Problems with council’s Capita contract ‘not small hiccups’

Capita has a ten-year contract with West Sussex County Council which started in 2012
Capita has a ten-year contract with West Sussex County Council which started in 2012

A contract outsourcing West Sussex County Council’s back-office functions is ‘failing to provide as good or better services’, according to opposition members.

Capita has a ten-year agreement with the council to provide IT and support services, but its performance has been criticised by unions.

Last year the county’s multi-agency safeguarding hub was insourced by the council due to performance issues.

This was followed by a number of small administrative functions but the council claimed this was to ‘increase flexibility’.

Capita representatives apologised for previous issues, but said they were ‘confident performance is back to where it needs to be’ when the contract was discussed by the council’s performance and finance select committee last Wednesday.

Jeremy Hunt, cabinet member for finance and resources, said: “Whatever your concerns and small hiccups along the way, I believe this contract has been and will continue to be of great benefit to this county council.”

He described how the contract had saved the council £5.8m a year since 2012.

Katharine Eberhart, WSCC’s director of finance, described the two main areas where improvements had focused on were pensions administration and service finance. Both partners have commissioned a joint business case to look at the future of the council’s IT systems.

Meanwhile a task and finish group has been set up for county councillors to look at the Capita contract.

Dale Wood, Capita’s partnership manager, said: “We are here not to cause issues or cause concerns or problems, we are here to deliver what is required and build beyond that.”

He apologised for any previous issues but said he was confident ‘performance is back to where it needs to be’.

But the picture portrayed in the report was challenged by opposition members.

Michael Jones (Lab, Southgate and Gossops Green) described how the contract was not providing the level of savings envisaged in 2012 and what was missing from the report was the impact of changes on staff transferred from the county council.

A Unison survey of its members working for Capita in West Sussex back in 2015 found that 63 per cent of respondents did not feel valued by the company.

He added: “The report before us does not paint a good picture in terms of operational performance or indeed customer satisfaction.”

James Walsh (LDem, Littlehampton East), leader of the Lib Dem group, said: “I’m afraid I do not share the same rose-tinted spectacles the cabinet member appears to be wearing this morning.”

He described how apart form one month of the year the number of Key Performance Indicator failures was getting ‘worse rather than better’.

He said: “I remain as concerned if not increasingly concerned about the failure to actually get to grips with the situation and reduce the number of KPI failures.”

Dr Walsh added: “Performance does not just mean saving £5.5m. It also means delivering as good as or better services which this is manifestly failing to do.”

But Mr Wood described how the KPIs compared to five years ago were ‘completely different’ and they were not measuring apples with apples.

He outlined how pensions administration had been affected by major changes to legislation, but they had taken steps to resolve the issues by the end of 2017. However there would be some ‘overhang of performance levels.

Mr Wood also said KPIs ‘are meant to be challenging’.

Pete Bradbury (Con, Cuckfield and Lucastes) suggested the KPIs had to be challenging, and an overall score of 3.5 out of five for overall satisfaction was ‘not a bad place to be’. He said: “There will always be places where it’s not running as well as it should be.”

Steve Waight (Con, Goring) described his ‘bitter disappointment’ the contract had not grown and pointed the finger at an ‘ivory tower mentality’ in other public sector organisations which ‘could have benefitted from joining the Capita contract.

Duncan Crow (Con, Tilgate and Furnace Green) added: “This contract is working for us and we need to make sure it works as best as possible.”

Afterwards Dan Sartin, branch secretary of UNISON West Sussex, said: “Our experience is that the problems caused have not been ‘small hiccups’. Far from it, the service issues have caused real personal anguish and hardship to a number of staff and ex-staff, when pay or pension payments are got wrong or delayed.

“It is also not clear that WSCC could not have made savings with its back office services without this contract, just as all other council services have been required to make significant savings over the years.

“What the council is not doing is calculating the true costs of the contract: crucially these should include the costs of service failure and putting things right.

“Those are completely off the balance sheet, so there is no true known cost of the contract to the ratepayer.”