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Partnered working

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A strategic approach to collaboration can lead to innovative delivery of services, says Rob James of Birmingham Council.  Photography by Getty

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Contractual commitments should not and cannot stand in the way of developing smarter ways of working. True partnerships allow relationships to flourish, leading to service innovation that will benefit both the client and contractor. More importantly the customer, or in this case the tenant, will see major improvements to services.

So how do you start to develop this partnership approach, and what are the key ingredients?


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Change and improvement Change and improvement
Rethinking repairs Rethinking repairs

Our challenge in Birmingham was to procure multimillion pound contracts to carry out responsive repairs, maintenance and investment programmes for 62,000 council homes, plus we wanted to see tangible benefits for our tenants.

Initially, the tender strategy, the method of procurement (we chose competitive dialogue) and the method of evaluation and scoring of the bids significantly contribute to a good contract. It is this introductory dialogue with bidders that sets the scene for service improvement and better outcomes.

It also provides the opportunity to create a culture of problem solving rather than conflict, while maintaining robust contract management arrangements. Involving tenants throughout the procurement process was essential to developing those relationships and the successful award of contracts.

I cannot thank our tenants enough for their energy and commitment throughout the process.

Our starting point when faced with the challenge ahead was to conduct a ‘lessons learned’ exercise and to analyse previous contracts identifying all of the positives and negatives, which allowed us to debate improvements and smarter ways of working but always with a view to ensuring value for money and greater efficiencies.

Our new approach included several key aspects:

  • Combining the elements of capital investment, responsive repairs and maintenance (including gas servicing). This provided greater clarity for tenants on their service provider and gave a platform for service efficiency and cost savings. Previously, there was a range of contracts in place and tenants became confused as to who would be calling at their property.
  • Taking a pragmatic approach to pricing, expanding models that reduce risk and provide greater cost certainty. This includes price per property covering responsive repairs and gas maintenance, as well as price per element for capital investment programmes wherever applicable.
  • Ensuring co-located working arrangements are in place both with respect to client management functions and contractors at operational depots, and with customer resolution teams at our contact centre to provide hands-on solutions and improve communication.
  • Creating a shared service mentality for all contractors, including conducting joint problem-solving workshops with joint and shared responsibility for solution design.
  • Developing a strengthened commercial approach with the input of a balanced quantity surveying function within the client management team.
  • Developing clear and concise key performance indicators that are linked directly to the contract, service expectations and levels of profit-related payment based upon good performance.

The new approach also involves communicating contractor and in-house performance measures to tenants both at a city-wide and local level, demonstrating clear commitment to co-regulation of the service and allowing for challenge and suggested improvement.

We embed into the contract and procurement process a strong emphasis on social value, including contractor commitment to local recruitment, training and apprenticeships to develop employment skills and opportunities across the city. This is as well as providing support to communities, including community infrastructure projects and assistance to local residents in respective contract areas.

The approach ensures that the investment in the local community leaves a positive legacy, for example trade apprenticeships for local people and management traineeships for local people. It’s about investing in training programmes not only for the contractors’ workforce but also for our staff and local people.

“It provides the opportunity to create a culture of problem solving rather than conflict.”

We also work collaboratively with our contractors to develop green and eco-solutions, including identifying and accessing external funding streams to supplement and complement Housing Revenue Account-funded programmes.

Shared IT platforms are also provided where the client management systems are the prime information source.

There are break and review periods inserted into the contract (ie initial four years with further extension opportunities of two-plus-two years) to encourage greater open and collaborative working and to incentivise contractors to adopt a continuous improvement philosophy.

The approach involves working with contractors to develop cost-effective and innovative solutions to change the balance between reactive, planned and capital maintenance and developing an ‘invest to save’ approach.

Contracts that could run for up to eight years and cover both revenue and capital investment encourage contractors to think about carrying out works at a higher cost in the first instance, thereby avoiding higher subsequent responsive repair costs during the remainder of the contract.

The net result is a better product for the tenants as well as fewer costs for both the contractors and the client.

We’ve also introduced the ‘My Homes’ ethos to drive improved customer service through delivery of high-quality repairs with a ‘stay on site and get it right’ mentality.

We have also utilised a multiskilled approach across the majority of the operative workforce and ensured a large percentage of direct delivery by the main contractors with just a small reliance on subcontracting arrangements. Key principles of this approach have been communicated to tenants and the contractors’ workforce.

These include treating customers’ homes with care and respect, and leaving customers’ properties in a safe and clean condition and in good working order.

They also state we will complete the works or repairs when we say we will by keeping appointments and completing work within agreed timescales and achieve ‘right first time’ jobs.

We will also provide quality workmanship and fully communicate with customers before, during and on completion of any works carried out.

Finally, we will measure the service provided through a ‘real time’ customer satisfaction survey.

We let our new contracts commence in April 2016, and so far, so good.

Rob James, service director – housing, Birmingham City Council

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