Commissioning in Transport: The realities of summer pressures at Lewisham Borough Council

In this two part interview Wendy Hall, Travel Coordinator Team Manager and Keith Ottaway, Travel Assistance Manager from LB Lewisham, discuss how the process for summer route tenders has now evolved from last year following the implementation of Category Development Technology.

  1. What did the process for summer tenders look like this time last year?

Wendy Hall: At this point last year we would have had a giant spreadsheet, full of routes and schools similar to how we would have done this year, with different options and combinations of routes. This included the pickup postcodes and the first name of the child and then an option for providers to send back their bids with the cost per the whole route and driver and escort. So a total cost, driver cost and escort cost.

That would have come back, usually it would be coming back this week around the 15th of August. We would collate that all together and then we’d copy and paste it (and hope they hadn’t changed any roads) into a big spreadsheet. We'd then print it off, busily taping pages and pages together so it would be about 12ft long! Then we would manually go through each route and then highlight the winning bid.


"At this point last year we would have had a giant spreadsheet, full of routes and schools similar to how we would have done this year, with different options and combinations of routes"


It was very labour intensive to set it up, we’d also have to sit on the floor with it highlighting with pink and yellow highlighters for every provider who has got their jobs and who our first option and second option was. We’d then bring it back and tear the pages to disassemble the sheets and hand it out to the team and then they would create the service agreements.

They would all be responsible for their own sections of the spreadsheet, so hugely, hugely labour intensive, not like this year! So, that part of it and all that collation of the quotes is all automated now through SProc.Net which has taken a lot of that pressure off. We can now say ‘the computer says this is what it’s going to be’, instead of, and I’m still slightly swayed by, knowing the children, knowing the difficulties that they have had in the past and thinking ‘do I want to change it or instead keep it the same?’ and actually this has made it much more visual, but we still have that worry. 

Keith Ottaway: If we have good justification for not selecting a top bid because we know that a certain provider suits a certain client then so be it and that’s justifiable. So, its weighing up the level of need against the cost.


"So, that part of it and all that collation of the quotes is all automated now through SProc.Net which has taken a lot of that pressure off"


Wendy Hall: We can evidence that now, it’s much more transparent using adam and hopefully it will make those companies that are more expensive rethink their pricing strategies. Where-as before we didn’t share the cost of the winning bid, we didn’t share any of that information unless someone asked for it and said ‘how did we do’. They would have to physically phone in and ask how did I do on that bid, which again is more time.

  1. Last year, how long did it take to reallocate routes?

Wendy Hall: There is always going to be change, there is always going to be late applicants that come in, there is always going to be things that come in that we’re not aware of where families have moved and we have to unpick routes.

Keith Ottaway: Or where two kids simply don’t get on together.

Wendy Hall: There’s always going to be those things that you’re going to have to manipulate and change, hopefully it’s going to be easier with this process.

  1. How many providers were supporting you at that time?

Wendy Hall: We started out with an initial 15 but out of those only 9 were active. We’re three-fold now on what we had, probably more than that. It’s also far more competitive.

Keith Ottaway: And even out of those 9, realistically just in my experience of being here it was 3 or 4.

Wendy Hall: Exactly, of the 9, there were 4 or 5 that would have a few routes but the bulk of it was with a smaller amount and that should be changing now which should be nice. 

  1. What changes occurred on and immediately after September 4th? Including over the first weeks and months following summer tender rounds last year?

Wendy Hall: Usually we would be running around like headless chickens, trying to get our heads around it and trying to track down what we’ve done and why we’ve done it and what we can do to change and busily unpicking things.

It’s always going to be like that and there is always going to be that level of change, it’s a movable feast and September is like the menu where you have to pick everything at that point.

Keith Ottaway: And people that work in this area just accept that September is going to be a tough month. No one looks forward to September but I believe, where-as previously you would manage it through the medium of panic attacks, I think this year, will be smoother and you just accept that you’re going to get a lot of stuff coming in. Which will be hard but this year it’s going to be more manageable and I firmly believe it won’t be so onerous, so less manic and less confusing. 

Wendy Hall: In September, you were constantly cursing that you had to change things, knowing how laborious it was. So, for example today someone on one of our routes has said ‘can I swap to a Direct Payment?’, and now it’s going to be so much easier because we just put a note to adam saying this child is no longer travelling. It’s not going to make a huge difference to the route as it’s on the way, it’s not going to do anything to the mileage and it gives them a bit more space in the vehicle, you still need a MVP. Where-as normally it would be email, change the quote acceptance, do bits and pieces and now all I’ve had to do is type a message in saying this child, from this postcode, is no longer travelling, take them off and that’s it sorted.


"Which will be hard but this year it’s going to be more manageable and I firmly believe it won’t be so onerous, so less manic and less confusing"


If I needed to re-tender and needed a smaller vehicle, even then setting up a new requirement isn’t going to be that onerous, it’s going to be straightforward using adam.

  1. So, is there a different feeling around the team then compared to last year in relation to that – less stress?

Wendy Hall: I don’t feel as stressed, I’m not sure whether it’s also because I have your help this year too Keith, because all the pressure used to be on me.

Keith Ottaway: Whilst I’ve been slightly involved I don’t feel like I’ve been fully involved in the entire adam side of things and Wendy has very much taken a lead on that and I’m very aware of that. So, I’m glad you feel like me being here has reduced your stress!


"If it wasn’t for adam and their system they would have mountains of paper on their desk"


Wendy Hall: We’re working hard all together.

Keith Ottaway: Absolutely, I think throughout the team that obviously when you have a new system there are teething problems and you’re always going to hear ‘how does this work’ but I think the team are very aware that, if it wasn’t for adam and their system they would have mountains of paper on their desk. Although we may have had slight frustrations, they’re teething problems and are fine, but it’s still a world apart and used to be a lot worse. So, any teething problems that they might be having now are just temporary and it’s still hugely different from what they were dealing with. 

Wendy Hall: I would be even more relaxed if I knew I was going to be hear throughout the whole of September. So, I want to get it to run nice and smoothly so Keith and the team don’t have any problems and they’re not pulling their hair out. So, I want to hand it over so it’s all going to run nice and smoothly and it should be self-explanatory.

  1. In terms of the providers’ side, did they feel the strain last year and the stress as much as you all did?

Wendy Hall: I always think it’s fair, because it’s a huge exercise, to give as much time as possible. The team gave them a fortnight and with this way they can see what they have got so they can start planning, they know what they’re in the running for. Before, they didn’t have a clue because it wasn’t transparent, they couldn’t see so they had to wait to get our old QA’s through the email before they knew the actual work they would get and sometimes that would take us another week.

So, they wouldn’t be finding out until towards the end of August ready for September which actually then reduces the amount of options they have for staff, finding the right staff, having dry runs, going out and meeting parents and things like that. So, I think with this way, using adam, it’s much more instant, its far more reactive. 

Keith Ottaway: I think we’re seeing a very, very clear reduction in, I mean when you think about provider you’ve always got to think about individuals as well because you have individuals behind the business name. There will be one or two individuals who will always be on the phone, even if the process was perfect, they would still be on the phone finding something to ask about, not for the most part I would say there has been a significant and notable reduction in queries and questions and everyone seems happy.


"So, I think with this way, using adam, it’s much more instant, its far more reactive"


One particular provider I have in mind was always on the phone about invoices and she said to Wendy last week that she finds adam really logical and straightforward and that she really loves it. We haven’t heard from her and she’s getting paid on time, so she is very happy. And I think that’s across the board.

I think as a system, everyone is really pleased with adam in terms of how it works as a system.

  1. How did that have a knock-on effect to the service users last year in terms of that uncertainty?

Wendy Hall: I think it does because if there are changes a lot of our children don’t like change or need preparation of change so they need to know it’s not going to be Mary that is their escort this time it’s going to be Fred. So, to have that time to prepare a child and get them ready for that change means that we don’t get the behaviour issues, we don’t get mums in meltdown because they’re upset that there’s been a change. So, they should be far more prepared for what’s happening and be well informed about what is going to happen because the short timescales, quite often we didn’t get a chance to post out letters to everybody and it was phone calls and answering queries from parents.

Keith Ottaway: And the providers wouldn’t get a chance to drive round to the families.


"If the mum isn’t anxious then the child isn’t anxious"


Wendy Hall: And making those phone calls and that communication is the key because if you have good communication, that relieves that worry and the anxiety from the mum, if the mum isn’t anxious then the child isn’t anxious. If the crews are prepared, they’ve done a dummy run, they know how to get to the school, they know where they’re going to park at the school because they’ve done a dummy-run, they know where the child lives in the road, so they’re trolling up and down the road, curb crawling looking for numbers. Everything will run more smoothly and then the whole thing is less fraught but all of that anxiety always transmits to the children. The children always pick it up and anything we can do to make everything smooth and calm for them has got to be key.

Continue reading about why commissioning and planning summer routes has been so different this year for Lewisham.

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