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We need to be careful what we’re outsourcing

Source: Public Sector Executive July/Aug 2012

Richard Flint, chairman of the National Association of Police Fleet Managers (NAPFM) and head of transport at North Yorkshire Police, talks about the organisation’s upcoming conference, outsourcing deals and collaboration.

Public sector police services are changing, and fleet management is no exception. The National Association of Police Fleet Managers (NAPFM) is preparing for its annual conference and looking to the future when it is planning to hold a fully integrated event with fleet managers from fire and ambulance services. This builds on a concept seen at last year’s conference, where the National Strategic Ambulance Fleet Group also took part.

This year, the event is focusing on collaboration – a necessary practice for an association struggling to hold on to its core purpose in the face of aggressive outsourcing deals and major cuts to police budgets.

The work in this area has been ongoing for the last few years, but is now coming to a head with “various forces collaborating together”, chairman of the NAPFM, Richard Flint, told PSE.

Bird’s eye view

Flint, head of transport at North Yorkshire Police, highlighted a number of forces who were amalgamating fleet; Kent and Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk, and other collaborations in the Yorkshire and Humber region.

Scotland will also be amalgamating police fleets, as all its eight police forces are being merged into one, to create the second largest force in the UK, by 2014.

“There’s more and more pressure gaining on all of us to collaborate with other forces and also other emergency service partners.”

Political pressure to find savings and centralise contracts and costs were the cause of much of this reorganisation, Flint added.

Central government wanted to “pull everything together”, he explained: “Really taking a bird’s eye view of all the contracts in the public sector and pulling them together as much as possible.”

And while he agreed that this can be a good thing “in some circumstances”, he said: “You’ve got to be careful, sometimes, when bringing everything together in one basket.

“[It] isn’t always the right answer and doesn’t always deliver the savings expected, so it’s really horses for courses in looking at these contracts and what’s best for the marketplace.”

Flint went on to say that rather than automatically centralising contracts, it was more about smarter procurement, which “doesn’t necessarily mean aggregating everything together to get the best prices”.

Standardisation is also on the agenda through the ‘One Box’ project, moving to a ‘Single Vehicle Architecture’ for police vehicle equipment.

Compliance with the new standard is mandatory from September this year. The Home Office calls it a “major step forward for the police service in producing a standardised police vehicle, which is safe for the occupants and provides efficiency savings for the police service, with the possibility in the future of transferability to other emergency service vehicles”.

Cost-effective outsourcing

Also high on the agenda for police at the moment is outsourcing, with many deals being signed or considered, even in the wake of the G4S Olympics security scandal.

All support services have been outsourced in some forces, such as Cleveland, which has linked up with IT services company Steria, while West Midlands Police is still seeking an outsourcing partner even though Surrey Police is dropping out of a joint deal the two forces were planning.

Although media hype around outsourcing has recently become heightened, the police have been using the practice as an option for several years, particularly in regard to fleet.

Flint said: “I think it’s a bit of a myth that police haven’t outsourced before, because they outsource various things across the work, but particularly in our fleet area.

“We generally outsource proportions of our business in terms of accident repairs; breakdown recovery; various different elements of running the fleet will be outsourced.”

He added that “what matters is what works” and described an approach where outsourcing is considered if work is not cost-effective to conduct in-house, rather than always as first choice.

“The worry for me is that on a national scale at the moment, it’s a trend of ‘outsourcing is best, let’s outsource everything!’

“I’m trying to highlight the fact that a lot of these organisations, whether it be police or whatever, tend to outsource without knowing what their true costs currently are.”

Police must analyse their current business to fully understand their costs, to be able to benchmark this against the private sector, Flint said. If a particular service or operation is not cost-effective then forces should look at whether this is something that can be reengineered to avoid “potential public sector savings going to private sector profits.”

However, Flint clarified that outsourcing did have a place within public sector procurement.

“I’m not against testing the marketplace and making sure that if something can’t be done in-house cost effectively, producing a quality of service – I don’t think it’s all about cost, and certainly officers on the front line wouldn’t say that – it’s about the support they get and the quality of that service.”

Another watchword for outsourcing services is that sometimes costs can be hidden, such as in turnaround times, which means that specification in the contract is very important.

Retaining fleet managers

The conference addresses the most important issues relevant to police fleet, including future innovations that forces must remain abreast of. The 2012 event will focus on driver distraction due to satellite navigation, hydrogen-fuelled vehicles, emissions and the prominent debate of outsourcing versus internal collaboration.

“We always like to be ahead of the game,” he said, and explained that the most controversial topic will be outsourcing, which impacts on “everything we do”.

Here the debate becomes fiercely personal, as the very nature of the association is changing from sole membership of police managers to an organisation and conference which is more inclusive of other emergency services and the wider public sector.

Flint said: “We used to have 52 fleet managers, one for each force. Forces have amalgamated and also outsourced, then they become less and less. It’s a bit of a worry for us about how we continue with our conference and exhibition and the work we do.”

He described the importance of retaining fleet managers to effectively arrange national contracts. In the future, the conference will cover ambulance and fire fleet managers as well as police, to make it cost effective and sustainable in the long-term.

“You need to retain some client interface between – whether it be police or private sector, public sector, whatever it is – the contractor and the operation.”

The police need professionals to provide this interface between the contractors, to look after public sector interests and keep track of costs, he said.

Watch and learn

And while outsourcing is set to continue, caution could benefit those forces who have yet to make the move, especially now that G4S have provided such a high-profile example of the perils of the private sector taking on public sector responsibility.

Flint said: “It’s one of those things where everyone’s picked up the bat and started running, and then suddenly the baton has dropped a bit, a bit like what’s happened with the Olympics with G4S and suddenly people are asking ‘can these people handle something that big?’

“When it comes to security and everything else, we need to be careful what we’re outsourcing.”

He reiterated that it was not outsourcing per se which was problematic, merely resorting to the practice without carefully thinking it through.

“I think it’s probably good that there’s one or two outsourced,” he added. “But maybe we just need to take a respite and watch those spaces, see what happens. And then do some benchmarking with those operations and see what it’s costing to outsource. Then we’ll have some true facts and figures.”

Flint cautioned against the tendency to package services up into one cluster rather than “picking and choosing the best bits that would be cost effective to outsource”.

There is a lot more work to be done on this analysis and benchmarking and taking the time to make the right decision is key, he suggested.

“It’s a case of taking a back-step; for forces that haven’t outsourced, watching those forces that have and hopefully they share information as to what’s best.”

Crossover and collaboration

In the future, the NAPFM conference will become a joint event covering police, fire and ambulance fleets. The new name for the event has not yet been confirmed.

This should reduce costs, while not damaging the quality of event for visitors or exhibitors, due to the many overlapping areas of interest between them.

Commenting on this collaboration, Flint said: “It has changed the dynamic, but I think in a good way, because it’s brought us all closer together. We’ve started talking and sharing ideas and networking.”

The issues faced by emergency services fleet are “pretty much the same”, he explained, with similar challenges and some synergies in types of vehicle. The various fleets can share practical resources, such as fuel and servicing, or ideas and training workshops.

Flint said: “It does work very well and we’ve got some good networks now, some good contacts in the ambulance and fire services that we can ring up and talk to.

“Certainly that encourages it in your own area, because sometimes even in your own county, the fire, police and ambulance services would never talk to each other. You just chip away at little things and what generally happens is from small conversations, big things happen.”

The 2012 NAPFM Conference and Exhibition is taking place on September 25-26 at the Peterborough Arena.

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