John van de Laarschot, the Chief Executive of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, will be asking the cabinet to waive the usual tendering process in order to secure a multi-million pound contract for his favoured consultants to initiate a ‘transformational change programme’ at the authority.
He’d like the contract, which could be worth as much as £4m, to go to Buckingham-based Vanguard Consulting – a firm he’s familiar with from his previous post as Chief Executive of Torridge District Council.
The Sentinel reports today that leaked documents reveal Stoke are poised to sign an initial £485,000 deal with the consultants which would mark the first phase of the programme, with two further phases pencilled in at a cost of £3.5m and taking an estimated 2 and a half years to complete.
Our recent Town Hall Rich List found that in 2008/9 the authority hired five top ranking executives on over £100,000pa and bringing in a combined remuneration of approximately £640,000. What’s more, in 2009 the TPA also publicised that Stoke Council hired 175 middle managers on over £50,000pa in 2007/8 with a combined wage bill of over £11m. Nevertheless, Mr van de Laarschot commented:
"What is required is a thorough examination and assessment of what the council will do in terms of service provision, and just as importantly what it may do less of, and in some cases what it will stop doing.
"To enable this to happen requires a radical overhaul of structures, systems, processes and management arrangements.
"However, the council does not have the necessary skills or capacity to deliver the transformation agenda without the support of external organisations."
Independent councillor Peter Kent-Baguley appears to agree, telling the paper:
"The chief executive is saying we won't need to go beyond the first phase of the programme, but if we already employ people on his salary then I can't see why we need to pay almost £500,000 to consultants. I'm also concerned that it won't have to go out to tender.
"I don't believe all our officers are incompetent. If the ones at the top don't know how to improve things then perhaps we need to listen to ideas from those lower down the hierarchy."
The idea of parachuting in external ‘experts’, plying them with money and praying that their ideas will solve the considerable woes of the council is an attractive one, but if Stoke want to spend cash to save cash then they’d better be aware that people will expect to see some real results – and that includes slicker, more cost effective services, saving the taxpayer money directly.
What’s more, councillors and residents alike are right to be wary of van de Laarschot’s attempt to side-step the democratic process and push lucrative deals under the noses of his friends - and as a former 'corporate troubleshooter' who appeared on Wife Swap parading his acquired wealth in 2004, we can be sure he has many ex-associates who'd be keen to benefit! Such nepotism sets a very worrying precedent and throws into question the necessity of the entire project. Stoke may very well need an overhaul (and few would argue with that!) but after spending so much on staff, this is one authority that could start the saving process by looking within and sourcing the talent from their own ranks before resorting to such extravagant and dubious measures.