In the current regime of driving down cost and delivering efficiencies the focus to date has generally been on the so called “sharp”/operational end of the service.
All too often the importance of good effective clienting is under estimated, undervalued and under resourced. We are now no longer in a culture of continual rise in service standards or chasing national and local output performance targets. The emphasis now is all on driving down cost to avoid cuts in service and sustain a reasonable level of service. In this new culture the way work is packaged and offered by the client is crucial in enabling the supply chain to optimise productivity and efficiency. The client can therefore no longer be remote and dispense work without consideration of how this may impact on the productivity of the provider.
The current frequent inefficiency in repairing pot-holes is a good example where efficiency could be significantly improved if the client allowed the work to be aggregated in geographical areas and hence enable the provider to significantly increase productivity. This will inevitably reduce costs with only limited impact on response standards. (Two Authorities that have embraced this approach and transformed the “fix it” service are Worcestershire CC and Northamptonshire CC). This analogy can be applied throughout the works programme whether through surfacing schemes or specialist repair work etc. This approach requires much closer working and greater flexibility with the provider and an intelligent client.
The Government’s Infrastructure UK report in 2010 also identified the lack of client leadership as one of the key causes of inefficiency in the delivery of infrastructure and in its Charter highlighted the need to “develop appropriate client technical expertise and intelligent commissioning capability” was listed as one of the key priorities.
The Government’s Highway Maintenance Efficiency Programme (HMEP) has recognised the importance of this plus the concern about the current haemorrhaging on the client side of skills through early retirements and redundancies. Jason Russell, Assistant Director at Surrey CC and chair of Workstream 2 of the HMEP, is taking the lead on skills and client training and has been instrumental in helping set up the MSc Course in Highway Engineering at the University of Brighton which is supported by the South East 7 Authorities plus 4 of their service providers who together are funding around 20 of their staff to attend. Recently, along with a number of expert guest lecturers, I contributed to the programme. This approach is well worthy of rolling out across the Country. Training in clienting has been generally ignored to date and skills have been acquired solely through knowledge transfer.
To further emphasis the issue there have been some high profile highway maintenance contracts that have under performed as a consequence of not recognising this. Perhaps the most recent has been in Cumbria where the County Council outsourced much of its intellectual capacity and capability and as a consequence was less able to effectively control and operate the maintenance service. As a consequence of this a review of the approach was undertaken with the result that many of the services have now been brought in house!