Documenting Past Failures: (11) some conclusions, part one

The previous ten posts in this series have looked at LBWF’s record of extensive failure over the past decade or so, and it is now apposite to offer some general conclusions.

First, it is notable that, by and large, the cases examined share some common characteristics, which may be summarised as follows:

(a) rule breaches

On paper, LBWF has always possessed clear rules to govern programme inception and governance. Yet the evidence shows that these were often disregarded.  Contracts were procured without seeking the requisite number of bidders; contract documents remained unsigned, sometimes undated too; and monitoring and audit requirements, even when specified as mandatory, were not respected. In short, the authority turned a blind eye to its own safeguards.

(b) ignored warnings

Signs of failure were frequently evident soon after programmes launched, but were ignored. Thus, internal reports as early as 2004-05 highlighted the fact that the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund was being mismanaged (with one going so far as to conclude  ‘There has been an “on the ground” failure…to operate effectively within the current financial year’), yet it was not until 2009 that this was even halfway addressed. A similar situation occurred over Worknet, with the Rocket Science report of 2010 unheeded.

(c) inadequate management

Running programmes out in the community, often with multiple partners, requires people and money, but LBWF consistently tried to use only the minimum of either, meaning that management was stretched to the limit, and some bread and butter matters were consequently overlooked.

(d) questionable use of ‘preferred’ partners

It is striking how often LBWF used ‘preferred’ partners, even in instances where the latter seemed to have either no real capability to deliver or no track record in the field, with EduAction and O-Regen being the most obvious examples.

(e) absence of organisational learning

The Independent Panel’s pithy verdict – ‘Good organisations learn from problems and rectify them. Waltham Forest appears to do neither’ – said it all. LBWF was devoid of institutional memory. Each successive programme began anew from first principles. The same mistakes were repeated again and again.

The obvious question that arises from all of this is: how did such a damaging set of pathologies continue to persist? To answer, it is sensible to look at the various people and agencies that had actual or potential oversight of what was happening, starting with the political and administrative leaderships in the Town Hall.

During the period under review, the Labour Party was the dominant force in the Council, governing first as the senior partner in a coalition with the Liberals, and then from 2010 on its own. Within the party’s caucus, a senior core featured in successive Cabinets, among them the Leaders – Cllr. Clyde Loakes (2003-09) and Cllr. Chris Robbins (2009 onwards). On the staff side, successive Chief Executives Jacquie Dean (2004-07), Roger Taylor (2007-08), Andrew Kilburn (2008-10), and Martin Esom (2010 onwards) led a relatively stable group of senior officers who headed up the different directorates. What degree of responsibility did these two groups have for what transpired?

Ruminating on this question in 2009, the Independent Panel for the most part fell back on vague generalisations like ‘systematic failure at all levels’ and flawed corporate culture. But when pushed, its chair, Sir Peter Rogers, was a good deal less circumspect, telling a meeting of councillors: ‘There was no evidence to suggest that any fault lay with members, but the evidence showed it lay with executives within the Council’.  The inescapable implication was that the politicians had been somehow hoodwinked, kept from the truth, and so were in effect the largely innocent victims of their officers’ artifice.

However, though no doubt expedient, such reasoning stretches credibility. For power within the Council, far from being bifurcated, was in fact highly centralised, with the politicians invariably calling the shots. This was all the more so because the successive Leaders, Cllrs Loakes and Robbins, had forceful personalities, a determination to lead from the front, and no qualms about hiring and firing to achieve their ends. In other words, if their ethos was about anything, it was about direction and control. Thus, reflecting during 2009 on his time in office, Cllr Loakes told the Local Government Chronicle that at least 130 staff had been made redundant in the past year alone, and explained: ‘“I wanted a team that was prepared to embrace change and over time that is what we have done…To deliver that you need to have some personnel changes both politically and managerially to bring in people with new ideas and new ways to achieve them”’ (Local Government Chronicle, 12 February 2009). Far from calling the shots, therefore, staff of all grades essentially did their masters’ bidding.

As for the suggestion that senior councillors were ignorant about their own organisation’s shortcomings, that, too, is implausible. Most of the programme failures during these years were noted during council proceedings of one kind or another. They also surfaced in public, reported on by the Waltham Forest Guardian, argued over at public meetings and in councillors’ surgeries, and so on. In addition, I regularly blew the whistle myself, for example via:

 ·      correspondence with Cllr. Loakes, Cllr. Pye, and Cllr. Robbins (part referenced in previous posts);

·    regular detailed discussions with two of my own ward councillors, Keith Rayner and Elizabeth Phillips, who also just happened to be, respectively Deputy Leader of the Council and portfolio holder for health in the administration to 2010;

·      protracted correspondence and/or meetings with a range of senior officers (including all four Chief Executives) which senior councillors were made fully aware of; and

·      a series of letters published in the local press.

What needs to be explained, then, is why, if senior councillors knew of what was going on, they did so little to stop it.

Some background is helpful. Both the national Labour and Liberal parties kept a close eye on Waltham Forest for much of this time, with the former, in particular, hoping that the borough would form a bridgehead into North-East London suburbia. Accordingly, local politicians were acutely conscious that they were in the spotlight, the bearers of weighty expectations. And adding to the pressure was the fact that concurrently councils were measured and assessed as never before, so in effect there was no hiding place.

Moreover, there was a compelling personal dimension here, too, because as all those involved knew very well, with perceived achievement came the keys to a lucrative world well beyond the Town Hall, where almost a second career could be built via perfectly legitimate linkages to consultancies and quangos. Thus, a detailed investigation by the Camden New Journal in 2012 concluded that Cllr. Loakes annual earnings comprised £32,000 from LBWF and nearly the same amount again from ‘allowances for chairing other inter-related bodies’ – not bad for someone who only a very few years before had been ‘a junior civil servant in the Department of Work and Pensions’. Similarly, Cabinet member Cllr. Marie Pye, a flattering pen portrait revealed, was not only employed by Goss Consulting Ltd., but held a variety of other positions (including ‘Lead for London Councils on Equality’, member of the Transport for London Independent Disability Advisory Group, and adviser to the Equality Committee At the Bar Standards Board), and in addition ‘regularly’ undertook ‘detailed peer reviews and assessments of local authorities and housing organisations’, presumably not something she did for free.

Taken together, these various influences shaped a distinctive kind of strategic approach. Most effort was concentrated on driving the Council to achieve publicly recognisable forms of success (for instance, until 2010, improved Audit Commission star ratings), in order both to win influential friends and also impress the electorate. By contrast, there was relatively less interest in how such goals were achieved, and in fact the crucial if unglamorous matter of efficient administration easily could be relegated to the margins. As the Independent Panel so tellingly observed, the prevailing approach was ‘almost a recklessness to get work done rather than doing it through proper processes’.

Needless to say, such prioritisation was risky, because cutting corners could easily go wrong, so a related feature of these years was a growing emphasis on ‘controlling the story’. Indicatively, public relations professionals became embedded in the highest reaches of the Council, and were influential in discussions about significant policy questions.  Considerable resources went into establishing a general impression of accomplishment, for instance via the free sheet Waltham Forest News (later WFN).  If negative stories broke, the first concern was to neutralise their impact on the public, either by studied indifference or suitably tailored rebuttal, and then emphatically ‘move on’. In time, spin became ubiquitous, the prism through which the Council promoted itself to the outside world.

At this point, some readers may well object that since it was senior councillors who singly or in combination directly initiated most of the reports cited in this series of posts, the forgoing remarks must be overstated. However, initiating is one thing, digesting and then acting upon, quite another. Some finished reports barely saw the light of day, and have required extensive use of the Freedom of Information Act to disinter. Others received fleeting attention – perhaps mention in obscure committee minutes – before being shelved. Even the Independent Panel inquiry was not the decisive break with the past that many supposed. The Panel’s final report included some withering criticism, true, and received a good deal of publicity. Yet when examined in perspective, the whole Panel episode in fact looks less like an attempt at a serious reckoning, more an exercise in damage limitation. According to several sources, senior Labour figures in the Cabinet were lukewarm or hostile throughout. The Panel was constituted carefully, with one of its members having links to a consultancy company that did extensive business with LBWF, another to Common Purpose. What the Panel scrutinised was constrained, not least because it explicitly ruled out ‘re-examining the many previous audit reports and reviews and rechecking details’. Only two or three of the separate programme failures were analysed, the rest largely ignored. Anyway, as has been recounted, after Chief Executive Andrew Kilburn’s contract was terminated, even the modest momentum for reform that the Panel had encouraged rapidly dissipated, so that today its very existence is for the most part forgotten.

So much for the Council leadership. What about the other players in the equation, all those who for political or administrative reasons might have put a brake on the prevailing malady? I’ll examine them in part two.