The importance of contract management in transforming the delivery of outsourced services

Breckland Council currently contracts Capita for the provision of planning and building control services for a period of 15 years from 2006.

Efficiency and income generation

The contract value is circa £2.2m. In addition to the provision of development management, planning policy and building control services, Capita also fulfil the functions of street naming and numbering, ecology advice, historic buildings advice and TPO functions. Following a period of perceived performance failures in service delivery and poor communications the council worked together with the outsourced provider to build trust and improve service delivery.

The challenge:  In 2016 senior Breckland officers and elected members reached a position where they wished to make changes to the management of the contract due to perceived performance failures. Whilst contractual performance targets throughout the contract were being met there was a desire to make improvements to processes and customer care standards in order to deliver a better quality service for the council and its residents.

Planning applications were being determined in the required contractual timeframes and the local plan process was meeting its milestones, however Breckland Council wanted to see some improvement in some of the softer performance measures such as customer care, better engagement with parish councils, improved communication with applicants and agents, reduction in the volume of complaints being received and a solution to the significant local resourcing issues.  The council did not feel they were in a position to enforce really strong contract performance management because over time the original contract had not been flexible enough to allow them to this.  A different approach was required which would provide a win-win outcome for both parties.

The solution:  The council’s leader and chief executive identified that some of the issues, particularly around contract management and not engaging as a strategic partner were in part due to the council’s lack of engagement.  They set up a strategic board, led by the chief executive and senior politicians with provider representatives to look at the direction of travel for the contract, to work more closely on key projects and growth in the district and to identify collaborative approaches across the businesses, leading from the top and creating a collaborative partnership.

In addition an operational board was formed to deal with the day to day management of the contract and its performance.  This board is led by a council director with support from council officers alongside the provider lead officers.  This group meets monthly to review the performance of the service against KPI’s, discuss service improvements, review challenging applications and discuss complaints and legal challenges.  A focus on contract management and supplier relationship management at the right level in the organization has been key.

The council and the provider developed a service improvement plan which sets out key actions for improved customer care, ways of engaging with applicants and agents and sets out some practical steps regarding interaction between the council and provider.  The plan was agreed by both parties and relies on them working together in a ‘one council’ approach (whether it’s council or contractor staff).

Part of the resourcing challenge for the planning service is due to the location and rurality of the council, a key appointment in driving the service forward was to a new position of Director of Planning for the provider, who has been key in ensuring continuity of process as well as driving service improvements.  The provider has been able to address some vacancy impacts on the services by bringing in officers from other parts of their business. 

Sharing of information regarding the direction of travel of both organisations, corporate plans and priorities has been key in identifying areas where the council and contractor can align and work together more effectively. Being clear on each other’s digital ambition, approach to business engagement and ambitions for growth in the district for example has enabled the council and contractor to work together to achieve these ambitions.

The impact: The redesign of the contract management structure and Service Improvement Plan was not about making contract savings or generating more income initially, but more about continued improvement and better service delivery both for the council and for its residents and partners. The council is now starting to see the benefits of working together in a collaborative approach with an outsourced provider. Positive feedback from some of the key stakeholders is being received, trust is building and the council is now considering the case for extending the services being provided through the contract. There are less complaints being received by agents, developers and parish councils and the contractor is more proactive in its approach to engaging ward members which has resulted in positive feedback to date.

The council is also now working with the contactor to look at opportunities for increasing income through proposals such as charging for pre-application advice which will benefit both parties financially as well as deliver a more meaningful and better quality service to applicants and agents.

A review of customer contact has led to improvements in call handing and the provision of a call back service as well as a dedicated member liaison officer.

How is the new approach being sustained?: The strategic board and the operational board will continue to monitor performance of the contract in a strategic way. Other structures such as an agents forum will ensure ongoing engagement and continued improvement with local developers and the planning team. New protocols and service standards have been introduced in order to ensure more proactive engagement with elected members, parishes and key stakeholders. Improved relationships with key statutory consultees have also resulted in positive improvements including the provision of hot desks to some of these stakeholders to help work more efficiently and build relationships. The council has commissioned a PAS review of the planning committee and will work with the contractor to deliver the action plan arising from that work. The strategic and operational boards are key to supporting the contractor to develop further proposals for income generation and service improvements.

Lessons learned:  It is really important not to ‘let and forget’ contracts, particularly those of strategic importance for the council.  Collaboration and partnership working are key and this takes time and effort but if done early, preferably at the pre-procurement stages, it pays benefits for the future. It is essential that any contract for service provision of this nature is ‘right and robust’ from the outset and that it works for both parties. It requires absolute strategic buy-in from both parties in order to derive the most benefits through the contract term. Relationships at all levels of the organisations are key to ensuring that both parties contribute towards a common goal. The council should be sophisticated in its approach to contract management and at the same time ensure that there is flexibility built in in order to allow the contract to evolve as times challenge and new challenges are presented. 

Contact: Anna Graves - Chief.executive@breckland-sholland.gov.uk