I’ve blogged before about the problems of stepping into someone else’s shoes as a new councillor ““ and it’s not just on local issues that you notice this. The subject of Vanguard, the consultancy firm brought into Stoke-on-Trent City Council by our Chief Exec John van der Laarschott, seems to me at times to be just another of those things where the new councillors missed the “Ëœbig discussion’ and are now frantically trying to work out what it is we’ve missed.
Or have we?
Vanguard have been working with Kier, the Council’s housing maintenance contractors, initially, and as a member of the Improving Communities Scrutiny Committee, I have seen several reports on what is happening, and have also taken up the opportunity to visit the Kier office in Cromer Road and talk to staff. Having done this and spoken to other councillors and officers, it seems to me that really the problem is that a lot of people, not just new councillors, don’t “Ëœget’ what Vanguard are all about.
The simple illustration that Vanguard are a consultants and will bring savings, doesn’t really do justice to what is actually happening. Let me make it clear that this blog isn’t intended to be a banner-waving exercise for Vanguard, but simply my view of what they are doing in our Council. It’s also my take on what I see happening now, because don’t forget, I’ve only been a councillor since May!
The housing stock in the City is split into 3 sections, similar to the parliamentary constituencies ““ North, South and Central, with teams of workers for each area, all based in Cromer Road, Northwood (which is in Central). The Vanguard approach is to look at the processes in place and refocus them on the customer, which means cutting out many of the steps that really doesn’t benefit or interest them.
Speaking to the staff at Kier, both those in a managerial position and also spending time with a Kier tradesman, really showed me this in practice, and that the change in working style for responsive repairs (which is currently only in place in the Central area) really brought this home to me. We visited tenants in the South of the City who told me umpteen visits before an issue was sorted was the norm, whereas tenants in Central got it done first time, at a time that suited them. Having seen the statistics on housing repairs, I know what I saw wasn’t put on ““ responsive repairs in Central really are better.
So how does that stack up with saving money? I guess you could say it is the unintended consequence of improving the service to customers. In the “Ëœold’ system, a supervisor went out first to gauge a repair, followed by a trademan, when he was free. If the job needed parts, he would go off to get them. If they weren’t easily available, he could be gone all day, and rebook to come back another time, when the part was available. In the “Ëœnew’ system, a tradesman goes out at a time convenient to the tenant, with a van fully stocked with items. If he needs a part, it is delivered to him so the job gets done faster. Under the “Ëœold’ system, a week to 3 months for a job to be finished (start to finish) was the norm. Under the “Ëœnew’ system, it is often done in a couple of days maximum. Cutting out the unneeded steps will hopefully lead to a position where responsive repairs are literally that ““ responsive. Some of the tenants I met in South told me they just don’t bother reporting minor things as it isn’t worth the hassle of waiting for weeks for a repair, so these minor repairs eventually turn into bigger jobs, and are no longer really responsive.
I have chatted through the Vanguard approach with friends and colleagues outside the Council, and really it is the good application of private business practices, something that has been long missing in local government, however delivered in what I perceive to be a “Ëœstate of mind’ approach rather than a prescriptive way. One colleague asked me, “If it’s so obvious, why haven’t we done it before?”, and I did wonder about this. The explanation however seems to be that what Vanguard do is so different and back-to-basics that it is actually ripping up what we did before and starting from scratch, thinking the unthinkable, which even in cutting edge private industry is knife-edge stuff.
So am I any clearer about Vanguard? Yes, and also the potential Vanguard can bring to the rest of the Council. There is massive potential to change the way the Council works for the better, and I do have confidence that the Vanguard approach can help change this, but really elected members need to understand why we need these changes and what is behind them.