Bury Council was recently criticised about its plan of spending £9,000 on iPads for refuse collectors. Forced to make savings of £18million, the council said the tablet devices were intended to be mounted on vehicle dashboards to guide crews around new routes.
A report in The Sun appeared to be weighted against the idea, citing opponents of the scheme who claimed it was a waste of money.
Although exposure was given to the claim that collection rates, customer service and recycling would be improved, I think that the generally negative tone of the item was because the appropriate information wasn’t supplied, which was probably because staff had only a modest appreciation of the need.
While the council defended itself in a later article in The Guardian, it should assertively broadcast how the technology is transforming processes and making them more efficient.
A council spokeswoman told The Guardian: "For a modest investment of £9,000, this technology should save us many thousands of pounds, provide residents with a better service, and promote recycling.”
The project was predominantly intended to address the number of missed collections and revisits, but this is only part of the potential improvement.
Bury council could be seen as public sector pioneers in creatively reducing fixed costs and increasing efficiencies. If implemented properly, the technology could;
- improve efficiencies
- reduce the number of refuse vehicles required and lower their running costs (through route-optimisation)
- reduce headcount (though a less publicity-friendly headline)
- lower administration costs
- improve health and safety practices
A speculative equation suggests investment would easily be recovered in the first month alone.
22 refuse trucks manned by five people each puts the council’s annual investment in refuse collectors’ wages at around 2 million pounds. If a £9,000 project makes the workforce one per cent more efficient, removes paperwork and lowers the administrative headcount, the savings will quickly come rolling in.
The idea that such investment is ‘splashing out’ is flawed.
It’s my personal view that the public sector tendering process has been problematic for a long time. There isn’t enough knowledge in the public sector and the private sector experience should be used more. As a result of distance between the two, deployments in the public sector have been oversimplified and weak.
The UK government’s track record with technology is poor, and has frequently suffered from questionable implementation. The Police Force was granted £30 million to spend on mobile data in 2009, a large proportion of which was dedicated to equipping its force with BlackBerry devices.
We can only speculate on what business cases are produced to support such implementations. Clearly, a Blackberry-centric strategy had limitations and weren’t agile enough to be used for quick vehicle checks or crime reports – although the Thames Valley Police Force had a very different experience when it adopted PDAs for crime reporting.
This over-dependency on a consumer-style cellular voice and text message system brings serious challenges at times of high traffic. During the 7/7 terrorist attacks on London, mobile communications were significantly compromised because the public cellular networks couldn’t cope with the extreme demand placed on them both by the public, and by the emergency services.
As with the introduction of any new technology, there are always risks, and we should be wary of saying new technology can cure all local government ills. It can’t and of course there may be pitfalls. Bury council’s decision to use iPads may not necessarily be appropriate for the challenging environment where they are being used. As a result these consumer-intended devices could be prone to frequent damage, resulting in regular replacement, leading to similarly damaged business benefits.
Private and public – working together
When it comes to public sector implementations, private sector business should be looked to as a reference point and as a benchmark. Process is often ignored and manpower has been reactively used to address a problem. Standards, best practice and commercial realities arrive too late.
Local government, councils and public sector bodies must learn lessons by working more closely with the private sector. Today’s austerity measures and government cutbacks mean these bodies should be behaving like businesses, now more than ever.
Informed adoption of tablet technologies is a positive move to replace paperwork and reinvent process. £9,000 pounds is actually a small price to pay to improve the efficiency of refuse collection in the Bury area, and to encourage more recycling. It’s not a massive expenditure.