatives – ‘change management’ and many other useless buzz words used by those at the top table.

      “finance system was not fit for purpose and incapable of accurately reporting expenditure”. Since the 1990’s things have actually taken a step backwards. Croydon teamed up with 4 other authorities to shear ‘One Oracle Financial System’ and lost significant functionality – there is no way to accurately track expenditure and income as the systems do NOT work. It is no wonder the council is in its current financial situation.

      “Capita struggled to get information out of the council’s users”. This is because senior repeatedly management refuse to actually engage and involve staff. Occasionally they will allude to internal engagement, but they never involve staff who actually have to deliver.

  4. Lancaster says:

    Both local and central government pay an average of £2,000 to £2,500 per user laptop through these out sourced IT contract providers. This is an annual charge per lap top. This standard laptop delivered could be purchased at PC-World for less than £200. The additional annual £1,800 to £2,300 is passed off as back office support / infrastructure. This is how public private partnership or out sources services rips off the tax payers. Those running local and central government are to stupid and or lazy to manage it in-house.

    We regularly hear: “we can’t recruit the experts needed”. Lets be honest; employ the very same people at the same salaries and cut out the share holders and dividends and it would be cheaper ! Am I missing something or is this to stupidly simple ?

    • Ian Kierans says:

      You are right some points to ponder The laptop connects to the business server and the software provided internally and remotely, That service is the large chunk of the cost. The laptop is not £200 though it would appear so, a £200 laptop would not meet all needs so they would supply the laptop for functionality of purpose – you might have a £50 one or £1500+ one. They can recruit but do not want ”experts” they want deniability and to offload risk and responsibility outside.

    • Ratepayer2021 says:

      @Lancaster – if you think you can supply business laptops at £200 a throw then I suggest you set up a business to do so and charge £500 – a nice healthy profit for you. Because there’s many a company, not just councils, that would rip your arm off for a fully managed laptop supply agreement at that price. Of course you might just be spouting bollcoks.

    • Lewis White says:

      A note from the Commissar of Outsourcing and Arms-Length Enterprises, Moscow Borough of Croydonskya….

      ! Comrade ! before responding to your post, with the greatest of respect to your knowledge, and with the deepest humility which is part of my DNA and also that of all senior colleagues paid over 150,000 GB Roubles per annum at our esteemed Moscow borough council, may I inform you that in today’s innovative, cutting edge, pro-active, and transparent world of Local misGovernment, there are very few laptops, as most proletarian slave-workers at their galley “hot desks” have access only to a fixed desk terminal and key board that are connected to the in-house network of the Commandariat of Croydon Computing / Urban Procurement Systems (CoCC/UPS).

      Such laptops as exist, and I can neither confirm nor deny this alleged possibility, are dedicated “personal to user” items, which are provided in either of the following finishes… Gold (plated), Gold (solid) and Platinum (solid)….with diamond inlaid top to the most important senior-most comrades ! It is rumoured that I have one such of the latter myself, and one each of the others mentioned as their keyboard keys had become worn out, sadly losing the symbol for the “delete” command function.

      Employment contracts for the most important Senior comrades do not require the user to return the item on leaving the employment of the council. This is for reasons of Covid-era public health concerns. It would not be right to risk the health of a new very senior comrade as, in spite of best cleansing techniques available to the outsourced municipal cleansing department (Veolia) it is impossible to guarantee full destruction of all Covid viruses from pre-used terminals, including the terrrible new “Beddington variant” or , as it is now correctly known, the “the A 23 strain”) which is immune to all known chemical , biological or radiological cleansing agents, and which is rampant within the Council’s central Croydon offices

      With respect

      (remote working at the JNFRIBA Academy of Urban Design, Bondi Beach and East Dulwich)

  5. Ian Kierans says:

    Strangely enough They do require a Policy in fact many. Policy has procedures and controls to meet legislation and business requirements. Councils develop a Policy and business plan to meet and deliver both of these (and a risk portfolio also which has mitigations and controls).

    Those processes lend to departmental activities which also has processes and guidance.

    What is abnormal is how Croydon Councils Policies do not deliver what people expect or need. In some there are extra processes which ensure the failure of the task by time out. In addition Croydon has the ability to actually not be able to provide the process by which tasks should be done.

    Therefore it leaves itself continually open to perceptions that it is either incompetent or it is done with intent either way its failure to provide clear responses and evidence also suggests it has a culture of covering up its errors.

    What is also abnormal is that 70 Councillors are unable to hold this administration to account or ask the ”right questions” and get some real scrutiny going.
    That suggests there own unwillingness or are they gagged?
    Whatever the reasons for this much of what is supposed to happen in a borough does not and what does is very poor and not value for money.

    It would also be very useful for Croydon Council to provide the process as requested for suspending bays and what should happen so this can be compared to what does happen.

    • Lancaster says:

      The reason the 70 councilors are unable to hold the administration to account is because their only interest is point scoring, self promotion, as well as lacking the understanding of the day to day operational needs of the authority and their residents. Councillors don’t give a flying ?@$£ for the running of an authority or for residents, only their own personal political progression.

      It would be fascinating to ask how much time councillors, especially ‘The Leader’, have spent with and talking to services and staff in Fishers Folly ? Guess what…. none, not a single second.

      This lack of real engagement extends to the directors themselves. As the head of a service withing a Croydon department, I went through two consecutive directors who did not even afford me or my service the courtesy of a face to face meeting throughout their tenure. For three years our directors only interest in us and our service was fulfilled third hand through a chief officer who had equal disinterest and disrespect for us and our function. This is the reality that managers and services have to operate within the council; chief officers, directors and those above operate in a bubble / world of their own; completely detached from those who deliver and have to operate through their dictates.

  6. Dave West says:

    None of this seems remotely surprising to me and is typical across many parts of the public sector. I worked for a outsourcing provider for many years; largely NHS but also local government (possibly the most difficult because of the political dimension) and other government departments. Procurement departments rarely seem to test out the tender document with end users with the result that contractors bid and win a contract in good faith to supply services that are often not what is required. It’s also not uncommon for a contractor to turn up on day one and have to explain to end users that the new contract doesn’t deliver all the stuff they had before and needed. Of course it’s then the nasty contractor that’s at fault rather than Procurement who have gone to ground by this point, job done. It was also pretty common for the client to insist on even more savings straight after we’d shaken hands on a deal; but that was always the case on an annual basis as central funding was cut – it is after all easier to squeeze a third party supplier rather than look in your own cupboards.

    I’m not for one minute saying that contractors are perfect and the “race to the bottom” mentality in public sector procurement encourages companies to bid at price that will win then deliver what they can afford for the price rather than the full specification they’ve signed up for. I was lucky to work for a company that decided to walk away from a hospital cleaning contract it had held for over 10 years rather than do what the client wanted and reduce standards (the recent pandemic has surely highlighted how vital cleaning standards are). Over that time, we’d made every possible efficiency and cut out everything that we could to save the NHS money. The contract was given to Carillion when every other major cleaning contractor also refused, and they of course went bust pretty soon after.

    Outsourcing can work well where there is a good and honest relationship between client and provider. It needs to be clear at the outset exactly what services are being provided (and they need to be what is actually required by the operation) with regular monitoring to identify shortfalls. People like to portray outsourcers as greedy profiteers (and no doubt some are), but all our contracts were open book where we had to declare exactly what our profit margin was. Typically 7-8%; I remember talking to someone in retail who nearly fell off their chair and wouldn’t get out of bed for less than 50% and in many cases 100s of percent markup.

    I do genuinely believe that outsourcing has led to significant savings for taxpayers that could not have been achieved if it had stayed in house. But it’s been poorly monitored by clients who have just signed an inadequate contract and walked away for 3 years – like any relationship it works best when both sides work together day by day. However after many years of going round the loop, the public sector procurement process is exhausted. The constant push to reduce the price means that in many cases there are no more savings that can be made in services and the client is probably going to have to look at it’s own staffing and practices to meet its targets. In my hospital example, the only option left was to reduce cleaning in clinical areas and it’s obvious where that would lead. We did suggest cleaning the directors’ offices once a week instead of daily and getting them to empty their own waste paper bins but that was a no go!

  7. James says:

    I too workied at the council for over a decade.

    Running through that time was two views: the “corporate centre” who were trying to improve and coordinate activity, and the department’s, who largely wanted to be “left alone” to do their own thing.

    The article reads very much like a disgruntled departmental mid manager who begrudged the extra accountability and oversight that council wide policies were trying to foster and encourage

    The article is full of misnformation: eg the financial system does track expenditure adequately (the reporting wasn’t brilliant, but was adequate). Of course: departments have to input information correctly,, and actually take some accountability for doing this. And when they don’t do this, the easiest person to blame is “the centre” or “the system”.

    Also: procurement not being interested in price or quality? Nonsense -every single procurement report set out details about these. It is the service who set out the specification and chose the suppliers anyway. The procurement team were there to ensure it was done in line with council and legal requirements. Hardly a crime. If services actually learnt their job regarding procurement, the team could have been half the size.

    The fact the author gets this wrong is making me re-evaluate the lack of understanding amongst service departments, which frankly is as big a mill stone around the council’s neck as the dubious quality leadership, and historically low funding (though I am still not convinced this low funding is just a comfort blanket the council clidngs to, to avoid taking responsibility for it’s higher than average spending on social care).

    Also, policies are incredibly important. I think this mid manager had such an unenjoyable time in their career due to this fundamental gap in their knowledge. To legally co-ordinate the activity of 4000 plus employees and £1bn turnover, of course you’re going to need policies to follow. Would you expect them all to just decide themselves the terms and conditions to employ people? What systems and network they’ll use? What standards they’ll use when contacting residents? And so on. It would be incredibly inefficient for even a smallish company to allow staff to make it up as they go, which I’d hope would be obvious to anyone who just thought about it for a bit.

    Elected members set outcomes. Senior managers set strategies to achieve this. Policies are then used as ways to make sure activity is lined up.

    And that old chestnut of “I can buy a laptop for £200…” Is as ridiculous now as when I first heard it. It shows a complete lack of understanding about the activity that has to sit behind the laptop being on a desk, connected to over 100 legacy systems, secured, licenced, backed up and supported.

    It is that sort of “I know better” mentality (when you actually don’t) that was constantly pulling Croydon down.

    So if anything, this article has been a useful glimpse into the midnset of a Croydon employee: as it shows their general ignotance of and unwillingness to follow what are basically, rules to avoid financial mess.

    And all those councils in London who aren’t bankrupt? Surprise! They have policies too.. They have procurement boxes to tick, and budgetary boxes to tick.. But their staff and mid managers seem to be following them (or ticked in the author’s parlance) rather than being fought against or ignored.

    Though I doubt the author will make the connection.

    • Ahh, that self-assured, patronising tone of superciliousness – yep, you definitely must have worked at Croydon Council under the do-no-wrong leadership of the likes of Elvery (“Efficiency is in our DNA”) and self-acclaimed “regeneration practitioner” Negrini.

      Fakes and frauds the pair of them, and many of the senior managers that they hired, a fatal does of incompetence laced in with a touch of dodgy dealings (look back on how well the procurement process for special needs kids’ school transport went on Elvery’s watch).

      When you look around the place and see the state that Croydon is now in, it is evident that it is that style of management, the death-by-PowerPoint types, which has got us here.

      Thanks a bunch.

    • Ian Kierans says:

      James – the author perhaps was venting a tad. However there were some salient points.
      Sadly a number of other Councils are facing some challenging financial difficulty also, but they do manage despite this to provide (albeit reduced at time) far better services and more openly than Croydon Council appears to. Yes some do not. However £ spend to service outcome in Croydon is not good (being kind).
      I would suggest the Author is right in theme if not perhaps in detail.

      I do like your statement
      ” Elected members set outcomes. Senior managers set strategies to achieve this. Policies are then used as ways to make sure activity is lined up.”
      I note that seperately you referenced legislation.

      However Mr Jenryck appointed Mr McArdle and the Crown Commissioner as an additional financial oversight and direct advice to Ms Kerswell.

      Within this over arching framework Elected members appear silent and/or ignored. Or are they just hiding as they got to close to the manure and require the smell to dissipate before election time? Which by the way is a sensible tactic when you have no other option.

      I have in my career to have to deal with quite large procurement departments and count a number of those as both colleagues and friends – they are in the whole an honorable bunch with good rules controls and ethics and I am sure Croydon has many of those.

      Sadly I also found that those exact same principles and people were over ruled by executives for both business and other purposes. Having had to clear those messes up afterwards was an unpleasant task always. At normal Executive levels the risks are laid out for the Executive and senior managers. With this comes the debates of best control and mitigations to have in place proportional to that risk

      So matters are clearly going wrong – this has been reported to the Executive – no action has occurred on those matters for many years A form of Public ”bankruptcy” occurs and the wrongful actions continue. Not to mention the abysmal communication and inadequate processes. Hmmm
      I am not a disgruntled middle manager – But I am a very disappointed resident of decades. I am also quite sad that Directors roles and responsibilites along with good and ethical practice no longer seems to be to standard and very saddened at the failures of the successive administrations and elected officials in whom we have placed our trust have exposed those they have a duty for to great risk, damage to health and horrendous living conditions. But perhaps some will view this as venting also?

  8. George says:

    James may be correct, the author may be a disgruntled middle manager.

    However, given that higher management are ‘proven’ failing clusterfucks, like the “head of comms” Helen Parrott, having delivered £ billions in failure; perhaps middle management who actually deliver something, DO know better.

  9. Lewis White says:

    Thank you to the writer of the article, to Inside Croydon for creating this forum, and to all the contributors. I have never worked for Croydon but did work for three other London Boroughs, and I recognise aspects in the post, of my own experience of “Council Culture” –or should I say, “Council Cultures” as every one is different, and no doubt, every major department or “Directorate” has its own.

    I have seen inter-department turf wars, I have met every character type, from genius to jobsworth, from hard working and workaholic to lazy and self-serving/ absentee, creative to plodding, managers who are caring and good people managers to ( words omitted) , and those who really love serving the public to those who don’t, those who deal with the public’s money with wisdom, and those who are possibly corrupt. Thankfully, only once or maybe twice. In fact, local Government contains a cross section of society, and is full of wonderful people who do a great job.

    Local Government needs so many things. It is a large enterprise, with many aspects.
    It needs sound procurement rules. My last employer, a SE London Borough , has rules that isnsist on the officer undertaking any procurement to obtain a certain number of written quotes, and for full tendering over a certain level — something like over £50,000.

    Contractors had to be on a “Select List” — which ensured that they were financially sound.

    There were rules about rotating the tenderers so that the same few were not always invited, which can lead to a too close, too cosy relationship.

    That was one borough–in my opinion, a very good borough. I really don’t know about Croydon’s rules about purchasing and contract procurement, and whether they are observed and implemented or flouted.

    The problems in my opinion arise when mercurial senior managers are allowed to rise above the rules when it comes to large and “special” contracts and . At worst, corruption, in one or more of its manifestations, from nepotism to financial, sadly, can happen in such instances. Give a corrupt person an inch and they will take a mile.

    One of the problems of outsourcing (apart from dubious cost savings achieved) is when the chosen company has a philosophy of coming in and being good for a year , then turn down the service staffing, responsiveness, and quality, to be “as bad as possible without getting the sack”.

    Super-contracts that last for a decade, such as highway maintenance, seem to offer cost savings but, as prices inevtitably rise over time, the connection between market rates and the rates being charged can become skewed, so cost savings can become illusory.

    My biggest worry is with senior managers who have never done any job other than being a “manager”.

    Local government used to offer career paths so that a junior planning assistant could rise, with training and accrued experience, to become Borough Planning Officer. Of course, others came in with a degree, but then climbed the ranks, serving time and gaining experience in each area of work.

    When I started off, in another SE London Borough, we had a Borough Architect, A Borough Engineer, and a Borough Planning Officer, plus Parks, Environmental Heath, Housing and many more. There were turf wars over certain aspects, but the council was well staffed with people who were really excellent professionals. Not just in design but in essential complementary jobs such as building cost / Quantity surveying, progress and programme managers, M and E and services engineering. The number of high quality projects was impressive.

    Over the years, departments have been merged, and funding has dwindled for houisng, parks and highways maintenance, and no doubt, every other aspect. That must be to do with overall funding awarded to each borough by central government.

    There used to be phrase “Stick to the Knitting” . I quote from Oxford Reference:-

    Is a phrase coined by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their best-selling management book of the 1980s, In Search of Excellence. It means that a business should do what it is good at and not become distracted by diversifying into totally different activities or enterprises. Any acquisition or internal diversification is more likely to be successful the closer it is to the existing activities and expertise of the business.

    I wonder if Croydon is sending its managers on short courses about how best to acheive success in all aspects of the council’s very diverse work..

    In Local Government, the need is for strength in depth, staffed by people who know a lot about the practical needs of the borough and its people. Employees need to get a combination of work, on the job training and appropriate training each year to improve skills.

    Sadly, the picture does not seem rosy. If councils like Croydon are making many experienced technical staff redundant, they must be losing skills and knowledge.

    Glad I am not K Kerswell, even on her Local Government Royalty Remuneration package.

    I think that she could get some useful insights into steering the future course for the very large ship that is Croydon by getting together an advisory panel of Inside Croydon contributors who have worked for the council, to tell her what was good, what worked, and what didn’t, in the older days.

    There might be even more icebergs and rocks over the horizon.

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