Bin complaints – outsourcing or austerity?

Bin complaints – outsourcing or austerity?
24 August 2017

Bin complaints – outsourcing or austerity?

Outsourcing is at the root of too many upheld bin collection complaints according to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman in a new report ‘Lifting the lid on bin complaints’[1].

The report highlights that around 40% of councils are outsourcing their collection contracts to the private sector, and as a result the Ombudsman has seen “insufficient council oversight of those contractors”.

I believe laying the blame simply at outsourcing is too simplistic. A key element of the problem, in my opinion, is that Councils have faced over a decade of austerity and continuous pressure to cut costs which has left them under financed, under staffed and under trained. Two years ago in a survey with CIWM[2] we identified that some 90% of the Councils reported ‘significant’ waste service budget cuts with a range of approaches and solutions being implemented, the most common being not filling vacant posts; restructuring departments; cutting communication budgets and automating some of the back room functions.

One of the pressures of this cost cutting is that a number of Councils have concentrated on the cost savings that can be attained at the time of signing an agreement and not on the savings and benefits that can be achieved throughout the length of the contract – short term pressures have taken priority. Too many Council contracts are signed and filed away to collect dust in a cabinet, and the supplier left to their own devices to deliver, an approach often described as ‘Let and forget’. It was an issue we raised in one of our Member’s Briefing Notes[3]

This doesn’t detract that a lot of Councils are simply poor at enforcing their contracts (indeed contract management overall). The Contract specifications we draft have very detailed procedures on handling complaints from in-cab tech through to CRM which in turn are linked to KPIs and default in performance mechanisms, the process is simple to manage and maintain. Despite this contract management is often inadequate. It was for this reason that we organised and delivered a webinar on 'Waste contract management – making your contracts work' for you earlier this year (it is still available to View online).

The webinar looked at three areas

  1. Do you know exactly what you want from your contract?
  2. Do you know if you’re getting what you asked for?
  3. Do you know how to go about getting what you were expecting?

A further reason that should be taken into account is that, in response to cutting staff, there has been a trend for Councils to manage contracts using a ‘thin client’ approach - that is employing a limited number of officers with the responsibility for overseeing or enforcing the delivery of their contracts. The emphasis here is placed on the contractor to effectively monitor themselves. Often the council simply looks at a ‘dashboard’ of KPIs to determine whether compliance is being achieved. This only provides an overview, and in some instances doesn’t allow for residents to complain directly to the council. If problems are resolved, monitoring to avoid repeats is carried out by the contractor.

With limited staff retained by the council, focus tends to be on the mechanical side of the contract monitoring, primarily signing off invoices and administering income. If there are insufficient staff to deal promptly with residents’ complaints, they will tend to escalate, as appears to be the case in the examples highlighted in the report.

As with Health & Safety, you can outsource the service, but not the responsibility. The council is the backstop service provider, and needs to retain sufficient staff to enable effective contract management and ensure they are adequately trained for the job. The slim client approach needs to recognise this.

I believe good contract management is key to reducing complaints and addressing the issues when they arise so that they don’t re-occur, as is appropriate training for officers to have the tools to manage a contract appropriately. There are some fantastic examples of partnership approaches to contract management between officers and contractors where technology is used effectively to support the relationship and service performance.

As a final thought we must remember that the number of complaints very small compared to the millions of households that have their waste and recycling collected each week.

If you would like to know more about how we can support you on these issues, contact Brian Mayne at