14 August 2014 | Roger Williams
The county of East Sussex is served by over 2,000 miles of roads and 3,000 miles of pavements. Maintaining this infrastructure falls to the highways services department. Some £30 million per year is spent maintaining what is arguably the council’s most valuable physical asset, valued at some £3.7 billion.
My highway maintenance teams work very closely with our procurement colleagues and we have a real track record of delivering better outcomes for our customers. Robin Hayler, senior category specialist in procurement, comes from an engineering background, which means he can see things from our perspective. This helps give him credibility when trying to propose new or innovative solutions, which can often be met with suspicion. What I want from Robin and his team is a proactive, creative and enthusiastic approach – which is exactly what I get.
When we seek to make changes, our procurement colleagues support us. They have a real technical understanding of our area and this ensures we come up with workable solutions in line with what the market can deliver. We have a lot of engineers and technical specialists who can be notoriously difficult to persuade, so procurement needs to work especially hard to gain credibility with them. Whether that’s through their knowledge of the marketplace, assistance with providing and analysing cost information or helping to identify and trial new technical solutions.
A clear understanding of the environment that we work in – the wider implications of new legislation, our statutory duties or the pressures on our budgets – means procurement is better equipped to help us make sound decisions.
Procurement colleagues, sometimes robustly, challenge our thinking, often around the balance between reducing costs and maintaining levels of service. Sometimes we are too close to what we do and challenges help us consider a wider range of possible solutions, leading to a sounder business case.
Where we have really benefited from procurement support recently is in their invaluable input into contract negotiations. Together we recently managed to achieve a £500,000 saving on a £3.3 million major road surfacing scheme on the A22.
This was primarily achieved through re-engineering design solutions. Procurement was active in proposing alternative solutions to reduce the impact of high-cost elements. These included redesigning traffic management arrangements to prevent the need for a road closure, which would have resulted in significant disruption to the public, rescheduling works to minimise the need for more costly and higher-risk night work and investigating and proposing alternative surfacing materials to achieve improved performance and durability.
Good interpersonal skills are the key to our successful working partnership. We are physically remote from each other, which can be a real challenge. The procurement team works to break down these artificial barriers. First by ‘hot-desking’ out at the depot, so they can speak to colleagues face-to-face and be in among the action, building trust and improving understanding. Second, they make a point of attending team meetings from time to time. This helps them to keep up with what’s happening on the ground and gives them the chance to explain their role and where they can add value.
☛ Roger Williams is head of highway operations at East Sussex County Council