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Making Cleaning Work for the Public Sector

By Jean-Henri Beukes, Managing Director of Ecocleen

The public sector has been under immense budgetary demands in recent years, so support services, including cleaning, have had to bear the brunt of cost cutting exercises. With margins already tight, it is more critical than ever for cleaning contractors and public sector organisations to work closely together to maintain service standards while maximising efficiencies and avoiding unnecessary overheads.

One of the biggest challenges for the public sector moving forward will be in realigning their expectations with regards to what is achievable with the available budgets. The recent struggles faced by high-profile businesses within the wider facilities management sector has underlined the dangers of promising too much for too little simply to win contracts and boost turnover. But this should be where a cleaning contractor can provide guidance and get creative to develop a cleaning operation that is appropriate for the precise needs of a site or building.

By taking the time to understand requirements, it is possible to prioritise and make better use of cleaning resources. There are some areas – such as toilets and public areas that experience the greatest footfall – that will always require greater attention, but there will be other rooms and spaces that could be cleaned on a less regular basis, perhaps weekly rather than daily. “This is how we’ve always done it” should never be justification for doing something – there are definitely wins to be had by reviewing an operation and challenging the status quo.

Clever thinking, taking advantage of practices that are increasingly commonplace within the private sector, can drive considerable operational improvements. One such technique is replacing personal bins with a centralised bin system, which can improve performance in a number of ways. It will typically minimise plastic bag usage and increase recycling by as much as 30 per cent – offering a clear environmental benefit – but at the same time reduce the time required to empty all the bins and change the bags.

Targeting small incremental gains across a cleaning operation is also an effective way of achieving material efficiencies without resulting in any noticeable drop in standards. Making staff responsible for taking used cups to the kitchen or keeping their desk clear at the end of the day, may only save a matter of minutes each day for the cleaning team, but over the course of a week, month or year this represents a significant saving.

Some initiatives may however require a level of engagement with the building staff to explain the reasoning behind them and attempt to alter mindsets regarding individual responsibilities. From experience, people tend to be more open to change if they are kept informed and treated like key stakeholders, so communication is essential to gain buy-in and improve the chances of success.

Pragmatism is needed wherever possible to ensure a public sector customer receives the desired service levels, while the contractor can remain competitive and deliver the contract sustainably. Having all-year-round cover for cleaners, for example, can be a costly overhead, but if a public sector organisation has complete trust in their cleaning partner it should be possible to take a flexible approach to workforce management. Having a well-paid team is a proven way of retaining the best cleaners, especially when staffing pressures are only likely to increase moving forward, as well as boosting productivity and quality service delivery.

In addition, the lack of tender experience within the public sector is forcing many organisations to turn to specialist third-party management businesses at a significant cost. Most cleaning contracts are above the OJEU threshold, which has resulted in the outsourcing of the procurement process. If this requirement could be handled more in-house, with perhaps increased guidance from central government, then significant sums could be freed up to invest in the cleaning operation or minimise the impact of future cuts.

The budgetary constraints faced by the public sector is not going to go away anytime soon, so contract cleaning companies must work alongside customers to better manage contract specifications and expectations. Being open and transparent will enable contractors to implement cleaning operations that are fit for purpose while overcoming the cost challenges faced by these organisations.

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