Moving to a "What Can We Do For You?" Environment

SSON News and Analysis
Posted: 07/09/2012

Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council (MBC) in the UK is revolutionizing its entire property services department by cherry-picking the key elements of the private sector and marrying them up to the traditional values of local government to deliver a lean, competitive and profitable edge to its operations. The transformation is seeing the department re-emerge with a strong focus on service delivery – cultivating a commercial-style philosophy among Corporate Property Services.

Among the first of its kind in the UK, the innovative change program set into motion at Stockport MBC could set a blueprint for the future integrated delivery of property services within local authorities. For more than two years, careful pre-planning and research has been drawn up to enable the department to start out on a business-based footing.

The Council's Assistant Director of Finance and Property Services, Carol Summers – the designated Corporate Property Officer at Stockport MBC – has been driving the change.

Corporate Property Services now consists of four departments: Design & Procurement together with Estates & Asset Management as well as Facilities Management and Business Support. Previously the unit was just Estates & Property Services.

The strategy centralizes rather than decentralizes the operations of the department, and moves away from a process-led offering to one where the new Corporate Property Services markets and sells its expertise – with a short and simple shopping list replacing a 30-page process document.

Devised to adhere to the government-led requirement to comply with an Asset Management Plan that manages property in a corporate fashion, the new strategy has seen the introduction of the MBC's entire property portfolio (excluding schools and council housing) under the control of Corporate Property Services. According to Summers: "Across local government, people have been looking at outsourcing. I very much believe in local government and felt there was no reason why we could not compete with the private sector and retain what we do in-house.

"During my 16 years in local government the entire scene has changed, the security and benefits of the job have changed and largely, compulsory competitive tendering and voluntary outsourcing have changed that.

"With control and a drive towards greater efficiency I still think we can do it cheaper and of a better quality than the private sector, and I've been fortunate in the fact that I've been given the opportunity to pull the work together in-house. Essentially the whole concept has been a massive cultural change. We've gone from just another department getting on with the job to one with a 'what can we do for you' philosophy. Ultimately, the changes mean people working in departments such as Social Services can focus on their delivery of service to the public, rather than having to think about property management."

Staff were involved in the early stages of the change process, to give a sense of ownership to the concept. No downgrading took place and the MBC worked closely with (union) UNISON throughout.

Internal communications played a crucial role in the evaluation of the new strategy, with every member of staff individually briefed on the progress and the council's intranet site carrying regular updates. Other council departments, who were starting to be seen as the property service's 'customers' were also kept informed and taken on 'away days' to establish exactly they wanted from the new service.

Throughout this process the council utilized the services of Arnie Skelton, of Effective Training & Development to deliver an independent focus and input to the change program. Acuity Management Solutions Limited was another of the private-sector companies Stockport MBC called on to help deliver the new strategy. They were called in before the process was undertaken to carry out a scoping exercise – and recommended that centralization of property services was the way forward. The company's expertise was then used in a number of key areas – primarily to establish a facilities management department – without increasing staff overheads. Acuity also helped formulate Service Level Agreements for every department, as well as the formation of a dedicated helpdesk for the entire property service's remit. Acuity's own national helpdesk, staffed by industry experts at the company's Staffordshire headquarters, offers a 24-hour facilities helpdesk and central point of contact, backed up with a team of experts located across the country.

This helpdesk was used as a model for the council's own project – believed to be unique in local government – which will see the emergence of their own helpdesk using one point of contact for the entire range of property services.

Although the initial infrastructure for the ambitious project was provided by Acuity, Stockport MBC hopes to take their own service live in the future.

Acuity is also advising on the formation of a Corporate Property Database to track and monitor the specifics of service delivery and ensure the highest levels of service are delivered in a precise and uniform manner.

George Lilley MD of Acuity, based in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, UK, said: "The conclusion of the scoping study was that the council needed to establish a centralized facilities management team, complete with support desk, to enable corporate delivery of facilities management and property repairs to be sustained and for occupiers to concentrate on improving their core services. A unique, innovative process is evolving that marries up elements of the private sector to local government to give the most efficient service and it has been a very cost effective process." For example, with the Service Level Agreements, the input and investigation work involved in drawing these up was cut dramatically just by being able to use Acuity's knowledge in this area.

The overall aim of the new strategy is to see property services revenue rise, with finance raised re-invested in the council's property portfolio – an area Carol and her team feel is often overlooked in local government.

Carol adds: "Ultimately, we want to deliver excellent services through new ways of working, by improving the accommodation occupied by staff, encouraging hot-desking or working directly from home. This will improve our image and give staff the property services they need to work in a motivating, innovative environment.

"I do feel the Government should consider giving incentives to local authorities towards the good and effective use of its property. It is certainly something we should look to for the future.

"In 12 months' time I hope the results will speak for themselves and inspire change. My hope is that within two years we can provide services into other local authorities."

SSON News and Analysis
Posted: 07/09/2012

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