Improving procurement for waste and other local public services – Use of data standards and other recommendations | March 2016

18 Mar 2016

Waste beta business case coverBackground

The following observations and recommendations came out of the Local Waste Service Standards project run by DCLG from February 2015 to March 2016.  The project brought together a collaboration of representatives from local authorities, waste service suppliers, technology suppliers and industry groups including the Chartered Institute of Waste Managers (CIWM), the Environmental Services Association (ESA) and the Local Government Association (LGA).

The main purpose of the project was to collaboratively develop and implement data standards for local government waste services. This involved understanding the current challenges in waste service procurement, delivery and management, and how the use of data standards might address these, delivering quantifiable benefits for both local authorities and their suppliers1.

Procurement emerged as a key area of challenge for both local authorities and suppliers. The initial project was primarily interested in how data standards might help, but participants also ended up exploring a broader related set of recommendations. These are included below.

1. How data standards can improve the procurement of waste services

In the context of this project “data standards” refers to a set of common terms (taxonomies) that can be used to describe a service, and also how these should be structured (in data models) so that the different systems used to deliver the service can communicate more easily2.

1.1 Time saved on technical specification

Currently local authorities invest time and effort in detailed specification of technical requirements before going out to procurement. Prospective suppliers then invest time in reading and interpreting these requirements, and both parties usually end up further discussing and clarifying them during the tendering process.

It’s not uncommon for each authority to create their own bespoke version of these specifications, with limited or no reference to what’s already in the market.  Suppliers report that they often come across very similar requirements expressed in very different language from council to council.

If common data standards were in use local authorities could use and refer to these in their tendering documents and contracts, rather than coming up with their own terminology - saving effort and potentially also saving on specialist technical consultancy.

Suppliers would be able to more easily understand and respond to those requirements, and be able to more readily match them to the products and services they offer.

Reference to common data standards could therefore simplify and speed up the technical specification of waste services.

1.2 Quality assurance and predictability

In addition to simplifying the documentation produced during waste service procurement, data standards can also provide both local authorities and suppliers with a higher level of confidence in the quality of the data and services they will be working with.  

Organisations that work to common data standards can be more confident of what they will find when they start to implement new services. Systems and processes that use common data standards are more likely to be interoperable, reducing the work and uncertainty around implementation.  This should enable both parties to price and plan the new service more accurately.

1.3 Breaking services down into interoperable components

The delivery of local authority services is increasingly enabled by technology - and waste services are no exception.  

An end-to-end waste service is now likely to involve in-cab technology, a digital back office where routes, schedules and issues are logged and processed on screen, a customer service team who are using Customer Relationship Management software (a CRM) and a transactional council website or app where residents can look up information and log any issues or complaints.

The design and implementation of services therefore has to increasingly incorporate all of the above, and there are also an increasing number of specialist suppliers who can provide each component.  (Another benefit of data standards is that they open up markets to greater competition, offering more choice to buyers - and this is very much true in the technology market).

Currently some local authorities will try to specify all or most of the above in one waste service contract. This presents a number of challenges:

  • The average waste service contract term is seven years, with many being even longer. This may be a reasonable term for a waste collection contract - but it’s a very long time when it comes to technology.  An organisation that procures technical solutions on a seven year or more cycle is likely to end up working with suboptimal or even redundant technology by the end of the term. This may result in inefficiencies for staff, or even the breakdown of parts of the workflow e.g. if in-cab units are damaged or not connecting reliably to the data network.
  • Tying technology in with the wider waste service contract also means that all of the technology that enables the service is up for renewal at the same time. This results in a lot of changes having to be implemented in one “big bang”, increasing risk and decreasing the opportunities to test new solutions or innovate. Organisations that thrive in the digital age tend instead to favour an approach of “continuous improvement” and the ability to refresh technology as needed and as new options emerge.
  • Technical requirements end up being cascaded down from the main waste contractor to specialist technical suppliers (e.g. in-cab technology suppliers). These more specialist suppliers are therefore excluded from the initial scoping discussions, inhibiting their ability to pitch new or innovative solutions.  Each layer inherits a specification from higher up stream, increasing the likelihood that it won’t be clear, appropriate or realistic.

Data standards increase the interoperability of software products and open up markets. This should give local authorities more confidence to procure the different components of a service independently, and on time scales that are appropriate to the technology in question. Where technology is still bundled into larger contracts councils should ensure appropriate technology reviews and opportunities to refresh are built in.

Luton Borough Council, one of the participants in the project, have already started to take this approach. Adam Thoulass, Web Transformation Programme Manager said in a blog post:

“On the ground we had a solid partnership and collaborative method of working with Civica’s technical team. We had introduced ‘service packs’ enabling us to package up smaller technical/development work that could be delivered in a more agile way.”

2. Beyond data standards

A range of service design techniques and approaches were used during the development of the waste data standards referred to in this document. During this process it became clear to participants that some of these techniques might also be useful during the process of specifying and procuring waste services.

The following recommendations emerged:

  • Before deciding what to specify or buy go through a Discovery process with staff from all relevant parts of the council and with reference to customer research. Through this process identify and prioritise the outcomes and needs you want to meet, as well as getting insight and buy-in from all involved (from customer services through to kerb-side teams).
  • Specify the outcomes you want to achieve, rather than a detailed solution that must be delivered. Councils currently tend to come to the market with a solution already specified i.e. they are saying “this is what we want, build it for us” rather than “this is what we want to achieve, help us to deliver a solution that meets these needs”. This stifles innovation and means that suppliers are obliged to deliver functionality or processes that they know are flawed or sub-optimal.
  • Don’t let legacy systems and processes dictate how future services are delivered. Be realistic about the context you are working in, but try to move from “this is how we’ve always done it” to “how can we meet this objective in a new and better way”.
  • Don’t turn policies straight into technical requirements. Services must be designed to deliver policy outcomes, but that doesn’t have to mean baking current policy or business rules into technology specifications. Allow suppliers to demonstrate how they can help you achieve those policy outcomes. Make sure the solution is flexible enough that it can change if policies change.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Look at what other councils are doing (perhaps starting with you Nearest Neighbours as found via LG Inform), look for and share best practice, use existing standards and design patterns, make full use of existing procurement frameworks.

 A more full account of the benefits can be found in the resulting Business Case.

2 A more detailed explanation can be found in a series of blog posts by Technical Lead Paul Mackay.