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Missed collections are not a public-private issue

Bin collections – we all have them and I am sure that, for the majority of us, they happen seamlessly and without a hitch. However, when it does go wrong and your bins are not collected, it can be incredibly frustrating, annoying and even a potential health hazard. Who wants decomposing residual waste sitting on their doorstep for five or six weeks? 

Having helped to deliver collection services on behalf of the public and private sectors, I understand the issues and challenges that can occur around the interfaces and the challenges of when things do go wrong. I therefore read with interest the latest report from the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman, Lifting the lid on bin complaints: learning to improve waste and recycling services.

The report looks at a variety of issues with respect to household waste collections and how problems have been handled and remedied. The main themes include contracting-out services, monitoring, paid-for services, missed collections, frequency of collections, complaint handling, assisted collections and changes to services. The report then considers how councils can deliver improvements and get it right to help these problems occurring in the first place.

It seems to me that the key headline was around contracting of waste collection services to the private sector: that doing so leads to a higher frequency of missed collections than those undertaken in-house.

But on more detailed analysis, this proves not to be the case. One aspect of contracting-out collection services is that, very often, robust service specifications and reporting requirements are included. This means that, when problems do arise, they are identified and reported back to the council. Failure to deliver the specified level of service leads to penalties.

This means that provision of data is usually more transparent than with insourced collection services. Obviously, having a clearly defined service specification and reporting requirement does not prevent poor service, but it does mean that it is reported and can be addressed. And there are both good and bad examples of insourced and outsourced waste collection services.

For me the discussion is not about the service being insourced or outsourced, but how the interface between council and collection contractor is monitored and managed. In many of the cases studies provided in the report, it is this interface and a lack of robust monitoring and management that has then led to an exacerbation of the problem and led to it becoming worse.

So why is this interface an issue? In my experience, it is down to a combination of factors which include understanding obligations even if outsourced, delivering robust and effective contract management, and having adequate resources.

With respect to the first factor, outsourcing the collection service does not remove the obligation on the council to ensure that whoever is delivering it does so properly and to the service specifications. This means the council needs to understand how to monitor and manage its contract effectively, which is a dedicated skill and requires resources to deliver. Finally, with the continued squeeze on council spending, resources are not always available to deliver robust and effective contract monitoring and management.

Therefore, to be effective and reduce the problems highlighted by the report, it does not matter whether the collection service is insourced or outsourced. What matters in delivering an effective service is closer co-operation between the different parts involved in the collection of our bins: better communication, the provision of the right skills for contract monitoring and management, and the provision of resources to deliver on the ground.

Sorting these issues will go a long way to delivering improved collections.

Stephen Wise, waste sector director and waste technical lead, Amec Foster Wheeler

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