Cornwall and BT go to Court – Tony Collins Asks “What About Barnet”?

Articles from Tony Collins have been featured here over the years and he continues to be one of the most incisive and interesting commentators on public sector outsourcing and IT issues. His latest piece, here on his Campaign for Change website, looks at the problems in Cornwall, where the large outsourcing deal with BT has run into major issues. We last covered this in May, when Collins first reported that the contract was running into problems.

But the relationship has now got to such a bad point that Cornwall wants to terminate and matters are coming to court. As Collins says, it is unusual for things to get so far just two years into a ten-year contract, and he wonders whether BT might be better prepared for this than the Council. As he says:

“The two sides will go to court in December to determine if the council has a right to terminate the contract now. If it loses the case, Cornwall will have to retain as its main IT services supplier a company that has been its High Court adversary. The judge may also order the council to pay BT’s legal costs.

The odds may be against Cornwall’s winning because BT has much experience in outsourcing legalities. It’s possible that its managers have been collecting evidence of any council shortcomings from day 1 of the contract, in case the relationship turned sour”.

But one of the councillors in Cornwall is clear in his own mind that the BT Cornwall contract has failed to deliver in just about every area. The council claims that BT has failed to produce the “gain-shre” for the council through wider trading opportunities and has failed to provide the new jobs it promised, for example.

Collins also contrasts the experience in Cornwall with that in Barnet, where the Council has given a major outsourcing contract to Capita. But in that case, there is no visibility of performance, unlike in Cornwall where the council has achieved a good level of transparency. Here is Collins again.

“How is Capita’s performance on its contract at Barnet? We don’t know. The success or otherwise of the deal is blanketed in secrecy. In May Barnet blogger Mr Reasonable offered to make a charity donation of £250 if the council showed it was making the promised savings. The money went unclaimed.

There is no evidence of any failure of Barnet’s outsourcing deal. But would the public or media ever know if the supplier’s performance was falling short of the council’s expectations”?

Barnet’s move is ideologically driven, and the democratic accountability around the outsourcing is not impressive. Will we ever know if it was a good contract?

But coming back to BT, I wonder whether this is something that the Cabinet Office and Crown Commercial Service should get involved with? There is a Crown Representative with responsibility for BT – that is James Hall, ex Accenture Partner then CEO of the Passport Service, according to this list. Does CCS have any leverage with BT; surely it is not good for the firm’s wider relationship with the public sector if it is seen to be in such an acrimonious dispute with a customer?

The other final point is simply this. Local authorities, please think VERY carefully before you go down the route of these wide, “strategic” outsourcing contracts, particularly when they come with all sorts of supplier promises about bringing in more business, job creation and so on. There are few examples of real success, and plenty of failures now if we look at the evidence over recent years.  Do read Collins' website for more detail too.

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